Ramona Gonzalez Brings Academic Study to Nite Jewel with Comeback LP No Sun

Photo Credit: Tammy Nguyen

Nearly two weeks have passed since the release of No Sun, Ramona Gonzalez’s fifth full-length album as Nite Jewel, when Audiofemme catches up with the L.A.-based singer/composer/producer by phone. In that time, Gonzalez celebrated the release of her latest album with a hometown show at Zebulon, then crossed the country for a gig at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn. 

“It was kind of weird, honestly, to perform in a live venue space,” says Gonzalez by phone. “With COVID and everything, I hadn’t been used to being around that many people. Also, I hadn’t performed in three years and I’ve definitely never performed my new songs.” It took a lot of preparation, she says, plus plenty of focus, to make those shows a reality. “Just figuring out even the basic execution of doing these songs live was a lot,” she says. 

On No Sun, Gonzalez leans into the lament. Among her goals was an ambition to make an album that was less closely associated with dance music as her previous efforts have been. Here, she flexes the breadth of her skills, from the rich electronic layers of “Anymore” to the gentle groove of her cover of Sun Ra’s “When There Is No Sun.” 

Gonzalez began work on the album in early 2018 and spent about half a year playing with instrumentation that she had in mind for the new body of work. By that summer, her life was in flux. She split up with her partner and moved out of their home. At the same time, she began writing lyrics for the album. Then, two months later, she entered UCLA’s prestigious musicology department to begin her PhD. “It was a lot, but I kind of thrive in chaos,” she says. “I’ve always been sort of surrounded by chaotic situations, ever since I was growing up. I’ve used music as a way to center myself and I know that I can handle it.”

She adds, “In a way, having that PhD program as a landing pad, just having to be somewhere every day, really helped my struggle with how depressed I felt, how sad I felt. It centered me.”

Her headspace at the time no doubt played into the area of interest she gravitated toward academically. “At first, it was just the idea of women singing sad songs, like pop stars doing so, and why nobody really writes about that in musicology,” she says. “Of course, I had been writing sad songs myself, so I would be interested in my own process of writing No Sun.”

Gonzalez began by looking at the global tradition of female laments, where much has been written. Academic work focused on contemporary pop laments, though, were lacking. “I thought to myself, maybe I need to fill that gap and maybe I could use No Sun as a way to help me think about the creative process for these singers,” she says. “It was almost like the studies reflected back on my album and I was able to see it in a new light and see the different layers in it and analyze it as a musical case study almost.”

It’s subject matter that would resonate with anyone who follows 20th and 21st century popular music. Think a minute about dance floor anthems, like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” or Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” They can be incredibly sad, but they still drive people together on the floor, dancing like it’s a way to free themselves of their own pain. “It’s almost culturally inscribed into our human DNA to utilize songs of women singing about their grief to process our own collective grief. That is something that has always been true, since forever,” says Gonzalez. “It’s not culturally specific, it exists in every single culture. It’s a ritual practice that is performed all over the world.”

Even in the modern world, that holds true. “In the popular imagination, the dance club is kind of like a church and when you play these songs that are really about anguish, we have the reflexive knowledge to process our grief when we hear them.”

Gonzalez studied the tropes or signals that musicians use to prompt listeners to recognize sadness in song. She was able to take that knowledge and apply it to her own music. An example she mentions is “Before I Go,” the second song on the album. “I wasn’t thinking about what lament trope am I going to put into the song or anything like that,” she says. Upon reflection, though, Gonzalez noticed that she had invoked the kind of progression that might indicate a lament or dirge. “I didn’t know it at the time that I was doing that, but that’s where my hands went and that’s a testament to the fact that these tropes are part of what musicians do to communicate an emotion or affect,” she says.

As Gonzalez continued to refine the album through 2019, she also began teaching songwriting at Occidental College in Los Angeles. At the time, she was taking students through the fundamentals of songwriting as illustrated through various musical eras. Meanwhile, as a musician, she was taking a different approach. “At least for me, I’m bursting open the whole idea of what I thought a song was,” she says of No Sun.

