Nite Jewel Talks Music Industry, New Recordings, Philosophy, and More
We recently had the good fortune and privilege of sitting down with Ramona Gonzalez, known to many as Nite Jewel. On the eve of Nite Jewel's second-to-last show on the QUEENZ Tour (which also featured Geneva Jacuzzi and Harriet Brown), the multi-talented artist graciously shared insights into an array of topics, including technology, philosophy, recording fidelity, her new album, and the music industry.
Bobby Weirdo: You’ve said that you grew up in a home that was “technophobic.” Is that true?
Nite Jewel: It is and it isn’t. My dad was into computers, and we had an early model when I was young, but after my parents split, my mom didn’t have much interest in exposing us to new technologies. She even made up that she had some ailment she called “discalcula” to explain her aversion to technology, which up until recently I thought was real, but she admitted she made it up so I wouldn’t question her and ask her to buy me video games. We ended up not getting a computer with Internet access until I was about 18, because my mom was just freaked out about it.
BW: It seems that the idea of technology is a thread that runs through your work. You made an art installation titled “The Question Concerning Technology”, which I would think is a reference to technology - specifically Heidegger -since you have an academic background in philosophy.
NJ: At the time that I made that installation, I was really obsessed with Heidegger’s essay, “The Question Concerning Technology”. It’s about his perspective on where we’ve gotten as far as our relationship with technology, and he talks about instruments for technology, and how we’ve developed a relationship in modernity where we use the instruments of technology, abuse them, and commodify them just for our purposes.
In many ways I feel he’s super paranoid, because if you take a car, what else is it for but to put people in it and drive it? But look at the Internet, which was initially supposed to be a free area with its own behaviors. The idea was for it to be nearly uncontrollable. Sort of how bitcoin creates its own value, the Internet creates its own life. Users interact, but they don’t dictate what the Internet does – it’s just a product of people interacting.
So there’s something to be said for Heidegger’s point, because now economic interests reign supreme over the Internet, and a free Web is becoming less and less of a reality. Although super paranoid, he was wise about our poor relationship to technologies, and how all we can see is the cost-benefit analysis for ourselves, as opposed to allowing for a reciprocal, symbiotic relationship that would allow these technologies to blossom apart from our monetary benefit, or the benefit of the few.
BW: Your earlier recordings have been described as “lo-fi”, but that’s not a term you’ve embraced. My understanding is that a lo-fi sound is never something you were particularly going for.
NJ: I think low fidelity can be intentional for some artists, but often self-produced artists just don’t know how to produce themselves, and what ends up happening is that they think something sounds good and normal, but it doesn’t – it sounds super weird.
If we would play certain tracks from Good Evening on stage tonight next to my new songs, the difference would be obvious to any concert-goer. You can hear that difference when the two are next to each other, but when you’re in the process of creating, I don’t think you really pay attention to that stuff unless you are a technician, like Cole [MGN] is. He can hear that as a mixing engineer. I’m getting better at hearing it and at mixing, but it’s still kind of a different skill.
BW: There’s also Jonathan Sterne’s idea of “fidelity to what”. Like maybe that was the truest expression of where and when you were working, the equipment you had at your disposal, who you were working with, and that sort of thing. A lot of your earlier recordings are still quite captivating in their own way.
NJ: Hell yeah! They’ll just become more and more captivating as time goes on not because they’re “lo-fi,” but because they’re unique sounding. They’re recorded on cassette, but they’re not recorded poorly in any way. It’s more the quiet vocal mix that makes it seem lo-fi, but that was intentional. I didn’t want to hear my vocals super loud, because that didn’t seem right for the music at the time. I think people confuse low fidelity with quiet vocals a lot. Like on Liquid Cool, a lot of people said I was going back to my “lo-fi roots,” but there’s nothing lo-fi about that record. I bounced some of the drums to an 8-track to give it a little analog flavor, but it’s recorded well.
BW: I have a question about a question, and I recently asked Geneva Jacuzzi about this as well: Is it still helpful to ask about the visibility of women in the music scene, or should we be past asking that?
NJ: I think it’s a decent question, and a lot of people are interested in asking that right now in this “woke” era where journalists feel it’s necessary to ask that question since it’s a talking point. I think it’s worth talking about, because the fact of the matter is that there is more visibility for women right now, which is amazing. Women are going more independent and are able to put their stuff online and show their chops more easily without needing a man to usher them into the universe. That’s the great thing about the Web.
But that being said, there are still incredible amounts of discrimination in music. It’s just insane. If you just look at bills, festival lineups, who’s getting syncs…just follow the money. Some of my favorite producers and singers in music right now are women, and it’s not a coincidence. Women are making some fucking amazing music, and they should be paid accordingly. I don’t think they are.
