I was expecting Ramona Gonzalez, the lead singer and songwriter behind the Nite Jewel moniker, to have the air of someone who could tell you which '70s studio musicians ended up on which Steely Dan albums if you gave her a drink and a few seconds to think – the kind of woman who might show up as a fast talker in film noir or the dreams I have where I'm Max Payne with infinite bullet time. Instead, I chatted with a peaceful, patient student of philosophy who was still coloring in a vision years in the making.
Like many of her colleagues, she returns to sounds previously forbidden by their lack of cred to the untrained ear (it's sad how hard I'm trying to avoid saying “80s”). Ramona reveres the aspects of culture that, in her mind, were thrown away too quickly, or were misunderstood. When we met up on the phone in early December, the title track from her forthcoming – now newly released – album, One Second of Love had recently been BNT'd, but she was more concerned with longer-term quests. Most important among them was smoothly reconciling a relationship between her songcraft and her newly available resources that was subtle, soulful, and sophisticated.
Do you see this new album as a culminating work for yourself?
It is sort of how we envisioned things from the beginning, I feel like we were working for the past two years on something and we hoped the total would be great. And when I talk about we, I mean myself and my husband Cole [M.G.N.] We collaborated on this record together. I do a lot of stuff on my own, but with this record Cole and I did a lot of recording together in the beginning stages. We recorded at a friend's studio and did a lot of improvisation early on together. That's why a lot of these songs were definitely written equally between us. Eventually it evolved more towards myself writing and then Cole taking on the finer details as a producer. We have a psychic, unspoken way of communicating; we've been working together for seven years at this point.
Is there any talk of a Haunted Graffiti collaboration?
Well, Cole's always in touch with those guys, we're good friends. We shared the album with them while we were creating it. I'm sure that Cole will be involved in whatever way with that project. It's kind of a boys club over there, though (laughs). It's not really something I feel like I can contribute to – and I don't really want to either. They're one of my favorite bands and I'd rather just be a fan.
How did you link with Secretly Canadian?
They were actually the first label to ever express interest in my music. They reached out to me about four years ago, so we've been in touch for a very long time. Over the course of that, some people will stick to you, know your catalogue. Those are often the best people to work with you on new stuff.
What are some of your non-musical influences? What moods or topics are particularly inspiring?
I'm kind of perpetually rifling through the same things. I have very specific interests in literature and philosophy. A friend of mine just explained and exposed me to the whole Lars von Trier catalogue and that was definitely enlightening. I like to read and keep up with the main philosophy that has inspired this record for me.
You studied philosophy in school right?
Yeah, it's kinda nerdy but it's something that I love. I was trying to find a quote for someone from a Heidegger essay and I was like “ah, I know this quote is somewhere in my undergrad thesis.” I was rifling through papers trying to find it and all this stuff I studied and was writing about is so pertinent to this record and what I'm thinking about now. I wrote about the aesthetics of art and technology – very pertinent to most breaking music right now, I think.
Can you tell me more?
Yeah! My thesis was entitled “The Ontology of Mass Art”, with mass art being anything that's widely disseminated – MP3s would be a perfect example. I was trying to understand how we could say something that is so widely enjoyed is largely deemed unworthy of actual “art” status, which was true for pop art until very recently in history. Philosophers, as a whole, seem to argue that that is art, but for so long that just wasn't true. Musicians, we're like the bottom of the barrel in terms of artists – we work our asses off, we have to tour, make music, and we're still largely considered to be these mass-marketed things. It's not like we're put into a high class of art unless we're overtly experimental or do things that appeal to higher class pretenses. In my essay, the idea is that those preconceptions are a result of the relationship that art and technology have. Technology is seen as something that is directly opposed to art from certain people's perspectives. Or, for example, from Heidegger's perspective it isn't inherently wrong, but we deal with it in a way that is really debased. We end up engaging in technology in these really banal, capitalist ways – very true for many people. Just look at Facebook. And everything ends up being about money and ego, so it's about how we can make art in this technological age where we have these really poor relationships with our own devices. Heidegger's basic response is that art should be confronting technology, opening up a dialogue with it, trying to work with it as opposed to having a passive relationship or pretending that it doesn't exist, trying to master it in some way. I'm always thinking about how I can talk about my own era – it's not like I'm trying to write the same songs that were written ages ago, because we're in a different time. I think it's important for artists to address the time that we're actually in, whether through arrangment, lyrics, or whatever method they choose.
This seems all too relevant to the opening lyric of your album, “I'm a broken record / you have heard this before.” Especially given how well that would fit in with these constant conversations about appropriation and nostalgia.
Yeah, I mean what do people think? That we're supposed to create a path of new newness? How can we do that when we're at the will of an already existing path? How can we do that when we're at the whim of technology that we don't understand and refuse to use in a powerful way? We are stuck so far behind everything, we are not looking into the future. A lot of it is so superficial; talking about empirical ideas about things that are happening but never saying the meaning of those things. Meaning is very important to me, and that may sound trite, but it's just about what all this history means for me personally, what it could mean for someone else, and how I could use this music to connect us across borders. It's connecting people that are so disparate through this awareness of the meaning of music in these different times. I feel like that goes so far beyond what ends up being said. That kind of discussion in books like Retromania or whatever only scratches the surface. You can't say there's “good” nostalgia and there's “bad” nostalgia, and this is how either is used. That's the opposite of rigorous argument. There's something that Ariel [Pink] said that kind of relates to all of this: the concept of being “retro-licious.” That, to me, is what I love about certain music. You take all the best parts of these ear candy moments of yore and throwing it into new material for the pleasure of people who know those references.
