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Interview: Nite Jewel Talks Janet Jackson And Being Tru School

Interview: Nite Jewel Talks Janet Jackson And Being Tru School

Martyn Pepperell / Tuesday 24th October, 2017 1:54PM

In 2016, Ramona Gonzalez – the Los Angeles songwriter, producer, and artist better known as Nite Jewel, told me that philosophically speaking, she believes that what contains the most depth in her life is the basic and everyday things she experiences. In her words, "Becoming aware of those little things allows us to say more. [As a songwriter] saying more with less has always been a big deal to me."

Since 2008, Ramona has been an active and memorable figure within the international musical underground. She's recorded collaborative projects with a who's who of cult Californian talent including modern funk ambassador Dâm-Funk (as Nite Funk), second generation Bay Area rapper/producer Droop-E, and baroque pop experimentalist Julia Holter, as well as performing around the globe and releasing several remarkable albums and EPs as Nite Jewel. Along the way, she’s navigated in and out of the mid-tier independent label industrial complex, evaded stylistic classification, and consistently created forward learning music with a solid understanding of the music histories that came before it.

Having released her fourth album, Real High, earlier in the year, at the very start of November, Ramona will be arriving here for the first time. While she’s here, she’ll play her debut New Zealand Nite Jewel shows in Wellington and Auckland at Meow and Golden Dawn on the 1st and 2nd of November. I jumped on the phone with her to talk about collaboration, Janet Jackson, independence, and live performance.

Dâm-Funk, Droop-E, Julia Holter, Omar-S, Sean Nicholas Savage, the list goes on. You’ve collaborated with some amazing musicians over the course of your career. Why is collaboration so important to you?

I love collaborating with people on music. I don’t know how much I love collaborating with people who are looking for something in music. You know, people who are looking to create a pop hit, or looking to be cool. That’s a lot of people in the music industry. There are a lot of people I don’t want to collaborate with. For the real true musician in me, who is a hippie child who has been playing in groups since she was five years old, I love collaborating. That’s how I grew up, making music with other people in the jazz, folk, and world music realms. So, it’s only natural that I would love to work with people.

It’s hard to find people who are lacking ego and an adherence to genre, scene or structure. I think the thing these people all have in common is they’re all evil geniuses in their own right, like Omar-S for example. Actually, they’re all kind of evil geniuses, but they’re not strict about genre or anything, they’re just really good musicians. Omar-S would say to me, “I hate that people say to me you can't-do all different kinds of music! I love all music!” That’s what he would always say to me. Dâm-Funk says the same thing to me too, and Julia Holter has the same perspective. They’re all in their own lane stylistically because that’s what they like to do, but they’re not in their own lane stylistically because they think that’s a careerist move. That’s what we have in common.

I have a genre called Tru School. That’s my genre that I’m in. It used to be AOR&B, but then with the advent of certain popular music, I lost that. I think when the term PBR&B came, I was like, I can’t use this term anymore. My first genre was Lounge actually. This is in the beginning on Myspace. AOR&B was the next genre I adhered to. Most recently, it became Tru School. It’s like old school, but it’s not retro. It’s futuristic sounding, but with the knowledge of things that came before it, but also Tru as in true, meaning not fake. I think what all these collaborators have in common is they’re all part of the Tru School movement. Very few people are allowed into the Tru School movement.

When I look at who you’ve collaborated with or move around, you seem to sit at this nexus between the mainstream and the underground in music. At the same time, that’s kind of just Los Angeles isn’t it?

It’s not a new thing. Los Angeles has always been a place where the mainstream and extreme experimental artist communities come into contact. That has always been the case. It was like that before I moved here. In many ways, that’s why I did move to Los Angeles. It had a bad reputation because of the mainstream music and entertainment industries, so other artists thought it was a horrible place. That was why I moved there because no one was there, rent was really cheap, and I got all the cool shit to myself. Now, people are like, “Oooooh Los Angeles,” so now they’re coming here. It hasn’t really changed though. Now there is more of a middle class of artists who are coming from New York and abroad and have more money. They’re coming in and making new arts space like Zebulon, which is great because it means we don’t have to perform in a cement box like we used to. The underground is still thriving, and the entertainment industry is still here, although it’s debatable whether it’s thriving or not. This thing is never going to go away though, it’s just the west side, east side dichotomy. It’s a huge city, and hopefully, fingers crossed, there will always be places for poor artists to live and exist and flourish.