Her experiments worked. For one thing, Gonzalez surmises that the album has prompted listeners to take notice of her composition and production skills. “It’s a nice feeling that people recognize that,” she says, adding that overall reaction to her latest collection has been good.

“It doesn’t seem like anybody misunderstood the record,” she says. “Even if they didn’t like it, or it didn’t resonate with them, it doesn’t seem like it was misunderstood, which has happened to me a lot in the past.” On No Sun, Gonzalez has managed to bridge the gaps between academic study, creativity, and emotional intelligence to continue the lineage of the lament in her own way, and in so doing, has tapped into an instantly recognizable facet of the human condition.

Follow Nite Jewel on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

TRACK OF THE WEEK: Nite Jewel “Real High”

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Photo by Leo García

For those of us still recovering from yesterday’s unofficial holiday, the latest track from L.A.-based singer/songwriter/producer Ramona Gonzalez – better known as Nite Jewel – holds some definite promise for coming down. “Real High” is the title track from Nite Jewel’s forthcoming album, which she’ll release via her own imprint, Gloriette Records, on May 5th. The track’s languorous, barely-there beat trickles through the sidereal composition, all luminous synths and Gonzalez’s breathy, pensive lyrics.

Along with the single comes the announcement that Nite Jewel will tour for the first time in five years. Sidelined after splitting from Secretly Canadian following the release of 2012’s One Second of Love, Gonzalez wanted more control over her music, and though it took her a moment to regain her bearings, she’s been prolific since starting her own label – Real High comes on the heels of last year’s burbling Liquid Cool and a duet EP with Dâm-Funk. Real High will also get a companion EP courtesy of electro label Italians Do It Better. The 12″ is called Obsession and will feature remixes and b-sides from the Real High sessions.

“Real High” feels especially reflective of Gonzalez’s search for greater artistic control couched in the symbolism of romantic love’s ups and downs; its relaxed vibe belies a proactive longing for more at the song’s heart. Gonzalez cited Janet Jackson’s ’90s R&B albums as a sonic touchstone for the record, and on “Real High,” she makes sly references to the iconic singles from Janet’s 1993 eponymous album every time she sings “Isn’t that the way love goes?” Gonzalez is lost in her own interior dialogue, but something tells us she’ll emerge from her reverie ready to take on the world.

Listen to “Real High” below, pre-order the album via bandcamp, and catch Nite Jewel this summer on her massive tour (dates listed after the video).

Nite Jewel Tour Dates:
5-20 – Los Angeles, CA – The Getty Center
5-24 – Bucharest, RO – Control Club
5-25 – Vienna, AT – Hyperreality
5-26 – Rome, IT – Spring Attitude Festival
5-27 – Ancona, IT – Loop
5-28 – Padova, IT – Student Summer Festival
5-29 – Livomo, IT – Aurora
5-30 – Bologna, IT – Freakout
5-31 – Milan – Secret Showcase
6-01 – Baden, CH – Werkk
6-04 – London, UK – Camden Assembly
6-08 – Paris, FR – Le Point Ephemere
6-09 – Amsterdam, NL – Paradiso
6-10 – Rotterdam, NL – V11
7-07 – San Francisco, CA – Rickshaw Stop *
7-08 – Portland OR – Doug Fir *
7-09 – Seattle WA – Barboza *
7-11 – Vancouver, BC – Fox Cabaret *
7-13 – Boise, ID – Neurolux *
7-14 – Salt Lake City, UT – Urban Lounge *
7-17 – Denver, CO – Lost Lake *
7-18 – Minneapolis, MN – 7th St Entry *
7-19 – Chicago, IL – Chop Stop *
7-20 – Grand Rapids, MI – The Pyramid Scheme *
7-21 – Toronto, ON – Baby G *
7-22 – Montreal, QC – Vitrola *
7-25 – Burlington, VT – Arts Riot *
7-26 – Boston, MA – ONCE *
7-27 – Brooklyn NY – BK Bazaar *
7-28 – Philadelphia, PA – Johnny Brenca’s *
7-29 – Washington, DC – Rock n Roll Hotel *
7-31 – Atlanta, GA – Masquerade *
8-01 – New Orleans, LA – Gasa Gasa *
8-04 – Austin, TX – Sidewinder *
8-05 – McCallen, TX – Yerberia Cultura *
8-10 – Phoenix, AZ – Crescent Ballroom *
8-11 – San Diego, CA – Casbah *
8-12 – Los Angeles, CA – Teragram Ballroom *

