Nite Jewel's Ramona Gonzalez on Being the First Chillwave Artist

Nite Jewel's Ramona Gonzalez on Being the First Chillwave Artist
Ramona Gonzalez courtesy of Tammy Nguyen

Last year, I wrote a piece for Pitchfork on the legacy of chillwave. A few days after it was published, I saw this Tweet from Ramona Gonzalez, who’s written and recorded as Nite Jewel since the late 2000s:

yet another history of chillwave that omits the one woman POC who helped define the genre ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 15, 2019

At the time, I reached out to Gonzalez on Twitter and we had a brief and extremely amiable discussion that I’m sure you can find on one of our feeds if you’re inclined to do so. But the points that she made—as well as the general truism that male-identifying people like me have shaped the direction of music criticism and scene coverage to the point of total imbalance, which has undoubtedly resulted in widespread cultural erasure that still has yet to be rectified—stuck with me, and ever since I’ve been wanting to have a longer conversation with Gonzalez about her experience as a woman of color who essentially kickstarted a subgenre of electronic music that’s since been dominated by male-identifying artists.

And Gonzalez’s debut album as Nite Jewel, Good Evening from 2009, did basically predate the sounds and styles that countless chillwave artists would embrace during the subgenre’s brief run. It’s an influential work that, unlike most chillwave, has actually sounded better with age—and when I decided to start my own newsletter, having a longer conversation with her about chillwave and her career at large was at the top of my list.

As she took time away from putting the finishing touches on the next Nite Jewel album at California’s Stones Throw studio—as well as getting her PhD in Musicology in UCLA, working as a visiting faculty member at Occidental to teach Songwriting and Music Business, and teaching Audio Technology in UCLA during the summer—I’m glad we got to have it, and if you have any interest in Gonzalez’s career, chillwave, or the music press and the industry at large, I’m sure you’ll be glad to read it too.

Tell me about the first time you heard the term “chillwave.”

The first time I heard it, I was very antagonistic towards it. Someone at a record label called me chillwave in 2010, right around the time I was trying to find a proper record label. I remember feeling prickly and thinking, “My music isn’t chill! It’s not about good times in the summer. I’m so much more than that.”

The funny thing about genre is that it’s one of the few things artists can’t decide about their music. We can choose our style, production value, melodies, harmonies—but we can’t choose what genre we’re associated with. It’s a sobering moment that the market exists, and that you’re being classified.

The first person who used the term “chillwave” in writing was Carles of Hipster Runoff, whose work could be fairly misogynistic and bigoted as well.

He’s not even a critic in the real sense of the word, and those are the kind of people who are inventing genre and writing history by accident. That’s why I felt strange being associated with it as an artist. I was new, and it was hard for me to understand that I was going to be categorized—and not necessarily by people I respected. Over time, as I loosened my hold on my art, I understood the value of my position in the narrative. Whether or not I felt that my music was 100% that way, it was still important for me to recognize the influence my music had at that time.

Ariel Pink actually pointed out to me that I had made the first chillwave album. He’s more enterprising than me. [Laughs] We were all this enclave of broke artists back in the day—Ariel, me, [Geneva Jacuzzi], [Julia Holter], [John Maus]—so he was proud of our crew, and he brought it to my attention as something to take pride in. I was grown up enough to accept it at that point.

See, all those artists you just mentioned—including yourself—I never really thought of as chillwave.

It was less commercial than Washed Out, for instance. Our limitations with our music were economic. They didn’t have to do with desiring simplicity for commercialism’s sake. There were only eight-tracks available, and if you were as good as Ariel, you could turn those eight tracks into fifty. I didn’t have as much facility with the eight-track as he did—or the four-track, for that matter. [Laughs]

What were your earliest forays in making electronic music like?

I didn’t gravitate towards technology until I was an adult. My family didn’t get the internet until I was 17, so I was more into playing jazz. But Cole M.G.N., who had grown up with computers and video games, pushed me into the realm of recording more. A friend eventually gifted me an eight-track and encouraged me to start recording. I was trying to find the sound to embody how I felt—none of the acoustic or electro-acoustic instruments were doing it for me. I had to do some research on the sounds I was looking for, which was digging into music history.

I put all of my money into a Juno 60, a few drum machines, and an Elka synthesizer—there was a Korg Poly 800 that came a little later—and I started making sound collages. Around 2007, I was able to vocalize on top of that music. I had a songwriting background through jazz, so I was able to conceive songs through that. I didn’t get into songwriting until I had the technological tools to make them possible.

With teaching, I encourage creative individuals to use technology as a tool for songwriting—which may seem like a basic idea, but you should use these two things in conversation to get your message out there. It doesn’t just come from an acoustic guitar. [Good Evening] popped out of me as I found the tools that were right for me.

What were some of your early influences?

