On Real High, her fourth album as Nite Jewel, Ramona Gonzalez draws on the visionary R&B of 90s-era Janet Jackson to create a set of synth pop bangers and futuristic hyperballads that explore very contemporary subjects like ultra self-awareness, techno-anxiety, and modern love.
Besides collaborations with likes of producer Cole M.G.N., rapper-producer Droop-E (son of Bay Area hero E-40), and groove-obsessed instrumentalist Dâm-Funk, Real High also sees Gonzalez team up with avant-pop balladeer Julia Holter on “When I Decide (It’s Alright)”. The two artists are good friends and have worked together before: Gonzalez directed Holter’s “Everytime Boots” music video, they’ve remixed one another, and they’ve written songs together as Nite Jewelia.
They sat down together on a Sunday afternoon at Holter’s house in Echo Park, Los Angeles to talk about art, songwriting, and trust (amongst many other things) over strong sencha tea.
When I Decide (It’s Alright)
To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin.
Julia Holter: I’ve been happily listening to a few of these songs for a couple of years and I love the direction you ultimately took them in. How would you describe your journey production-wise in the making of this record – where you started, and where you ended up?
Nite Jewel: You’ve been there through the whole process! I think initially, when I was finishing the first version of this record in 2014 (I think it was around then), both Cole (M.G.N.) and I were still in the fuzzy stages of how to ‘produce’ these songs. We brought our friend Harley B (from The Samps) to LA a few times and we all took mushrooms and would just tweak the songs for hours, change the beats yet again, and add/take away reverb. It was like we just didn’t know what the songs wanted, but were determined to finish. This was kind of an unwise decision in a way, but we had fun doing it. Ultimately I felt the production wasn’t right and I put the songs away until 2016. Once I heard them again two years later I was like, ‘Oh, I know exactly what to do.’ I stripped everything away and just proceeded as normal with a few synths and some drum samples. Like how a Nite Jewel song would go. Didn’t overthink it, and just finished it in a month or two.
Julia Holter: I was reflecting on singing styles with a friend the other day, and he was talking about how Rihanna’s singing style (which I love, and think is so influential on a lot of music these days) could be appealing to people because it’s so effortless-sounding, and very styled, whereas some other vocal artists tend to put together something more ‘crafted’ (his words). Like, expressive versus impressive. But I can’t really decide with you. I think you’re maybe halfway between, because you have a very powerful voice and it does some very sophisticated things, and yet you also do these very expressive character voice things, where it does feel conversational, like it just came out very freely and happened to be recorded. When you write, do you find you revise vocal lines a lot, or does it just come out best the first time?
“We all took mushrooms and would just tweak the songs for hours, change the beats yet again, and add/take away reverb. It was like we just didn’t know what the songs wanted, but were determined to finish” – Nite Jewel
Nite Jewel: Wow, thanks – that’s a cool way of putting it. I think it has to do with the fact that I had some vocal training, but always rebelled against training. Which means I have some facility, but not a lot. So I have to work expressively to make up for what I missed in some ways. I don’t revise vocal lines very much, no. Usually, vocally speaking, the song comes out fully formed, most of the time with lyrics too. I’ll do the demo vocals once or twice and the final vocals in only a few takes. With the song ‘Real High’, those are vocals from 2011-12, I believe. I never revised them because I think they’re great as is. I don’t belabour vocals too much – if I find myself doing so, I usually feel like the song isn’t right for me.
Julia Holter: Do you have any advice on how to write a bassline? Do you ever start with a bassline and build a song on up from that? I feel like you are kind of a master at it (and would love to hear a record where it’s just your voice and a bass line, two voices only). You used to play bass in a band with Cole, right?
Nite Jewel: Oh my god, what a genius idea. I should do a record like that! Thanks for the inspiration. Yes, my first ‘band’ instrument (piano was my actual first instrument) was an electric bass guitar. Cole and I had a band and I would sing and play bass together. I think this taught me how the bass can be a counterpoint for the voice, because it was very hard to do those two things at once as they were very syncopated. My obsession with bass is also related to growing up listening to 90s hip hop/R&B. These were synth bass lines (often on a Moog or some monophonic synth) based on classic funk and/or jazz. To me it was like, ‘Oh, I can form the basis of these songs, and I don’t even have to play a string instrument.’ That frees you to do all sorts of crazy stuff on bass. But yes, to answer your question, the vocals come from the bass or the bass come from the vocals. That’s how a song often works for me.
