Interview: Escaping together with Nite Jewel

Nite JewelAt the height of last summer - that woozy July that ushered in May's tenure, heat that withered the pound like grapes on a vine - the Guardian published a thinkpiece by the writer Frank Cottrell Boyce. Still basking in the glow of co-writing the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony with Danny Boyle, his article took aim at various contemporary malaises: Brexit, cuts to library and arts funding, East London. But what grabbed me above all was this:

“Innovation comes from those who are happy to embark on a course of action without quite knowing where it will lead, without doing a feasibility study, without fear of failure or too much hope of reward. The engine of innovation is reckless generosity.”

Unscheduled, the sentiment returned to me talking to Ramona Gonzalez, AKA Nite Jewel. It seemed a perfect fit for her attitude, her ideas, the spirit of autonomous creativity that burns through her like ethanol.

She owns it now. In 2012, Gonzalez was newly signed to Secretly Canadian, who oversaw her second album One Second of Love. Following 2009’s self-released Good Evening, it felt like a debut to most of the world, and the label were apparently keen to present it as the birth of a new star. “Maybe the marketing was a little bit more pop,” she explains, over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “Because I’d just joined a label, and I felt this desire to present myself in a certain way. But I thought it was pretty experimental. I think the music is pretty strange and unique, and I don’t think there’s another record out there like that to be honest.”

Even now, listening to that album’s title track and lead single, it would be easy to fight the corner for either the ‘pop’ or ‘experimental’ tags. Where do the boundaries lie today? Gonzalez is a close friend and ally of Julia Holter (both have interviewed each other in recent years, and performed together as Nite Jewelia), another L.A.-based artist whose work prompts genre debate from critics; usually, according to Gonzalez, without the requisite vocabulary for the job. Is Nite Jewel a pop artist?

“I guess recently I’ve become more aware of the term, in a technical way – how the industry and journalists try to describe music that has certain kinds of arrangements and structures,” she says, agreeing that Holter’s Have You in My Wilderness, though critically adored, might have been handled with the same confused lexicon. “What I noticed about the songs on Wilderness was that a lot of them remind me of jazz songs in their structure. I think that might be what people are responding to in large part: the fact that these songs circle back on each other, that they have a verse-chorus-verse structure... I think that in order to sum that up with just one word, people say, ‘Oh, that’s pop.’ Or if the vocals are louder they say, ‘Oh, that’s pop.’ Because if they really had the time to describe musicologically what was actually happening…” She considers how best to push this envelope while on the phone to a music journalist. “I mean, (a) they probably don’t have the tools to do that, and (b) it would take a lot longer.”

After departing from the label, Gonzalez picked up where she’d left off, and began writing and recording new music that felt right to her. The result was 2016’s Liquid Cool, released on her own imprint Gloriette. As an album, the name was entirely apt: the new songs offered a hush, sophisticated noir, more evocative of her debut and early run of EPs than One Second’s sharp angles. Like all of her work, it feels intensely voyeuristic to listen to, and Gonzalez has spoken in the past of the Nite Jewel project being intimately tied to her soul. “In my daily life I’m a tough guy,” she tells me, and I believe her. “So with Nite Jewel I’m much more vulnerable, more open; this wounded, heart-on-sleeve, sensual character. It’s voyeuristic for me to listen back to, because sometimes I can’t believe the things I’ve said, or the things I’ve allowed myself to communicate.” Nite Jewel albums are, in effect, their own safe spaces.

On the day of our conversation, less than a year has passed since the release of Liquid Cool. It’s also two days before her new album, Real High, is due out. If that seems intensely prolific, it’s worth bearing in mind that she got a head start on this one: the title track, a gorgeous, ambient ballad, was mostly recorded in 2011, and in fact an early version of the album was completed by 2014. So why the delay? As Gonzalez tells it, it was a case of bad timing: for one thing, the label’s response to the album was “lukewarm at best”. But she also felt that the record wasn’t quite right at that point. “I think what I’d say is that it was a bit too maximal. And Nite Jewel’s a very minimal project. I think in my label anxiety period, maybe I was putting a lot of layers on to shield some tough things I was going through. So I felt it wasn’t really appropriate for the project at the time.”

As it is now, Real High captures something from every stage of her career to date, and several influences. At the centre of the album, “The Answer” is a lush throwback to Saint Etienne at the height of their powers; “R We Talking Long” captures her fangirl love of Janet Jackson; “When I Decide (It’s Alright)” deals with the anxiety of letting someone into your life emotionally, with Julia Holter providing some delightfully off-kilter backing vocals. It sounds like it was fun to make, and that pays off for the listener; to borrow a cliché, Gonzalez makes it sound easy.

It didn’t come easy. Having grown up in an America that’s used to undermining women of colour at every conceivable opportunity, recent events have made that reality even starker. “I grew up in a really political household. I listened to a lot of political music growing up.” If she doesn’t write explicitly political songs, it’s because she recognises that identity politics, especially based at an intersection of historically oppressed groups, is going to bleed into her work regardless.

“Going in with the intention of making your music political has a tendency to stymie certain aspects of it. I think that on the basis of who I am, my music is very political – just on the basis of being mixed-race, from a low-income household, being a woman and communicating my message; not to mention running my own label. All these things are intensely political already.” Crucially, she identifies the need to fight the concept that dominant discourses equate to neutrality - that whiteness, masculinity, or heterosexuality are somehow apolitical tropes. “I don’t think it’s possible for music to be non-political. Even a Taylor Swift record is political, in the sense that she’s this very privileged white person, and that’s normative.” And for Nite Jewel? “I think my voice is always going to be someone outside of the norm, no matter what.”

At this juncture, it’s hard to avoid touching on the realities of life under the Trump administration. She likes to use Nite Jewel shows as opportunities to talk about what’s happening. “I remember right after the election I performed in L.A. And lots of my fanbase is Latin American and queer, because I don’t present as a conventional person, and I share that heritage with them. There’s a lot of anxiety surrounding immigrants, and children of immigrants, in Trump’s new reign. It’s really heavy, especially for me, because my dad’s an immigrant. So I took time out in the set to talk to people about how we were feeling.” It turns out they were feeling much the same way. “I basically said: it’s totally okay to want to escape right now, during this time when I’m going to perform with you. Let’s escape together.”

In conversation, it’s obvious that Gonzalez is extraordinarily well-read. It’s a pleasure to listen to her talk about these ideas, dismantling false dichotomies between high and low culture. A lot of it clearly goes beyond the realm of music, too. She talks of studying philosophy (“I’m always looking for critical models to inform where I’m coming from”), finding unlikely heroines in the bestsellers of Elena Ferrante (“super inspiring, because she was portraying female protagonists who are somewhat anti-feminine, anti-maternal, presenting this Apollonian sense of female-masculine”), attending exhibitions and talks by Kerry James Marshall.

In particular, she tells me how Marshall "never chased a gallery", just kept putting his work out there until the crowds arrived. I mention the Boyce quote to her, that concept of reckless generosity, and how people can spend so much time chasing a career that they forget the joy of pure creation. “That’s when you get sidetracked man! That’s when you make mistakes.” It’s a philosophy that Nite Jewel clearly adheres to. “I think, especially being a girl, you get a lot of people talking in your ear about what you should do, how you should manage your career. You should never, ever listen to those voices! I mean, I was releasing my own music in 2008, and I did a great job at it. I made some mistake along the way, but… you don’t really need to take anybody’s advice. You just do your thing, and people will congregate around you." Nearly a decade on, you get the impression that she's kind of nailed it.

Real High is out now on Gloriette.

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