I was very influenced by Kraftwerk as well as Bay Area hip-hop, which is very electronic and based around sampling. I knew the power of sampling and simplicity from those two influences, and Kraftwerk are also excellent at writing songs and coming up with unnerving sounds from basic electronic circuitry. I used those influences to justify the minimalism of my music. There was a bit of Romanticism from studying classical music, too. I didn’t really get into the complex rhythms of electronic music—like Autechre—until after Good Evening.

Around the time that chillwave emerged, music press was taking a different shape than it possessed before. What was your general perception of the press around that time?

I always felt like the press was a bit hard on me at first. I wasn’t sure why, but I kind of liked it. I always felt like an outsider to any group mentality—that’s what Ariel’s camp was based on. We were not insiders. Any time one of us had a bad review, we were overjoyed because it confirmed that we were making good music. Later, when we were getting more accolades, that was more confusing. I don’t think critics being harsh is necessarily new. I mean, look at Robert Christgau—they can be pretty terrible. But I do think critics became more personal and self-reflexive—more of a personality within the scene.

They became minor celebrities. Everyone wanted to become friends with them and get a good review. That was confusing to me. I thought being an artist was all about being antagonistic towards the press! [Laughs] I didn’t get it. When “One Second of Love” came out and the song got good reviews, of course I appreciated it. But my previous appreciation [I’d gotten] was in the underground, and there’s nothing that can match that fierce cult love. I had mixed feelings about it.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with becoming friends with people, or writing about what you know. That’s what I’m doing as a PhD student—maybe I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. The problem is when we become inculcated in a world that we know, and it’s a job to classify things, and we classify along the lines of individuals that are noteworthy to us. We have blinders on when it comes to what’s going on around us.

That’s what I meant in my comments on Twitter to you—it was a missed opportunity to feature an artist who wouldn’t be commonly associated with a genre based in production and recording. Men tend to be people who are associated with originating those genres. It could’ve been an opportunity to say, “Actually, this Latinx woman from L.A. was one of the originators who influenced all these men.” It could’ve opened up the conversation a little more—and it does relate to the fact that we become too friendly with the things that we’re supposed to be objective about.

Around the time that chillwave rose and fell, the music press was still largely male-identifying as well.

I never thought I was being sidelined because of my gender—I thought it was because I was a weirdo and I was misunderstood. Now, as an adult, being more vulnerable to my position, I’m able to see more that I might have been at a disadvantage because of the landscape of the music press. At the time, though, I didn’t think that because I was so laser-focused in terms of what I wanted to express in my music. I never had that bitterness—I still don’t—but I was more observing it with fresh eyes.

One thing I’ve always found fascinating about chillwave is that, even though it was cast as a movement, it wasn’t really a scene. A lot of the people were essentially engaging in copyism, and seemed to have explicitly careerist intentions.

I always tell my music business students, “You have to have a vision. You could get posted somewhere once, or you’ll be a TikTok meme. If that’s the route you want to go, go there—but it doesn’t have lasting value.” I made Good Evening and released it on vinyl in 2008. It’s 2020 and I’m making another album. I didn’t do that by merely copying something else, and I wasn’t a [critical] darling by any means. That’s why I tell people, “Don’t just follow the trend. Go beyond one Best New Track or one meme. Otherwise, you’re competing with so many other copies.” But also, some people just don’t have anything to say, and that’s fine too.

How do you view your own musical evolution?

In some ways, I feel that I’ve gotten a lot better at songwriting, but it’s not straightforward or goal-oriented. I’ve gotten better at making my ideas around production and genre a little more focused and less random over time. I’m calling what I’m doing now “industrial jazz,” which is funny because I’m using genre terms now to talk about my music with other people. I’ve gotten better about not freaking out about categorizing my own work. Before, I thought it was a secret sauce—I couldn’t tell anyone what I was up to.

But the Nite Jewel sound has a soulful quality—a personal, angsty thing about it. And I am angsty, and I have a critical eye towards the world. The techniques that I use are based in how I learned to play and record music—jazz piano, early electronic pioneers. But I’ve gotten better at pigeonholing it to some degree.

What have you seen change over the last ten years when it comes to how music is disseminated critically and commercially?

I want to stay away from being overly critical and remain balanced here, because part of the reason that Nite Jewel ever became anything was because of the accessibility of communication with people online. I can’t totally get on board with the fact that we’re all doomed. I’m working with so many young people that are incredibly smart, talented, and aware. The more we hear from these people, the better.

The model we’ve developed to create economic prosperity for the few is flawed—but that’s how it’s always been in the record industry. Artists are always the last to get paid, they’ve always been paid the least, and they’ve always been taken advantage of by the powers that be. Hopefully, in my music business class, I can teach these students about how to think about their business relations.

As Donald Passman says in [All You Need to Know About the Music Business], music is one of the only businesses in which musicians can know nothing about the business side before getting into it. These students are so hands-on with their careers, so if I can impart to them how to make the most money out of and value their music, that can be beneficial to them—and the fact that their voices are able to be heard in the first place? We can’t see that as a negative.

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Jamie Larson