Ramona Gonzalez is crouched below a diner counter inside Alma at the Standard Hollywood hotel, gleefully flipping through her records. Gonzalez, best known for her funky synth-pop project Nite Jewel, has been DJing at the restaurant on Tuesday evenings in May. It's a collision of interests for her; she worked as a server in her pre-music days and remains passionate about food and drink. Alma even has a cocktail named after Nite Jewel, a mix of rye, bitters, Fernet and shrub with a cherry on top, based on her personal taste. "It's very booze-forward," Gonzalez says.
But it's music that really gets Gonzalez chatting. Her pulls for this night are an eclectic mix of new and old, experimental and pop: Kendrick Lamar, Aphex Twin, Madonna, Tears for Fears. The Cocteau Twins' Heaven or Las Vegas is a favorite, but she points to Bill Nelson, a British musician best known for the 1980 single "Do You Dream in Colour?," as one of her greatest influences. "Never really recognized in his time."
Peeking into Gonzalez's DJ selections reveals more about her music than could a review of Nite Jewel's latest album, Liquid Cool, out on June 10. She doesn't think about songs in terms of genre. "I think that's what's confusing to certain critics and fans alike," she says.
She does, however, gravitate to a certain era of music, falling roughly between 1978 and 1982, when synthesizers added new textures to everything from Top 40 to underground acts, and the bass lines were often thick and funky, regardless of what scene you called home. Gonzalez's Nite Jewel catalog reflects hours spent listening to the music of that era, exhibiting the influence of early-'80s roller-rink jams and former college-radio darlings.
She talks about the overlooked connections between artists, such as the shared producers and session musicians and the use of similar instruments. You can tell she has spent a lot of time thinking and talking about this. There's something very studious about her approach. Indeed, she considered going into academia before heeding the call of music.
Born in Oakland and raised primarily in nearby Berkeley, Gonzalez had played in bands before, but it wasn't until she landed in Los Angeles in 2006 that Nite Jewel took shape. While studying at Occidental College, she took up an interest in sound installation and started making music in galleries. Eventually, she added her voice to the sonic experiments, and that evolved into Nite Jewel.
Gonzalez released several Nite Jewel projects through her own Gloriette Records, as well as on hip labels like Italians Do It Better, Mexican Summer and Secretly Canadian. But when it came time to make her third Nite Jewel full-length, she hit a creative block. The solution: Revisit her past.
While working on Liquid Cool, Gonzalez went back through her work — two full-lengths, three EPs and an assortment of other tunes — to find the link between them. She asked herself. "What is the Nite Jewel sound?"
"It's painful, but you've got to do it," Gonzalez says of listening to her older work. "It's the grown-up artist thing to do." She grabbed some whiskey and a pair of headphones, holed herself up in a walk-in closet and started listening.
The results weren't as bad as the thought of taking on the task. "I was really proud of myself at the end," she says.
The catalog playback came in the midst of an arduous recording process. Gonzalez started working on Liquid Cool after the release of her 2012 album, One Second of Love. In that time, she estimates that she wrote enough material to fill at least three full-length albums. It was a productive three-year period but a frustrating one as well. "I was having a lot of difficulty with it," she says. "I didn't know where I was going exactly."
In a way, that goes back to her taste in music. "I have such a love of music history and music that I can really go into a lot of different directions," Gonzalez says. At one point, she thought she had a finished album, but realized that the new work wasn't what Nite Jewel should be doing. "I would tour the songs and play them and it felt really, like, there was something not exactly right about it." She tried collaborating with her husband, producer Cole M. Greif-Neill (with whom she has previously worked), and other musicians. Still, there was something amiss.
Gonzalez realized that she needed to make the album on her own. "I just need to get back to that intimate, personal way that Nite Jewel first became known, which is this woman who is alone in a room expressing herself and thinking no one is going to hear."
Giving herself one more shot at making a record, she hauled a few key pieces of gear — including an 8-track recorder and her Juno synthesizers — into her walk-in closet and got to work. She estimates that it took "seven or eight months" to make Liquid Cool, which she started in a closet in Solano Canyon and finished in another closet in Koreatown.
To release the album, Gonzalez chose to return to her own Gloriette Records. She initially launched the imprint in 2008 and, when Nite Jewel was working with other labels, used Gloriette to release a 12-inch from her husband's project Samps and collaborate with Companion Records on a Stan Hubbs reissue.
"The dream of an artist is to be on a label, not your own but somebody else's," Gonzalez says. "They're going to give you money, tell you you're great and put pictures of you on their wall and all this kind of shit."
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Even though she had some success with Gloriette, she held onto that common goal of getting signed. "I wasn't able to appreciate at the time my random business acumen that I had," she says. "I was just wanting something more."
When she did get a deal, with indie label Secretly Canadian, it wasn't what she expected. "It was an interesting window into what that dream really looks like for an artist," she says. "It's not that interesting. It's not very much different from doing it yourself, except that you have all these people that you have to respond to and cater to in some respects."
She says that there was "no bad blood"; she's just not one to take directives from labels. "I think that I couldn't relinquish control to them," she says.
Now Gonzalez is back in control. That much is obvious as the first of the early-bird diners settles into Alma. Gonzalez is setting the soundtrack for the night. She plays "Sound and Vision" from David Bowie's 1977 Low. It's classic Bowie, existing in some space where genre doesn't exist, where it's OK for artists to avoid being pigeonholed. In some ways, it sounds a lot like Nite Jewel.