And why should any concept be thrown out so quickly? A lot of these sounds were in vogue for the first time very recently in the grand scheme of things.
We're moving at an amazing pace now.
It's frighteningly wasteful. All of these things are deemed old before they're even done being born.
That's another thing Heidegger talks about, when we fail to become aware enough of these past forms of technology – pieces of paper, glued together, with ink on them makes a book! Analog synthesizers, whatever, it's because there are people who don't use them in conjunction with newer technologies because we think that we've mastered those older ones. We are the masters of it, and we create new things…but we only assume that we've mastered those things. We've barely begun to understand their significance and we should be returning to them all the time, considering them before we go forth, because that's when you make everlasting music.
I feel like I've been submerged in “the problem is that I'm not checking Twitter enough!” school of thought.
One of my traits that may make me an entertaining companion but not as much of the best mouthpiece for a new band, is that I'm obsessed with these concepts. They are the reason why I make music; it's because I'm so concerned and interested in the depth of meaning you can look through as a musician and I'm not as much concerned with having these surface interactions. I guess of course I like them – who doesn't love instant gratification? But, I try to balance it with other things just to keep me going. Like, I just watched the video for Azealia Banks' “212” thinking “this is so pleasurable and entertaining.” But, at the same time, that girl is extremely intelligent — entertainment isn't her only purpose, and that doesn't mean there isn't depth if it's easy to latch on to at first.
There's no way I've caught all the punchlines yet in “212.” What other new music have you been digging?
Cole has been playing me a lot of instrumental electronic stuff – including his own things – and I've been digging that a lot. I haven't latched on to specific vocal-oriented rock or indie group in awhile for whatever reason. Sometimes when I go to the gym I'll hear mainstream music and that is—(pauses). That is just weird. Sometimes it's good, others really, really bad…but always weird.
You don't even have to exist in the mainstream world anymore. Like that instance you describe, theoretically, doesn't ever have to happen. Maybe when we get groceries, but it's otherwise almost entirely customizable now.
I feel especially shocked because like, when I was young, in high school, I would hear music like that all the time and it would never shock or bother me. I'd be like, 'Oh that song is good.' I'd be like, 'I love “Oops, I Did it Again,”' and play it at my friends' houses and dance around to it. Now I hear a Britney song and it seems so much more intense — you can't even find her through all the processing on her vocals. I can't even tell if I like it. It's a song. I remember the melody. Am I old?
Nah, don't worry. I don't think you're old. But maybe I'm old? Are we old?
I listened to the new Beyonce albums a lot – I would warm up to them before shows, sing along to them because they're really difficult to sing. “Love on Top,” “1+1,” and “Countdown,” those are just good songs, no guilt in liking them. I listen to a lot of R. Kelly, Aaliyah, Sade, stuff like that. I took a lot of cues from certain singers for this record. Those were some of them.
Is there an era of pop music that you're most attracted to?
'79 is a great year. '79 and '82 for music were really good times. You can definitely go three years in either direction, but I feel like the cusp of the '80s, for a lot of genres, was a very experimental time because of the advent of easy-to-use synths, a strange political climate, and other reasons. Some special records came from that era. It was a great time for music, it was this time when the future seemed really interesting but the devices and instruments that were available at that time – they were reaching into the future, trying to project forward. You can feel the excitement in the records when you listen.
Do you feel like that's happening again today?
I feel like certain artists are reaping the benefits of new technologies: Ableton, whatever you can think of. With James Blake, for instance, you can hear the futurism but it's still very much a record of right now. And it's not just his tools, he's obviously a very talented keyboard player, singer, everything.
What does the song “One Second of Love” have to say about or do with the relationship of art and technology?
It's a song that could mean anything to anyone – I'm trying to keep lyrics more general so their meanings can evolve. But it's mostly about being a little dissatisfied with your current state. “Who has one second of love?” is a yearning question, wondering if someone has it for me or has it at all. I think people care about each other in ways that are way different than in the past just by virtue of the way we communicate and, I don't know if love as a concept enters the equation as often or if relationships have taken on a new way, a new meaning. Towards the end of the song, I'm talking about where I find this concept of love in my life and don't come up with a straight answer.
There's something refreshingly cool about that attitude. It gels with the refined aesthetic. You sound more confident.
I am! That's very much the case. Confidence is not just something that you have personally from your work experiences, it's also that…the things I'm trying to say in the songs are much more important to me than in Good Evening. I feel like I'm delivering them differently; in the past, my lyrics were too personal and I actually didn't want people to be able to hear them. You have to be able to balance the open wounding tendencies with refinement, otherwise you always end up afraid.
What about this new set of lyrics made you want it more audible or present?
I write some lyrics with the idea that, “It's okay that people can understand me,” but certain songs that I end up loving have lyrics that are like my diary. I just don't want people to hear them, but I still want to share the song as a whole. On One Second of Love there are songs with really personal lyrics, and you'll notice that even then it's more difficult to hear my voice.
So you're trying to preserve the feeling, even at the expense of the words?
It's weird because I don't care if it's discovered some other way – the lyrics are on the album insert. There's a certain amount of knowing how to say something in a way that's accessible but isn't too much information. Sometimes when you're really personal, it's very unappealing. I don't want to be like Fiona Apple, her lyrics are the worst – crying, so depressed, 'Look at me I'm just dying inside.' You have to try and be poetic, to spark emotion without being egotistical, or indulging in whatever you want to say right then. Bob Dylan talks about personal stuff in his songs, but he says it in a way that is further-reaching. Not trying to say I'm anywhere close to that, but I work really hard all the time, to push myself to share vivid details. The more poetic I can become, the more will be released.