* w/ Geneva Jacuzzi & Harriet Brown[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Baby’s First SXSW: Friday

Friday dawned with a frenetic anxiety brought on by the odd sensation that all of the fun I was having was coming to an end. From a pessimistic point of view, my time in Austin was half over. Though I’d not totally squandered the preceding days the list of bands I wanted to see still seemed a mile long. I tried to be positive, reminding myself of the two golden days that remained, and with serious fervor began to check those bands off the list.

First, the RhapsodyRocks party at Club DeVille. The line-up was great, but comprised mostly of bands I’d seen once or twice. However, the internet radio-sponsored showcase was also throwing around free beer, beer coozies, sunglasses, and cowbells, so that increased my desire to stick around.
I’d caught Tanlines most recently at last October’s CMJ, where they’d debuted a lot of new material. Again, most of the set list was comprised of songs from the Brooklyn duo’s recently released album Mixed Emotions, and not only are Eric Emm and Jesse Cohen growing more comfortable with these tracks, their pride in this latest work is readily apparent.
I hadn’t seen Washed Out since the previous summer and, much like Tanlines, know Ernest Greene to reliably deliver a great show. It had been almost two years since I’d seen Zola Jesus, during which time she’d released her most outstanding material, so I was psyched for her contribution to the showcase. BUT I also knew that over at the Mess With Texas warehouse, Purity Ring would be gearing up for a set I couldn’t miss. I’d been dying to see them since their release of two amazing singles “Ungirthed” (w/ b-side “Lofticries”) and “Belispeak” but I hadn’t been able to to make it to their last NYC performances. I couldn’t resist; all I could do was hope that I’d make it back in time for Zola.
Purity Ring’s lyrically morbid but insanely catchy pop songs are constructed with two basic building blocks: Megan James’ lilting, slightly coquetteish vocals, and the production of Corrin Roddick, who in a live setting mans a table of percussive lights and electronic devices. While I was definitely starting to see this delegation of music making responsibility repeated in band after band, Purity Ring went a few steps further with the addition of a captivating light show that took place before brightly-hued red, orange and teal curtains. The backdrops are illuminated by spotlights, turning James and Roddick into ghostly silhouettes. James is in charge of pounding an elevated bass drum at dramatic intervals, and as she does so, it lights up like a full moon. She also swings a mechanic’s utility light around her head, though in a controlled rather than erratic fashion. But most impressive are the tiered lights which respond to taps and tones within the songs, framing Roddick’s mixing table. They shift from red to purple to blue to yellow to orange, glowing through the crowd like psychedelic fireflies attempting to attract the trippiest mate.
While all of this was exciting to watch, the songs were the real draw. Purity Ring has kept their material close to the chest, selectively releasing only three songs thus far and not a note more. I had to know if they could keep up the seething momentum those infectious pop gems had created long enough to release an album that wasn’t just filler, and I have to say that I was not disappointed. Each offering was carefully constructed, mysterious yet up-tempo enough to dance to, and not just an extension of the sound they’d already built such buzz on, but a perfect showcase for their strongest assets. There’s no release date set for the Canadian duo’s full-length LP, but if the SXSW performances are any indication we can expect more enigmatic lyrics layered with deceptively joyous melodies and a healthy dose of R&B-influenced bounce.
At this point, Zola Jesus was just beginning her set back at Club DeVille, but again I was faced with a dilemma. Over at the Hotel Vegas compound, BrooklynVegan was hosting a noteworthy showcase of their own, and two bands I had yet to see were slated for the afternoon – Craft Spells and Tennis.
Hotel Vegas is comprised of two small conjoined lounges, one of which is named Cafe Volstead and has some really swanky taxidermy mounted on equally swanky wallpaper. As part of the takeover, BrooklynVegan had also erected an outdoor stage, upon which snappy London-based foursome Django Django were banging out an energetic, joyful set, wearing eccentrically patterned shirts reflective of their generally quirky pop. It might have been the mixing but the live set seemed to be lacking some of the more creative percussion and synth techniques present in the band’s popular singles “Waveform” and “Default”.  The songs came across as pretty nonchalant, summery pop a la The Beach Boys, whom the band has often drawn comparisons to.
