Nite Jewel
by Kevin J. Elliott

In talking with California native Ramona Gonzalez, it seems like she’s the type of artist who would be just as content doing bong rips in the rec-room while hipping friends to obscure records by Italian progsters Sensations Fix or ‘80s electro-freestyle queen Debbie Deb (two favorites now, thanks). A romantic evening with the no-fi diva would be spent thrifting for vintage synths or dismembering Casio keyboards and suckling on the innards. A trip to visit the parents might involve world music therapy sessions and possibly some Anita Baker karaoke. I heard about new-wave hippies before, but this transcends that.

Given the way electronic music has evolved and flourished in this virgin century, though, there’s plenty of room for Nite Jewel, which is the guise under which Gonzalez mashes her idiosyncratic tastes into a simultaneously sparkling and submerged take on dance-pop. Her debut album, Good Evening, has been embraced in both indie-rock and electronic circles with equal aplomb—as if those crowds haven’t been in bed all this time. And tours with acts as disparate as Deerhunter and Glass Candy only add to the confusion. Calling it synth-crazed weirdness is perhaps the most apt; I can hear everything from Cluster to Sade to film-strip space-goo in the late-night, neon bump of “What Did He Say.” Unsurprisingly, that single was recently extended to a 12-inch for next-generation disco label Italians Do It Better.

Still, she’s content with the eight-track for now, and these experimental arpeggios and odes to analog are merely baby steps towards the full-on “synth-circle” band she hopes to have one day. In the present, though, she’s teamed up with visual artist Emily Jane to help out with the live show and is constantly in search of new equipment to add to her arsenal. This is the portrait of an artist whose creativity seems to know no bounds. Welcome to the Nite Jewel universe.

How do you initially develop your songs? Do they come out of making beats or is it something more organic, like voice and guitar?

Ramona Gonzalez: I don’t really make beats. It depends—a lot of good songs come from writing lyrics first or by just singing melodies, and then the bassline rounds everything out. Because I can’t really edit on my eight-track, I just loop drums and play over it. It usually just comes from noodling on the keyboard and matching that with lyrics.

The production is very similar to that of Ariel Pink. It’s very distinctive in that it sounds completely submerged, not exactly lo-fi, but quite hazy. Have you learned anything about recording from him or that group of musicians?

RG: Absolutely. Before I even met Ariel I was learning from him that you can record however the fuck you want. So that was a huge thing for me. Listening to older musicians, people who were recording on eight-tracks in the ‘70s and such, I knew it could be done. But in terms of contemporary artists, I didn’t think there were many people exploring that. I hadn’t even heard R. Stevie Moore before I knew Ariel. Moving to L.A. and jamming with people, recording everything on eight-track or four-track, we weren’t afraid to sit down and just let the tape roll.

You’ve got some extremely diverse influences, and reading through the list (Sensations’ Fix and Cluster, Debbie Deb, TLC) and the bands you’ve toured with (Glass Candy and Deerhunter), I can hear how in a surreal way you connect to all of those. Is there an artist or a genre you’d like to incorporate into the music that you feel is too ambitious right now?

RG: Tons of stuff I feel is over my head. I’m forever trying to make my stuff sound like Kraftwerk, but it’s so difficult. Being limited by equipment, it’s hard to get the particular synth sounds that I love about certain electronic artists. I’m usually around people with very massive and interesting record collections so they’re constantly filling my brain with information, and day to day I can’t remember what I learned. So when it comes to recording, I’m never really sure what I’m drawing from.

You must have grown up around the time of new jack swing and the height of quiet storm artists like Guy and Anita Baker, because that vibe is really embedded in the music. Of that stuff, do you have a favorite? Are there producers or particular sounds you try to emulate on your record?

RG: Shit, I don’t know. Growing up in Oakland and Berkley, there were just so many R&B and rap groups. And so many of them were girl groups, like Jade, Total, SWV, TLC, Blaque—so many different girl groups with different combinations of numbers. So it’s hard to say which of those have stuck with me. My father used to play early Whitney Houston and Gloria Estefan records. He was really into that and would usually make me sing along in the car. That influenced me a lot. But then again my mom would take me to these weird world music camps where I would sing Romanian songs. I was also in a gospel choir as a kid. So who knows what fucking happened to me?

Though the album is pretty warped from the start, there’s very much a dance-pop element at work. Have you found yourself playing on more disco/club oriented line-ups? How is the reaction?

RG: When I first started playing, I was by myself and was playing to a smorgasbord of people. I was playing any shows that I could get for the practice and to figure out how to improve the live show. With Deerhunter, it was definitely an indie rock crowd, so that was strange. Playing with Glass Candy, which was a club crowd, was great. We’re always put into strange situations. In Las Vegas, we played this club where they were playing these goofy techno versions of “Eleanor Rigby.” The guy who booked it, god love him, set-up these turntables for me, but I had to tell him that I’m not a DJ, I don’t spin records. I have nothing against DJs, but I’m doing something completely different.

What does Emily add to the project as a multimedia artist? Did you always have the sense that Nite Jewel would be a conceptual experience in the live setting?

RG: I guess it’s conceptual because I’m still working on figuring out what my live show is going to be like. I brought along Emily because she’s very smart and very creative as a visual artist. I basically just wanted her to add whatever she could on top of the songs. Ideally, I’d have a synth circle going on, like a band. But right now it is more of a conceptual thing.

Have you thought about which direction your new album will be headed?

RG: No, I completed this record in October. We do have some new songs that will be coming out on another 12-inch for Italians Do it Better. Those incorporate more of a digital interface, which allows me to think more and move things in a more linear fashion so I can be more cumulative with the music instead of more circulative. I’m trying my best not to just loop everything ad infinitum—not that I don’t love that—I just want something new. I need more synths and more shit that I can play with to express myself. I’m not a good enough of a musician to sit down and say, “Now this one’s going to be my Amon Duul tribute song.” I have to relax my brain and use whatever I have.