Name: Nite Jewel aka Ramona Gonzalez
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, label owner, professor, musicologist
Current release: The new Nite Jewel album No Sun is out via Gloriette.
If you enjoyed this interview with Nite Jewel and would like to stay up to date on her output and activities, visit her on Facebook, Instagram, twitter, Soundcloud, and bandcamp.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I’ve always used music as a way to process my surroundings. When I was a kid I would make up songs, play piano and record myself on a tape recorder in order to enter a fantasy world apart from some of the harsh realities I had to live with.
I’m fairly intentional with how I create, meaning that I set up the parameters for recording in a deliberate way (instrumentation, set-up, concept), so that when inspiration does come, I am entirely ready to capture it.
I’d say the everyday contains the most depth and intrigue for me when it comes to inspiration.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
The planning is a huge part.
For No Sun, I spent a good amount of time deciding on how the production would look. I purchased a Moog Mother 32 because I knew I wanted to build the sound palette with sequences first, not percussion. Initially I limited myself to only that synthesizer and a Fender Rhodes and made rules for myself about what kind of recording/writing I would do: improvisatory, not to a grid, etc. That was about 4 months of experimenting with the instruments and the sound design before any formal “songwriting” or “singing” actually began.
Once I began to sing in the summer of 2018, the framework was set up for me to completely improvise with the lyrics and the voice in a way that was emotionally vulnerable. You can hear this especially on “Anymore,” which was born out of a 20-30 minute improvisation session.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
See the previous question. I do demos for sure, but they are not far from the final product. Really it’s mostly about shaping and re-recording. But I am all about first-thought, best-thought.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I’m not too picky (laughs). I have some rituals with tea brewing before I record, but nothing too interesting.
I also believe in taking breaks throughout the day and watching bad TV or texting with friends to offset getting too overly serious or myopic.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
I think it goes any manner of ways. Sometimes a lyric appears out of nowhere and you have to find the music that suits it, sometimes a sound inspires a fragment of thought. For No Sun, most lyrics were born out of vocal improvisations, which were inspired by the sound of the synthesizers.
For instance, the sequencer on “No Escape,” just sounded like claustrophobic fear. It inspired the words.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
A good lyric should be specific enough to evoke imagery or a setting in another person’s mind while universal enough for a listener to insert their own story and meaning into it.
The perfect balance of specificity and generality, plain language and ornate. And good lyrics should always be economical.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
For a great deal of my songs, the picture is pretty clear from the beginning. One song from No Sun that took a bit more tinkering was “This Time.”
I wanted to evoke a pop song without it actually being one. I was thinking, how far can I deconstruct this without it becoming intangible? Sometimes it’s about trying a million different things and then stripping away.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I don’t think that’s actually a true statement, to be honest. Nothing is out of one’s control in the process of creativity, we are thinking beings after all. We can improvise and leave things up to our skills we’ve developed plus a bit of chance, but everything has agency and intention in the end.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
Not sure what is meant by “spirituality.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described something called the state of “flow,” which I believe is a real psychological process wherein musicians can get in a “groove” or “in the zone.” I would say that is definitely a state I enter frequently in the creative process.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Oh it’s so hard. I honestly don’t think anything is ever finished. What usually happens is there is a deadline that has to be met and I have to finish or else, so I just do the best I can to bring the songs to their full realization.
There is always a “I wish I had done this or that” for every album. Usually tiny things, like changing a decibel level or a drum hit.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
Oh that is kind of the most important part, giving yourself the space to mull things over and reassess. In an ideal world I like to give myself a month or two after a batch of songs has reached a certain stage (demo, mix, mix2, mix3 …). But this doesn’t always happen.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Production and songwriting for me go hand in hand. I also mix during the process as well (I call this “pre-mixing”). So songwriting and recording are hugely enmeshed.
Usually after this stage I bring the songs to my professional mixing engineer for acoustic overdubs, formal mixing, vocal recording. And then mastering comes last. I’m closely involved in every step.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Oh I think it’s the opposite! I feel so full after a record is released, with everyone’s new experience of your music and their interpretations and new meanings they give to me. To me it’s one of the most fulfilling parts of the process.
And the outside reception (good or bad) inspires me to create more, to get new ideas, to take some fresh, uncharted direction.