Meanwhile, Inside Hotel Vegas, the dark and pounding rhythms of Trust were a stark contrast to the daylight scorching the earth outside. I’d seen Robert Alfons perform solo under his Trust moniker as opening act for Balam Acab last November, and the set was pretty similar despite having some additional band members this time around. Alfons grips the mic and leans toward the audience as though he is begging an executioner for his life. His vocals sound like they’re dripping down the back of his throat, which I mean in a good way; in a higher register that same voice can sound nasal, though even then it’s often tempered by the pummeling beats that typify Trust’s music. What I find really fascinating about Trust is that while these jams have all the glitz and grunge of 90’s club scorchers, Alfons consistently looks as if he’s just rolled out of bed without bothering to comb his hair or change his sweatpants. Circa 1995, if you heard these songs on the radio you could pretty much assume they were made by muscular men in tight, shiny clothing and leather, or at least some guy wearing eyeliner. It’s not necessarily true that a vocalists’ style has any import on the music itself, and let’s face it, not everyone can be the dude from Diamond Rings. But I find myself a little worried about Alfons; he looks like he’s going to slit his wrists in a bathtub the second he walks off stage, and given the caliber of the songs on debut LP TRST, that would really suck.
Trust’s set was dank and sludgy in all the right ways, so I almost forgot it was mid-afternoon; I emerged from the dark revery to see Denver-based husband-and-wife duo Tennis setting up. Joined by two additional musicians on drums and synths, Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley were picture-perfect; Alaina’s tiny frame exploded in a poof of feathery hair and her tall, hunky husband looked like he would put down his guitar any second and hoist her in his beefy arms. It’s not hard to imagine these two as Prom King & Queen. Their sophomore albumYoung and Old, out now on Fat Possum Records, shows quite a growth spurt from 2011’s Cape Dory, an album mainly concerned with breezy, beachy anthems (it was inspired by a sailing trip the couple took). Both thematically and lyrically, Tennis have shored things up without losing their pop sensibilities. Their set was shortened by a late set-up but toothache sweet, mostly drawing on songs from the new record and closing with a lively rendition of lead single “Origins”.
Craft Spells played amidst the glassy-eyed mounted animals of Cafe Volstead, and I was beyond excited to see them play. I’ve followed the band since they began releasing singles in 2009 and was thoroughly pleased with last year’s Idle Labor, which included updates of those early demos and drew upon them to create a cohesive 80’s-inspired synth-pop gem. Craft Spells nimbly translated the buoyant feel of favorites like “You Should Close The Door” and “Party Talk”; heavy-lidded crooner Justin Vallesteros seemed less the sensitive, socially awkward recluse implied by some of his more heartsick lyrics, fearlessly surveying the crowd and blissfully bopping to his own hooky melodies. The boyish good looks of all four bandmates had at least one lady (me) swooning in the audience, wanting to somehow smuggle them out of the venue in my pockets.
I was right down the street from Cheer Up Charlie’s, a brightly painted heap of cinder blocks hunched in a dusty lot on E 6th where electronic mastermind Dan Deacon would soon be unpacking his gadgetry. First, I stopped at an adjacent food truck trailer park and ate what I deemed “Best SXSW Sandwich” – The Gonzo Juice truck’s pulled pork roast with carrot slaw, gobs of schiracha cream sauce, and spicy mustard piled on (what else?) Texas Toast. This obviously isn’t a food blog, but as I sat at the crowded picnic table I had a definite SXSW moment; across from me some guys were talking about shows they’d played earlier and shows they were playing later in the week. I sat there reveling in deliciousness and simultaneously trying to figure out what band they were in based on venues and time slots. While for most part everyone SXSW is in nonstop party mode, many of the musicians play two and sometimes three sets a day, and then find time to go to their friends’ shows. And despite all of the gear they have to haul and strained vocal chords and hangover headaches, these guys talked excitedly about contributing to that experience. Not that I didn’t before, but I really found myself appreciating that energy and enthusiasm; the passion and drive of the musicians who come to Austin this particular week in March is the biggest factor as to why SXSW is so exhilarating.

