“It Feels Right to Be off the Grid”: An Interview with Nite Jewel

Cory Lomberg talks with Nite Jewel about her new album, controlling her own music, and collaborating with other artists.
By    June 29, 2016

nite jewel

Since making her debut as Nite Jewel in 2008, Ramona Gonzalez has tested the waters at a series of labels, from Portland-born Italians Do It Better to the independent yet internationally stationed Secretly Canadian. The result materialized as one diverse catalogue and a dose of clarity. For her third full-length release, she returned to Gloriette Records, her own label and the home of her debut album, Good Evening.

Gonzalez’s latest, Liquid Cool, is an independent work in every respect: self-produced, self-released, and driven by a desire to tap into her singular sound. She sought genuine command, and was left with no better option than doing it all herself. The confidence with which Gonzalez describes this kind of action establishes her as a musician with the means to become a mogul. She is a pop star because she told me so.

Gonzalez values growth, but on her own terms. In the studio, she’s become desensitized without losing her voice, making space for further collaboration with the likes of Dam-Funk and husband Cole Marsden Greif-Neill. She learned to link record sales to factors like marketing or distribution through Gloriette. In her latest video, “Boo Hoo,” she can be seen sipping champagne from a Big Gulp—an appropriate upgrade from the neon paint she drooled in 2008’s “Artificial Intelligence” clip. Gonzalez is moving in the same direction, but somewhere along the way, she slid to the front of the pack.

I spoke with her about the complications of collaborating, finding that “Nite Jewel sound,” and her college thesis. I understood little of the latter but it was only very obvious. —Cory Lomberg

You seem like you have a really strong cohort of musicians in LA.

Nite Jewel: Yeah, sort of. I mean, I don’t collaborate that much, actually, even though a lot of collaborations have made their way online. On a regular basis, I record alone quite a lot, so the times that I do work with other people, they have to be right. I was always a very solitary worker as a child, so I can be a little bit domineering in the studio. It has to be a person who has their own swag so I’m not overpowering them. They know what they do and they do it their way.

Dam [Funk] is that person. He has his own style, he’s an incredibly gifted instrumentalist, top-notch. It just flows. There’s not a lot of discussion. We just start writing a song and it’s done in like, an hour. The thing is, we haven’t met up that much over the years. We’ve done little bits and pieces with my husband Cole [Marsden Greif-Neill] at the helm of the production, but getting us all together in a room has been difficult because both Dam and I have been promoting records since about 2009. We finally got to the place where we have the time to work together but that’s good, because as Jeff said in his article, we matured to do things in a developed way. We’re not all-DIY, shambolic about it. We know what we’re doing at this point, so I think it’s a good thing that it happened when it happened.

I heard you listened to a lot of your older music before recording Liquid Cool. How did that process go?

Nite Jewel: So I had made all of these albums over the course of four, five years. Liquid Cool was probably the fourth album in a string of records I made over the course of four years. One was more like One Second of Love. It had guitar and stuff like that. There was another one that was pretty crazy-experimental, and then there was a recent one that I plan to release after Liquid Cool.

But the reason why I wanted to do this one first was because I felt like, with it being on my label and with the hiatus, it needed to be something that sounded like Nite Jewel and not another push in the direction of modernizing music and appealing to critics. Rather, something that would remind people that have listened to my music of what that is. So I went into my closet and I listened diligently to my records for maybe two nights. I just listened to all of the songs, all the way through pretty much. The albums and the EPs, just getting a sense of what it is. I had also been writing stuff for other people, pop people, and Dam and Droop-E, so I was experimenting with so many genres, but I really needed to say, okay, what is the Nite Jewel sound?

That makes sense, because Liquid Cool sounds closest to Good Evening and your Italians Do It Better release, which got some strange Glass Candy comparisons.

Nite Jewel: I just think comparisons become touchstones to understand. When I had released my songs on MySpace—“Weak for Me,” “What Did He Say,” “Artificial Intelligence”—some guy, who was a friend of a friend, accused me of stealing Glass Candy’s sound, and I had no idea who that was or what that meant. Consistently throughout my life, I’ve had a failure to investigate indie music. I listen to some pop music and old music and the music of my friends, but I wouldn’t be investigating what the hot shit is right now, which is why it’s really funny that this guy accused me of this because I am living under a rock all the time.

Then I listened to it and was like, how is this similar? Again, it’s an emotional thing. It’s a vibe thing, so I think that’s what is frustrating for journalists and people who make these references. It’s almost like a frustration with not being able to understand.

But I was really trying to tie Liquid Cool to One Second of Love, too. With “Kiss the Screen,” I thought that was the third incarnation of “Artificial Intelligence.” First was “Artificial Intelligence,” then there was “One Second of Love,” then there was “Kiss the Screen.” They all are about similar topics, they’re all really poppy, they’re all in major keys. I mean, this is what I think about.

In terms of influences, I think people have a hard time understanding that you can be influenced by someone without wanting to sound like them. When you say you listen to old music, what do you listen to?

Nite Jewel: For this record, I listened to a lot of stuff I listened to when I was working on Good Evening. Just stuff in my record collection, like Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey. Stuff like Madonna’s album of demos, pre-Madonna. I listen to that a lot, because I like that better than “Like a Virgin” and stuff. I think the songs are way cooler, except for the final version of “Angel.” So I use that a lot, and then for production stuff, I listen to a lot of Kraftwerk and OMD [Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark].

I listen to OMD not for the production really, because their production is so clean, and mine is not. I listen to it for inspiration, because it’s amazing music. It’s so inspiring—the lyrics, the ethos, everything. Sometimes I don’t listen for musical hallmarks. It’s almost just like, why make music?