Julia Holter: I get a question a lot from interviewers that I always find irritating – they’re like, ‘How does this music relate to your actual life?’ I’m going to be mean and ask you if you get that question often as well, and if so, how do you deal with it?
Nite Jewel: Often my lyrics relate to life – not necessarily my own, but empirical things. I find it very easy to draw from experience to create that initial spark of meaning or situation in a lyrical idea. But then, the meaning begins to morph and change, enter space, and draw from all sorts of things. So it’s a weird question because, well, yes, of course it comes out of my body. But that doesn’t mean there’s a one-to-one correspondence. The question ‘How do you deal with it?’ is a good one. It’s super hard to unearth honesty in lyrics when the honest truth is often very complicated and dark. I think it can bring up a lot. Like with ‘One Second of Love’ – sometimes that song makes me cry when I sing it on stage. It can be very difficult to sing. But I guess that’s what happens. We bring emotion into our lyrics via experience, and hopefully we don’t drown in it.
Julia Holter: You’ve been making music for over ten years now. There’s often this idea that as an artist you ‘progress’ in a direction, and it always makes me feel uncomfortable, because I like to think of each project as its own project, regardless of what I did before it. While of course we learn things from experience and change as people, I don’t know if thinking about it as ‘growing’ is right. I feel like the brain doesn’t work in that neat and clean linear way – but then maybe I’m just denying that I’ve learned from my work (mistakes?) in the past. Maybe I just feel like it’s an overly negative way of approaching one’s work and work history. Do you agree, or do you see your journey, for example, as a progression from one place to another? Or do you have a completely other way of thinking about it?
“There’s often this idea that as an artist you ‘progress’ in a direction, and it always makes me feel uncomfortable… the brain doesn’t work in that neat and clean linear way” – Julia Holter
Nite Jewel: The ‘progression’ idea is totally created for, and by, the music industry. It’s a way to commercialise not only the music but also the musician herself, like her journey can be summed up and commodified into something that goes from a to b to c. The ‘early years’ to the ‘pop years’ to the ‘post pop experimental phase’ to the ‘spiritual Hari Krishna record’. It’s something as listeners we’ve grown accustomed to through marketing, but it is a prison, for sure. For instance, on my last album Liquid Cool, everyone wanted to paint it as a record that was intentionally low-fidelity as a response to being off a label. But I had no sense that it was lo-fi – I was just writing songs, and the fact that I was off a label didn’t make me feel contrarian, it made me feel free and happy to write an album in six months! Or One Second of Love was framed as our pop record on a label, but I thought that album was very experimental and it was initially going to be an instrumental record! I think I’ve never ever stuck to a formula of how my records will turn out, which is maybe why Nite Jewel will always be hard to classify. But I’m okay with that, because there can’t be any other way.
Julia Holter: This album feels kind of ecstatic to me, even in the instances where the subject matter is a bit dark or kind of anxious. It’s easy to get absorbed in the bed of synths and the full, warm, soaring vocals (‘Had to Let Me Go’, ‘Real High’). While I’ve always found myself mesmerised by your vocal lines and how they have this light-footed, bouncing, classic warmth, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this kind of euphoric, free feeling. Did this album feel particularly cathartic while writing? Or is writing for you ever ‘cathartic’?
Nite Jewel: Catharsis is interesting because although I definitely feel the release of emotional weight when I sing a song, this is coupled with an intense building up and storage of emotion by way of the subject matter as well. Like the song at once allows me to express, but then in of itself it becomes this overflowing well that I must tame… ha. I think because the subject matter of my songs is often about tensions and polarities that arise in life, the emotional rescue from the song combined with singing about the very things that make my life difficult gives rise to a creative paradox. I think the action of singing allows me to experience that release that the lyrics combat. Maybe that’s why it sounds so freeing.