Speaking of enthusiasm, if you’ve ever seen Dan Deacon live then you’re well aware of the level of energy necessary to survive one of his sets (and if you haven’t, seriously, what are you waiting for?). Deacon’s densely layered electronic arrangements provide a backdrop for the zany activities that he introduces between the songs. His instructions can include interpretive dance contests, high fives, mimicry, and sometimes chanting. He’ll either divide the audience into specific sections or ask the audience to make a circle, introduces a concept, and then pretty much everyone joins in the fun, because the main draw of a Dan Deacon show is the wacky outcome of hipster pretentiousness falling away. Deacon does this at every show, making the antics typical by now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, because in all of us there is this hyperactive five-year-old who just wants to eat a bunch of candy and jump around forever and ever, and these shows cater to that exuberant inner child. He has a knack for turning an audience from spectators into participants, and with the shift from the traditional singer-guitar-drummer-bassist band model into a more experimental, electronic-driven realm, where it’s sometimes just one guy on stage with a computer, being able to do that is paramount. Though Deacon is normally backed by multiple drummers and a bevy of live musicians, one unique aspect of this particular performance was that Deacon was flying solo, so it’s a good thing he’s been honing his audience involvement skills for a long time. He didn’t even perform on the stage provided, but in the pit of dust with everyone crowding around him – the bizarro ringleader of an impromptu circus. While Deacon claimed to hate playing SXSW, no one saw true evidence of such – he seemed rather like he was enjoying himself. He introduced some new material, which was promising considering the fact that his last release, Bromst, is by now three years old. His next release, a first on new label Domino, is slated to drop sometime this year.

I was pretty excited about the awesome acts lined up for The Hype Machine’s crazy “Hype Hotel” endeavor. I’m not sure what the space is normally used for, but they seemed to have a good thing going in the mid-sized building; there was often a line to get inside that stretched around the block. I’d RSVP’d and was particularly excited for that evening’s show – Neon Indian opening for Star Slinger, guaranteed to result in an insane dance party. Unfortunately, RSVPing didn’t matter since by the time I went to pick up my gimmicky little “key card” and wristband, they’d run out, and I was therefore shit out of luck. Since trying and failing to get into the Jesus & Mary Chain show the night before had taught me a valuable lesson about not wasting time at SXSW, I shrugged my shoulders about it (it helped that I’d already seen both acts prior to SXSW) and decided to choose from one of the 2,015,945,864,738 other bands playing.

One of those bands was Nite Jewel, Mona Gonzalez’s solo project fleshed out by a couple of guys and a badass lady drummer. I’ve remained sort of undecided about whether I really like Nite Jewel’s music; though the dreamy pop songs are not in and of themselves particularly divisive, the music sometimes falls flat for me. I’ll listen for a minute, ask myself if I really like it, think that I do, decide that I don’t, turn it off, then inevitably revisit it. But there are two reasons I’m siding in favor of Nite Jewel once and for all. For one thing, her newest record One Second Of Love is brimming with sublime pop nuggets that amplify all the best aspects of Mona’s tunes. There’s still a dreamy minimalist quality, but the songs are less lo-fi and more straightforward, more accessible. The second reason I’m now an official Nite Jewel fan is that her show was fantastic. Part of the eclecticWax Poetics bill, Mona rocked the line-up with cutesy energy and just the right amount of kitsch. She danced around next to her keyboards like the heroine of an eighties movie might dance alone in her bedroom, and that’s really the quality that imbues all the tracks on her latest offering, and the biggest draw in listening to them. Since the equipment set up had taken a little longer than expected, her set was short, though to her credit Mona begged the sound tech to let her keep going, reminding him that “They’re pop songs they’re short”. While it’s true that these inspired bursts of affection issue forth in a gauzy blur, they are far from simple pop songs, driven by her distinct personality and sound.

