Ramona Gonzalez is simply a musical paradox. Operating under the moniker Nite Jewel, the Echo Park-based musician weaves synth-driven pop that's as much a product of the Casiotone era as it is '90s R&B.
Where one might expect instrumentation to be lo-fi, Gonzalez shines such production to a polish, layering seasoned and restrained vocal lines over minimalist tracks. It's hard to paint her work into a corner, but that's kind of the point -- where you expect her to go left, she goes right -- and the results are exceptional, from fan response to critical acclaim.
Even by phone, Gonzalez is affable and well-spoken, speaking with a excited cadence that belies the minimal, electronic-affected R&B she crafts. Maybe it's a product of her time at L.A.'s Occidental College, where Nite Jewel came to be, or her field of study that imparts a depth to her work, but there's no denying that she possesses a voice that fits well into many mediums. We spoke to her ahead of her set at the Viva Phoenix music festival on Friday, March 7.
You've spoken before about how you came out of college and didn't want to just make some pop record, yet what was it you were trying to achieve with your music at that stage in your life?
When I was working on my first record, I was in school at the time, and music was sort of the contrast to that, meaning that I was in music in order to not do schoolwork. It was my way of getting out of my head as far as what I was doing in school. In that sense it was like a contrast, but at the same time what necessarily happens, at least with doing philosophy, is that philosophy becomes this lens that you see your entire life through, whether you like it or not.
That sort of critical thinking found its way into not only my lyrics, but how I approach being an artist, almost like more conceptual than I even knew it was at the time. I think that a lot of my artist friends share that kind of thinking because a lot of my artist friends in L.A. went to art school, actually -- Ariel Pink went to CalArts, Julia Holter went to CalArts, even my husband, Cole, went to art school. I think that we have a sense in which we think on multiple levels at once when we're working.
It's no secret that you're a huge fan of '90s R&B and seem to draw from a deep catalog of those influences. How did that come to be such a big part of your upbringing?
The only reason I know anything about that era is just because I just went to Target at that time and just got so many CDs. We had this thing called The Box in the Bay, it was short for Jukebox, and it was like a Channel 9, cable access kind of thing where they just played R&B and rap videos, and it was always playing videos right after school. We got a lot of information beyond mainstream radio, so I heard songs that I really loved and I would just go buy these EPs or whatever.
It wasn't intentional, and I don't even think my knowledge is that good, but I had so many of these CDs that I listened to them constantly, so now when I'm writing tunes, I don't listen to that music still -- maybe if I'm having a party and I'm super-wasted, I'll play those songs so we can dance, but it's not like I'm referencing them to write music. They're so ingrained in my consciousness that I just make those melodies and I don't even know that I'm doing it. I think that that's something about having a true personal music history -- there are just certain things that definitely come from when I used to listen those CDs, and there's nothing I can do about it, you know what I mean [laughs]?
That makes sense when hearing your vocal technique -- it sounds second-nature, ingrained, what you were raised on. Is that kind of music what made you want to sing, initially?
I wanted to sing a little [earlier than that], and it was like listening a little more to divas, but I think I bought some Aaliyah sheet music when I was about seven or eight from Age Ain't Nothing But a Number and I brought it to my vocal teacher and said 'I want to learn this song,' and she was like 'This is not music.' I brought it home and tried to learn it myself -- "At Your Best (You Are Love)" was the song that I learned on piano to sing to.
I guess you're right, that was like my vocal style, but I was also singing a lot of jazz too. Here's the thing: I sang jazz and I sang in a gospel choir when I was young. That pretty much was what people like Aaliyah and Beyoncé, they grew up singing in church and they grew up singing jazz, either or both.
That was sort of my training as well, that round vocal sound, because you're blending with other voices and other instruments that have a particular timbre. So definitely, I feel like the tone is super influenced by that too -- I never thought about it.
There's a textural element to a lot of your music and a defined musical aesthetic that's very clear on a record like One Second of Love. How do you go about bringing your electronic influences and a sense of minimalism together?
There was a point in which I first started writing music and I realized that just the plain sound of a piano was not something that really spoke to me as a songwriter. Those textures didn't really conjure up my personal opinions about anything, or my emotions. I really had to find my instruments and textures that speak to me. Those became a lot funny things, for instance, '80s synthesizers: Fake strings, fake piano, fake horns, some combination of synth strings and polysynth, '80s synth stuff.
I'm not really sure why my emotion was in those sounds, but I think it has to do with being a fan of obscure, underground music from the past because those people couldn't afford to have a piano in their house or a trumpet or anything, they had to work with what they had to work with, which was some Radio Shack keyboard. What I love about that is that they created a whole symphony of sounds through these cheap, messed-up keyboards, and I love that kind of fantasy. That's the kind of fantasy that I'm going for with my music.
But in choosing those instruments, you immediately declassify the era in which it comes from. It sounds like it could be from 1984 or 2014.
I like it being era-less, I like it being kind of a bastardization of eras, a bastardization of styles, kind of like an affront to the whole idea of era and genres being so specific. I think that a lot of people can benefit from just sort of blending and not feeling so tied expressing themselves according to something that came before. You can create a new era -- history is just time and dates, it doesn't mean that it's something that you have to completely abide by.
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Nite Jewel is scheduled to perform Friday, March 7, at Crescent Ballroom.