“We’re going to play our hit song,” Ramona Gonzalez says, leaning into her mic as the last syllable of “ong-ong-ong” echoes throughout the cramped confines of New York’s Other Music record store in the East Village and a standing-room-only audience. With synth-playing and sampler-triggering partner Emily Jane beside her, the two short, dark-haired girls comprise the live entity of Nite Jewel. And Nite Jewel’s “hit” is “What Did He Say,” pressed up first on Glass Candy’s vanity label Italians Do It Better and now on Nite Jewel’s debut album, Good Evening (released by L.A.-based Human Ear Music). As the shuddering drum hit ricochets around and turns into a washed-out but still mesmeric rhythm, the two girls — both bedecked in cheap turquoise sunglasses — begin an unconscious sway. It’s as if they were still holed up in their preteen bedrooms, dancing around in their nightshirts and singing into a hairbrush, not performing in front of astute record-store clerks and other music cognoscenti in the heart of New York City.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here! I have so much work to do!” Gonzalez exclaims aloud in a Japanese speakeasy after the in-store, her hands thrown up in exasperation, revealing not just the threadbare elbows on her snug black sweater, but also an El DeBarge button deftly pinned to her lapel. Gonzalez is on spring break, touring the country with her friends and label mates Glass Candy along the East Coast before she returns home to finish her paper on the ontology of mass art for her bachelor’s in philosophy at Occidental College. “I can’t finish it, because I can’t focus. My everyday life is informed with this paper, that’s the big problem with it,” she admits, perusing the menu and its myriad cocktails, all named after John Coltrane compositions. Somehow she decides on one not named after him.
“When I was in college in New York, I was taking music for film class, listening to these minimalist composers and nonvocal music,” Gonzalez explains about her first musical loves. “All during those times, I couldn’t listen to vocal music and study, so I started investigating different things I could listen to: Brian Eno, Terry Riley, jazz, and then I started listening to New Age-y stuff. It’s still something I go back to when I’m trying to have my brain work a little better.” She was particularly taken with a sound installation by artist Julianne Swartz from the Whitney Museum’s 2004 Biennial, a series of tubes conducting disembodied voices both young and aged, all singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” over and over again, creating an ethereal, escapist sort of fantasia.
Gonzalez and her husband bounced between metropolises, before finally alighting in Los Angeles at the end of 2005. “I was in all these bands, with lots of boys and rock bands, in L.A., Berkeley and New York. But I was feeling I needed to do my own thing,” she explains. “I was confused artistically when I first moved to L.A. [and] just wanted to start doing sound installations.” She began by layering ambient synth tracks to her 8-track, only to realize one day: “Fuck an installation! I’m not a visual artist. I suck at this. I’m just going do music and sing over these songs.”
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Gonzalez was also enchanted by two L.A.-based artists: Tom Recchion of the crucial ’70s art collective Los Angeles Free Music Society (“For me, Recchion is a whole other level”), and Ariel Pink. “I was a completely naïve listener, 100 percent open, and Ariel just penetrated my brain and soul,” she gushes. “I moved to L.A. for a variety of reasons, and one of them is Ariel. His music is so-o-o good; it was the best thing to come out of my generation, ever.”
Listening to Good Evening, it’s not hard to hear just how indebted Gonzalez is to the introverted, home-recorded sound world that Pink has made his own over the past decade. Not unlike Pink, Nite Jewel’s music is infused with this uncanny sound — slightly moldered and washed out — as if lost to time. Though it’s hard to call it nostalgic (it does recall dimness and a Vaseline-smeared lens), it does sound like an odd blend of the idiosyncratic Kate Bush and freestyle legend Debbie Deb, welded together and piped in from a parallel world. Only, while Pink can make that sound so distant and lost on record, Nite Jewel somehow conveys the same disconcerting sensation live.
“When Ariel plays by himself, he’s being polemical about it,” Gonzalez says to contrast their different approaches. “I’m not like that. I like to please people. I like things to be pleasant in terms of sonic textures. What’s subversive are my lyrics, my personality, but in terms of sonic textures, I really like to give people this nice, soft sound.” Nite Jewel emphasizes the midrange both at home and onstage; its music remains a curious thing, warm, inviting, yet distant, sounding like it emanates from both her bedroom and from a time long lost.
Nite Jewel performs at the Smell on Thursday, May 28.