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For Nite Jewel (a.k.a. Ramona Gonzalez), home is where the music is; from growing up in one of San Francisco’s most eclectic districts, filled with formative inspiration; to a life and household that’s built upon the foundations of creativity and a shared passion for the art of sound.
“My dad didn’t stick around very long before he sort of... bounced. So that also formed a lot of what I did creatively.”
Her journey begins in Oakland, California, a city known for its high crime levels, as well as having the highest concentration of artists per capita in the USA.
“I grew up around the corner from a gas station that had bulletproof glass, and a pawn shop and all that kinda stuff,” she tells me. “But I lived on the one hippy block, so it was a lot of people farming and different things like that, kind of in the middle of this little bit of a rough area I guess.
“The East Bay is very stratified,” she says. “There’s a certain amount of boojyness and it’s also pretty rough, so that sort of formed not only my musical taste but also my thoughts towards the world.”
Overcoming adversity also plays a big part in the creation of Nite Jewel.
“My dad didn’t stick around very long before he sort of… bounced. So that also formed a lot of what I did creatively.”
Ramona pauses for a moment while she reflects on how struggles at home can serve as a pathway to creative prowess.
“I think sometimes when you live really comfortably, you don’t pursue things that are as artistic – maybe because you’re just kind of born chilling… So I think art was always an escape for me to express any weird dysfunction that was going on in my life.”
Ramona Gonzalez has been married to producer and musician Cole M. Greif-Neill for 10 years now, a partnership that has enabled them both to unify their careers in music with their personal lives.
Teaming up together seems like it was always meant to be, and a decision that suited them both down to the ground. Gonzalez contemplates her own motives for marriage.
“I think because I came from this weird upbringing, I was really seeking some sort of relation- ship at a young age that I could just sort of formulate my whole life around.” She also recognises Cole’s reasons. “He was looking for a partner in crime and needed to find someone who was as into music as he was, because that’s basically his decision, what he’s going to do for his entire life.”
They haven’t ever stayed put in the one place for long.
“It’s a very malleable home, we’ve lived in like 10 different places – maybe more – and lots of different cities,” she tells me. Some personal items travel with them from house to house, “Papers, photographs, a clock that I’ve had since I lived in Brooklyn, this vintage clock that I got on the street, things like that. We try not to be too attached to our stuff, except for our instruments.”
There are other signature characteristics of the places Ramona calls home, too.
“We’ve always had studios in our apartments,” she explains, although that doesn’t necessarily mean she has uncontested access to the space and equipment.
“As Cole started to get higher up in the ranks as a producer, the studio in our space was more in demand for other people to come and work in. So I was working at the kitchen table on my laptop, in the bedroom, and then it turned out that these two apartments that we lived in back to back had these walk in closets…”
She smiles and looks amused while think- ing back nostalgically about the recording process of ‘Liquid Cool’, which was released earlier this year.
“That’s where I made my most recent record. It makes you very disciplined, there’s not much you can do in there”.
It’s not just her recording space that’s minimal and pared back. Another element of Ramona’s music is drawing upon analogue technology. She’s well known for her use of a portable 8 track recorder – and it leads me to wonder about the thought pro- cess behind her choice of medium over more modern means.
“I’ve always been interested in that dichotomy, analogue versus digital, and I think that my interest in analogue recording is definitely a big one. I always use analogue in some way or another for all of my records, whether I’m recording directly on tape or whether I’m using it as a device for sound, like on my most recent record. There’s something about it on a visceral level, but also an intellectual level, that matters to me when recording.”
Collaboration plays a huge part in Nite Jewel’s catalogue, and she’s worked with a diverse array of artists from various different styles and genres. Modern-funk maestro, Dâm-Funk, comes together with Gonzalez to make Nite Funk.
“Dam and I have been friends for a really long time, since 2009, 2010, and we’ve met up a bunch of times to work on music, and then suddenly I think that he felt that it was the right time to finally do the project.
“It was the moment that he felt it was right. He was music directing the whole thing in a way.”
I’m interested to know who else she’d like to collaborate with. Kraftwerk is the first group that springs to her mind – unsurprising as she has already performed an interpretation of their ‘Computer World’ album at a number of highly acclaimed concerts back in 2012.
“I would have loved to collaborate with J Dilla – sing on one of his tracks,” she adds.
I find it impressive that her own personal style and brand manages to work so well with a variety of different collaborators and genres.
“It’s just what’s inside of me”, she says, “and there’s nothing I can really do about it, all I can do is tame the beast and work on putting my different ideas about music into different categories”.
It’s clear that Ramona Gonzalez’s life at home in America is entirely absorbed by music, right down to the close-knit group of friends that she surrounds herself with.
“I moved to LA in 2006, and Julia and Ariel [Pink], I met them early on, and a whole group of musicians: Geneva Jacuzzi, John Maus…”
I admit to Ramona that I’m in awe, even slightly envious about the fact that she’s a part of this zeitgeist of avant-garde LA musicians. I ask her how such a group of people found each other and bonded so well. On the gig circuit, presumably?
“It’s even weirder than that. We met literally on the street. But it’s like something where just the rest of the world finally caught on. We were doing what we thought was basically the best music in the world at the time.”
What’s most interesting is that Ramona and her cohort, members of whom were also exploring new forms of synth-pop, seem to have paved the way for this new style together. She stresses that it didn’t just happen by magic, overnight.
“No one really knew about it. I think everybody doubted it too. They wrote it off. The No Age / Smell scene, the punk scene were much more popular in LA at that time, and we were kinda like the weird art people.”
On ‘Liquid Cool’, Nite Jewel divorced from her record label, Secretly Canadian, in what was a widely publicised disagreement about artistic integrity. She tells me that though the decision was amicable, she wasn’t going to be the commercial entity that they wanted her to be.
She needed time to experiment and grow, but it still comes as a surprise to me that an indie label could be so obtrusive.
“Yeah, well… it’s a sad state of affairs. I mean, indie labels don’t act like indie labels any more. In fact it’s all sort of gone to the middle. Major labels are trying to act more indie and indie labels are trying to act more major.”
Can musicians find a safe home under the roof of any label out there?
“I think it depends on a lot of factors,” she says. “It depends on the style of music you’re doing. It depends on how you go into the deal and it also depends on the label. I mean there are a lot of labels that are awesome. And all labels are going to be great and bad at the same time. There’s good things and bad things about them. Secretly is just run by a bunch of basic bros!”
Above all else, Ramona Gonzales is at home in herself: considered, self-reflective, and determined to command her own trajectory through the world, maintaining her identity and integrity, and continuously expanding her collaborative web in new and interesting directions.
The full interview is available in District Magazine Issue One. Click here to grab a copy.