On my way to meet up with Annie at the S.O. Terik showcase in the the neighborhood, I had to stop by Status Clothing, a 6th Street storefront where 9-year old phenom DJ BabyChino was on the turntables. Billed as the World’s Youngest DJ, BabyChino is nothing if not adorable, dressed like many of his forebears in the requisite urban garb but in much, much smaller sizes, and sporting large, plastic-rimmed glasses on his shaved head. He’s Vegas-based but has toured the world, though he had to stand on a raised platform just to reach his turntables and laptop. Every once in a while, he’d mouth the words to the old school hip-hop he was spinning, elevating his badass status but still made me want to say “awww”, which is something I’ve not said of any other DJ, performer, or producer, ever. He drew quite a crowd of gawkers, and because most of them were watching from outside the glass windows of the storefront I started wondering if this little guy felt less like a DJ and more like a taxidermied antelope at the Museum of Natural History. I also wondered at what age BabyChino will want to drop the “baby” from his name, and will make his mom stop leaving notes in his lunchbox.

I wandered far down Red River into the woodsy area between downtown proper and the river, filled with leafy, down-home bars. As I meandered about, looking for some friends I was meeting up with, I heard Gardens & Villa performing “Orange Blossom” at one of the bars. This song gives me shivers of springtime joy; Gardens & Villa is one of those bands I kind of ignored for a while, not for any reason other than I simply can’t hear everything, but at this point I’m super excited for their debut record to drop and was really hoping to catch one of their sets while in Austin. My timing was perfect in that regard but I honestly couldn’t figure out which bar they were playing or how to get in to see them. I had a decent-ish view from the street, even if my short stature made seeing over the fence difficult. I could hear the band just fine and their sound was spot on. However, since this set up made me feel like a weirdo stalker and I had promised to meet up with my posse, I moved on.
Clive Bar had a sprawling multilevel patio that is probably very nice when there aren’t bands squished awkwardly into a tiny area making it impossible to view the stage and impossible to move through the cramped crowd. Because Annie is the shit and had a raw hookup we hung out in this “Green Room” area that was really more of a log cabin bungalow to the side of the stage. A really gnarly painting of a nude lady with a rabbit’s head was mounted on the ceiling; all around her were bunnies in various stages of Boschian copulations but rendered in a comic-book style. We slugged beers in this secret, magical little den while New Build played their poppy indie jams. Everything New Build does sounds like it could be soundtracking some cheesy movie – whether it’s funky 70’s espionage flicks or 80’s roadtrip rom coms. I don’t know if that’s really a bad thing, especially since they tackle that task with flair and aplomb. But I also have to admit that I wasn’t paying a lot of attention, mesmerized as I was by all the bunny sex going on in the painting above my head, and the two semi-obnoxious girls arm-wrestling because (I guess) they thought it would impress whatever dudes were around. Plus, New Build are some pretty unassuming dudes; they all wore nondescript tees in neutral colors, sported prerequisite beards (not that you’ll ever hear me complain about a beard), and gave the impression that they were there solely to play some songs in as understated a fashion as possible. Which they did.

When Grimes took the stage we were able to stand in the photo bay, giving us a great view of the bizarro-pop goddess. Maybe I should mention that I have a total girlcrush on Claire Boucher (if I haven’t already elsewhere on this blog), a crush which (dark)bloomed last summer when I saw her open for Washed Out. Unfortunately Boucher was not having a good night – the equipment at the venue was half-busted, and her voice was fast disappearing with the strain of singing in showcase after showcase, making it difficult for her to hit the falsettos omnipresent in her tunes. She swore a lot, but she was the only one who truly seemed to mind all the technical difficulties – everyone else was enthralled by her, dance-marching in her futuristic get-up, tucking her mic between her shoulder and her cheek while twisting knobs or plinking keyboard notes. While I want to keep Grimes and her quirky woodland-sprite magic all to myself, I’m glad everyone is as head over heels for her as I am, because she is a true artist. The second you write her off as some half-baked weirdo, she throws out some deep metaphysical theme, or else she’s chronicling her difficulties with intimacy in a way that’s every bit as real and accessible as someone who’s half as cool. I could go on, but I’m already embarrassing myself.




Since I was working on my own death cough it was time to call it a night. My final day in Austin was upon me, and I’d finally redeemed myself, in the nick of time.