Julia Holter: Maybe this is a bit like the question about vocals, but your lyrics seem to me to be simultaneously subtle and conversational. I’m curious if writing words is a long process for you, or if it sometimes comes really quickly? While some writers try too hard to get at a big concept and fail because there’s a lack of specifics, you capture abstract elements of real life in a very direct way. The complex feelings one thinks in certain situations are brought out brilliantly with such seeming ease (‘R We Talking Long’, ‘Obsession’). When you write lyrics, do you find they just come out with the sounds you’re singing, or do they come out separately? Or a little of both?
Nite Jewel: I appreciate your description. ‘Capturing abstract elements of real life in a direct way’ could practically sum up my background in writing. It’s true, in philosophy and in poetry (which I write secretly), the goal for me is to describe a very simple situation in a beautiful way and unearth the depth from the seemingly banal. Lyrics are pretty fast for me, usually. I tend to write them while figuring out the melody, and usually the entire song, weirdly. Like I’ll write two verses and a chorus and a bridge all together on paper while listening to the instruments, or sometimes without the music even having been written yet. I don’t overthink, I just imagine a situation and let the words come and trust that if I speak honestly and plainly then there will be no mistaking it for anything but the truth in that moment.
Julia Holter: I like the line ‘Until I decide / It’s alright’ (in ‘When I Decide (It’s Alright)’), but it’s like, is it alright? It’s like (saying) ‘I’m fine.’ I like that ambiguity.
“Being an artist… is like being in your own world constantly and not even thinking about other people” – Nite Jewel
Nite Jewel: The reluctance to let someone in. There are so many reasons to be in your own world these days, to be very closed off. Being an artist, which is like being in your own world constantly and not even thinking about other people, exasperates all these things. And so when you finally do let someone in it’s like, ‘Okay, sure come on in, I mean, whatever – if you can handle what’s happening in this mind.’
Julia Holter: Do you feel like it’s more intense now, these feelings of being different? Is it different now as a musician from when you were younger?
Nite Jewel: I think I was way more naïve and open to all sorts of people even though I was still paranoid and weird, but I think as I’ve carved out a space for myself that is safe – which is like, living here, making music, having a group of friends that I’ve known for ten years – it becomes harder and harder to genuinely open up to people, I guess. Also, with the music industry, in the amount of fast friends that are made and how quickly those things evaporate I think – you know, we talk about how you have to be careful with who you make friends with – but this song is more about letting someone you love in.
Julia Holter: Right, on a deeper level. Someone you should trust.
Nite Jewel: Yes, exactly. It’s like someone you should trust. Let’s say it is someone that you do trust, like your partner or closest friend, and you realise at some moment that you haven’t let them in yet. And that sort about knowing yourself.
Julia Holter: Yeah, I feel like I’ve been thinking a lot about that too – the way I communicate, hoping that I’m saying the right thing. It’s a personality trait of mine that I dislike, overthinking every communication. Which I think is why I’m sensitive and find parties exhausting, because it’s way too much communication to worry about. So I’m like, ‘What is it I’m really trying to say?’ But it’s not like I’m faking things. I’m always trying to assess people in this crazy way, but I’m so in my own head that I’m not very good at it. So it’s a completely weird idea and it’s like this insane feedback loop of craziness. I think there are (other) people like this, I think I’m not alone. I think it’s this weird personality trait that makes socialising really hard for me.
Nite Jewel: Was it hard to sing the ‘bop, bop, bops’ (in the song)?
Julia Holter: No. Well, yeah, technically it was hard because it was specific pitches, but I totally understood what you wanted. The ‘bop bops’ were very specific directions, but when you go ‘It’s alright, yeahhh,’ that whole swell is amazing. It’s so classic. It was like, that is what has to happen. I mean it was already there, but supplementing it had to happen.
Nite Jewel: It helped a lot. It made it more realised.
Julia Holter: We always have this nice blend, I think.
Nite Jewel: Definitely, always. So many years of blending.
Follow Selim Bulut on Twitter here @selbulut