BW: Harmonically speaking, you tend to have a sophisticated vocabulary. What’s informing that?
NJ: I studied classical music as a kid, and was really into Romantic music like Chopin and Ravel, and I also listened to World music. I grew up hearing dissonance as a normal thing, so I never shied away from it, and at the same time I’m really into jazz chords, progressions, and structure, so that all comes together. You might hear vocal harmonies that are 2nds and close-clustered chords, but then the progression of the keys might be something that is a more standard song. Sometimes I feel like my songs are almost Tin Pan Alley songs – especially songs like “Suburbia” on the first record. That song could have been written by some Gershwin knock-off. I don’t think theory taught me that much harmony-wise. Maybe it made me intellectualize it a little more, but I think harmony comes from when you’re young.
BW: A long time ago, you mentioned Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl as an influence, and I think that’s surfaced in your work more in recent years, and especially on the new album. It’s an interesting reference, especially since I so often see people associating you more with Janet Jackson.
NJ: I love Tracey Thorn. I think Janet is an easy one for people to reference because everyone knows who she is, but certainly the [new] record is closer to Tracey Thorn than it is to Janet. Janet Jackson’s albums are so diverse, and there’s such a mix of tempos, pop, ballads, and experimental tracks…harsh tracks, soft tracks, all different styles. Whereas an Everything but the Girl album is usually one feeling for the whole album – it’s like a moment captured in time. And I feel that Real High is more like that kind of an album than a standard pop album. But I do get that people feel the intonation of the vocals has a Janet feeling to it. That’s definitely a huge compliment, and I don’t know that I truly believe that. But it’s cool that you say that about Tracey Thorn, because that’s a huge reference for me.
BW: You run your own label, Gloriette Records, where you’ve released your own music, re-released Ariel Pink material, and more. In such a challenging time for the music industry, what’s the impetus or motivation for having a label?
NJ: It was a fool-hardy decision that my friend Jason Darrah and I made in 2008. We didn’t make any money. I was broke, so he put up the money, and I was like the creative advisor.
Nowadays you have to be really smart, frugal, and work hard. And I think I do. I have a good business sense in some ways, so it works for me to run a label, but the main reason I do it is more psychological. Labels –and the process of being in an infrastructure like that—causes me a lot of emotional strain. For the most part, it’s a male-dominated enterprise, and it is a crazy power play between the people who want to release your music and you – the artist. It just messes with your head like crazy. For some reason it was really difficult for me to not feel judged by people who were from labels.
So if I want to do my best work, I have to do it on my own. I’m still open to the idea that there is someone out there who wouldn’t cause me emotional strain, but I haven’t seen it so far. I just don’t want to touch a label-bro with ten-foot-pole. They kind of disgust me.
BW: You’ve spoken about balance between your artistic life and personal, domestic life. Have you found that balance?
NJ: Right now the scale is tipped a little far into the artist realm. I just toured for two weeks, and then five more weeks after that, and I’ll be going on a European tour and an Australian tour, so it’s a lot. But that being said, I do have a very peaceful domestic life, and I love being home. I love being alone, chilling, and doing nothing. You get your partying in when you tour. So I do try to keep it balanced, but right now it’s so not balanced at all.
BW: There’s a certain amount of fun to the narrative of your association with Dâm-Funk, Folerio, and the “Weak for You” 45, but those associations are in fact real, right? You’re one of the very few people to ever collaborate with Folerio, and Dam Funk has had an extended collaboration with you. Looking at those types of collaborations, part of what makes you such an interesting artist must also be a real challenge: You’re associated with an experimental crowd, but then you step out of that association and put yourself in a more R&B crowd and setting.
NJ: Yeah! And that’s just me as a person in a nutshell, even more than as an artist. I grew up listening to hip hop and R&B, but at the same time, I came from a hippie family that also listened to World music and some rock ‘n roll. Kids are exposed to a multitude of music genres in the Bay Area.
I never really fit in anywhere. I do my thing, and I try not to align myself with any particular group for the sake of success. I just try to do what feels right, which is why I’m on tour with Geneva [Jacuzzi] and Harriet Brown. To me, these are some of my favorite L.A. artists. You see the lineup, and you might think it’s some kind of a weird circus. And it is kind of a circus. But every single night, the show is an incredible mixture of sounds. You wouldn’t think these bands go together, but it ends up being an incredible progression. And that’s the beautiful thing about music – it doesn’t have to stratify unless you want to make it that way.