Did you start off doing your own production or was that something you picked up along the way?

Nite Jewel: I was constantly learning. So on the first songs, I was recording on my 8-track by myself. Just really simple compositions like “Bottom Rung” and stuff like that. Drum loops with synths. Cole helped me with the production of that record on certain songs—cleaning up the drums, coming up with drum loops that sounded full, like on “What Did He Say.” Helped me play bass on certain songs. And then, as I started to release records, my scope expanded. I started working in Logic, like for Am I Real? For One Second of Love, I recorded to tape for most of those songs with Cole and some engineers. But it was important for me to learn how to record on my own because, like I said, I’m not a great collaborator.

Anytime Cole would try to help me with something, I’d end up crying because I thought he was saying I sucked or something, which he was not. I’m more grown up now. But I guess with this record, I thought if I’m trying to communicate Nite Jewel, it’s best to do it on my own as much as possible, just because it’ll be easier to distill what that is. I love working with Cole though, it’s great. He’s so fun. And now that I don’t cry anymore when we work together, it makes it really easy.

Did you two meet out here or in New York?

Nite Jewel: In New York. Well, that’s not completely true. We went to the same high school. He was a year younger than me and we met at parties and stuff. Met, meaning like, grazed shoulders or whatever. We didn’t officially hang out until we both went to college in New York.

And you moved to LA together?

Nite Jewel: Yes.

Did you move to LA to come to Occidental or was that just a result?

Nite Jewel: We moved out here for the music scene because we had both dropped out of college and moved back to Oakland, where we’re from. We were there for a year doing bands and stuff like that, but the music scene in the bay was just really boring. We wanted to move to LA, where the good music was happening, according to us. So that’s why we moved here, but at the same time I thought, there are a lot of schools in LA. I can apply to one of them. It had always been my intention to become an academic or something. I’m glad I didn’t do that.

How was Occidental?

Nite Jewel: Loved it. They just gave me so much freedom. I wrote a thesis on nothing that was taught at the school. They just were like, do what you want and we can help you determine if it’s logical, but as far as the information, we really don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. It was a paper on the ontology of art. So, what is art? Through the lens German continental philosophy. And specifically, mass art, which is a term for popular art or art that uses commodity products.

Were you a philosophy major?

Nite Jewel: Yeah. I took a lot of art classes though. I was doing installation art, like sound installations. But the time at Oxy was when I recorded Good Evening. I definitely felt like I was the only one doing music on the entire campus. No one knew that I was a musician. They just knew me as this slightly older student who was really serious about philosophy, or just really passionate about it. I don’t think anyone suspected that I was “cool.” Nite Jewel wasn’t much of a thing until the end of my tenure there. As soon as I graduated I went on tour, maybe two days after.

How did Gloriette come to life?

Nite Jewel: So around the time that Johnny [Jewel] was releasing the single [on Italians Do It Better] and Human Ear Music was releasing the CD, I had a decision to make. My friend really wanted to release the record on vinyl. He’s a record collector and had released a couple things in the past, like 12-inches, and said, why don’t we do our own label and put out your record? It was the smartest thing I’ve ever done. We put out that and then we released some more stuff, like a couple Ariel Pink reissues and the Puro Instinct record.

But all the while that Gloriette was rolling, I had my sights set on getting signed to a label, even though I had this perfectly legitimate way to release my music. So when it came time to decide what I was going to do with this third album, it just seemed to me that after all of these experiences I’d had in working with so many labels—from tiny Italians Do It Better to Secretly Canadian to Mexican Summer—that if I’m going to survive financially, I just have to do it myself. I can’t give away my rights to a label. And I learned that through working with all of these people and the different reincarnations of it. Of course, if “What Did He Say” got put in a Ford commercial, Johnny wouldn’t have been like, I need half of that, because that’s just the kind of guy he is. He would’ve told me to do my thing, which is great. But it’s his label, and he gets his name on my music, even though I made the whole thing myself. That seems unfair.

I want it to be my thing. I need to create my aesthetic. So what are the advantages of working with a bigger label? They can give you money, but then you never end up making any because you give them everything in return. If you get a sweet deal from a sweet label and they’re just coddling you through the process and throwing fucking tons of money at you, that’s awesome. But it’s like being from a rich family. That just happens so infrequently.

Have you enjoyed learning more about the process of running a label?

Nite Jewel: I can actually see the relationship between what I make, how I make it, how much money I put into it and what I’m getting back. Being an artist, you spend so much time being downtrodden about why this song isn’t as popular as that song, or why this record isn’t selling as well as that one. Why do I have tons of vinyl of this and none of that? You’re always going to chalk it up to some self-criticism, when it actually has a lot to do with marketing. I’ve been learning about all these different things that matter. It boosts your confidence too because you see people responding to it, and labels never boost artists’ confidence. They’re always telling you it’s not enough.

Prince always talked about this—if you’re on a label, you have a manager and you have certain people working for you. It’s a bros club for the most part. They’re going to ban together for you. If you’re doing stuff on your own, it’s not often that someone is going to feel comfortable backing it. It’s a lot about institutionalized positivity. I’m actually really used to it. I’ve always felt like I was very much an outsider to everything, as far as the music industry goes.

So it feels right to be off the grid. Fans come from strange, underdog places, and that’s me. It’s so false if I try to be a do-gooder pop musician because that’s against everything I’ve ever been. That’s not to say I can’t make music that has less reverb, because again, my music doesn’t have anything to do with it. The music is another thing. It’s about my personality, the way I talk about things, the way I market things, putting my face on the cover and obscuring it, using film, blowing it up, pixelating things. Whatever feels right at the time.

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