A lot of people have commented that the spirit of Janet Jackson’s janet. hangs over your new album Real High, and you seem to agree. What’s the story?

I guess initially I was interested in her as an icon because - to me at least - she has this really nice blend of masculine and feminine throughout her imaging and the albums she put out. Control was all about taking control of her life, wearing suits on stage, and dancing on stage with male dancers. When janet. rolled around, she was more engaged with her sexuality and doing this more feminine sort of thing, but she was still a tomboy at heart, and still a very shy and reluctant pop star in a way. As a kid listening to her album, I really related to that.

As a kid in the 90s, you didn’t really listen to more than five albums at a time. Your parents couldn’t afford it. They could only buy you five CDs or tapes, so you were listening to the same records over and over again. Your friends would listen to the same records over and over as well. When you went to their house, they were playing it, and you were playing it. janet. and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 were huge records for me, and they got embedded in my psychology. When I was thinking about Real High after it got made, I was like, I think there is a little bit of Janet in there, but when people started saying my voice resembled hers, well, that was just ridiculous. That is just too much. I feel spiritually connected to her, but not sense wise, not in reality. It’s a huge compliment.

When I was in New York earlier in the year, I visited RVNG INTL’s Commend record store. They had the Control album filed in their deep cuts section, which I loved.

I think Control is my favourite album, but Janet was the most influential on me because of my age at the time. I kind of want to do an acoustic, semi-acoustic version of Control. I’m planning to do it with my bandmate in LA when we have a break from touring. We could do it somewhere like Zebulon. It would be great. Electric piano and singing, it would be sick. Her records are timeless, all of them. Even though they have that time period, you can listen to them forever. I think that was what I was going for with Real High. I wanted this to be a record that would really have legs for a long time.

After putting out One Second of Love with Secretly Canadian, you rebooted your Gloriette Records label. Since then, you’ve independently released two albums (Liquid Cool and Real High). Are you still loving the D.I.Y approach?

Yes. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful. I say it every single night of the tour, every single show. I talk about being an independent artist and thank the audience for coming to see this D.I.Y operation. It’s all funded by yours truly. Music, album art, promotion, etc., etc., it’s all funded by yours truly. I don’t mind doing all that work as long as I don’t have some asshole breathing down my neck.

Watching the rollout was amazing. You dropped Liquid Cool, the EP with Droop-E, the EP with Dam-Funk, Real High, and everything else. It’s been so constant, which is so great.

It’s crazy, right? I just had so much stuff going on. I was so confused about how I was going to release music, so I just kept making music. I had many failures and successes in that realm, but at least I was making music while I was stifled by business. I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I have a soft rock record on my desktop, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do with that. I have new Nite Jewel songs. I have ambient songs. Right now I’m just committed to performing and focusing on that. When all of that is done, I will reassess the situation. At the moment, I’m focused on singing and making my performances the best they can be.

What can we expect from the live show?

Basically, the live show is like a Nite Jewel greatest hits set. I do some collaboration songs, I do songs from all of my albums, all the way back to the first record until now. It’s just me and my bandmate playing synth together, and a lot of focus on the singing. I’ve been working really hard on the vocals, and finding a way to make myself totally into communicating through my voice. That’s different to how it was in the past. It used to be all about me covering up my voice. Then my friend Stefanie Franciotti, she does that band Sleep ∞ Over, she made a bunch of visuals for the set which are amazing. It’s a really great show. It’s more dancey than in the past.

In the beginning, my live show used to come together sometimes, and it was really good. I’d say one time out of four or five, it would come together and be sick, but for the most part, it was so hard for me to get my live show to the right place. I had all these recordings on 8-track. They were super noisy and out of tune. I didn’t know how to recreate them. The players I had were super vibey and cool. They were my best friends, but they couldn’t really play. I was afraid of singing. I was afraid of performing. I wore sunglasses on stage, and I used to want to live with a pillowcase on my head. Now that I’ve embraced myself as a musician, and have a real musician on stage with me, it’s just so different. I’m happy to sing, and I’m happy to be a performer. 

Nite Jewel will be playing shows in Auckland and Wellington next week alongside Ducklingmonster, Alexa Casino and Magic & Steel, see below for more info...


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Nite Jewel
Thu 2nd Nov 8:00pm
Golden Dawn: Tavern of Power, Auckland