Nite Jewel—aka singer-songwriter, producer and scholar, Ramona Gonzalez—is poised to release her first new album in four years. No Sun (out on her own Gloriette Records, 27 August) is a vehicle not only to express the impossible to express, but also to explore and experiment with genre and song creation. The LA-based artist set out to make the record with just a Moog synth and a keyboard, and the result is stunning. The rich but spare music on the record feels awash with both sorrow and strength, and Gonzalez’s featherweight vocals engulf listeners with emotion.
Recorded in part as her 12-year marriage and creative partnership broke down, this album—wherein the hierarchy of pop music is both rebuffed and reimagined (for instance, vocals take the place of drums and percussion replaces chords)—also led the multi-talented artist to her most recent academic deep dive: the women’s lament. For her PhD in Musicology at UCLA, Gonzalez has been researching the lament—a musical form that traditionally uses women as the body and voice to express collective and personal loss, grief and pain. We spoke with Gonzalez about her layered, multi-faceted, conceptual project: an album that’s simultaneously otherworldly, temporal and transformative.
Can you tell us about your approach to making No Sun? Did you set out with a fully formed intention for the record?
So the summer of 2018 was when I first recorded any vocals for the record, but six months before that, I bought myself the Moog Mother Sequencer that I use on the whole record, and I started a sort of framework for how I was going to go about recording. I pretty much do this every time, just because it’s worked for me as a creative process—to choose a set of instruments or tools that I’m going to use and then study them and study records that were kind of made in a similar way. Keeping it really confined to those few elements. So it was a Fender Rhodes [piano] that I had, the Moog sequencer and recording improvisations with those two instruments into Ableton.
I recorded into Ableton Live [digital audio software]. Ableton comes with a set time grid, which is 4/4 at 120 beats per minute. I basically worked without a grid in Ableton Live, so that means that you don’t have any sort of meter that the computer is deciding for you. There’s no metronome, anything like that. It’s like kind of like the equivalent of playing with a live band on tape or something like that, where you’re just playing to the feel of the musicians. I was trying to recreate that, but on my own, experimenting in my house.
It leads to all sorts of accidents and errors when you’re not working with a digital workstation to decide how a song is supposed to be structured. So that improvisation, working without the grid, and working with these few tools was a very, very conscious choice that I set in the beginning. Later, as I started to record vocals I had already set up this framework so I could improvise completely from the very depths of my soul. As far as the lyrics I wanted to create, the melodies I wanted to create, the concepts and the feeling. It’s two elements happening at once: a very coherent vision of how I want the music to go, while also keeping that base very solid so that I can express how I feel.
So those accidents and errors became songs?
I’d say almost every song is kind of an improvisatory accident—except for the Sun Ra cover. But every other song was definitely constructed through a long improvisation, sometimes the improvisation would be 20 to 30 minutes. I would try to really keep all of the accidents, weird timings, playing something maybe slightly incorrectly, free-styling words. The first song on the record, “Anymore,” was me trying to come up with lyrics for 15 minutes. And I was just like, “I can’t describe anything anymore.”
On those lyrics, it’s obviously a very personal album that, among other things, traces heartbreak. You’re also working on a PhD with a focus on women’s laments within contemporary pop music. Can you explain a little about traditional laments and modern-day versions?
There has been a lot written about laments in general—ritual lament practices in different regions of the world, ancient laments, early modern lament pieces. Although that’s been studied, it’s not been studied that laments still exist, and that they exist in popular music, and that women perform them. So that’s why I’m doing my work—because I really want to think about how this history is being carried out in popular music.
When we think of a woman lamenting and how women have been depicted as lamenting—by male authors in ancient tragedy, by male composers and even by musicologists—they’re seen as visceral performers of hysterical emotion, and they’re seen as bodies. They’re framed that way. You know, the composer is the mind, the author is the mind, and the woman is the body. I’m very interested in how that perpetuates gender stereotypes and how women aren’t considered agentive thinkers, even though they’re “just” singing—I mean, singing is hard, singing takes a lot of skill and intellect. So my research tries to talk about “What if we saw these singers—these wailers, these mourners—as intellectual, creative, performative acts as opposed to just some sort of physical sensation.”
It’s surprising how little has been written about that. Because when we think of Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston or Sade, we think of them in a very multifaceted way, but lots and lots of scholars do not see them like that.
From ancient laments to contemporary pop—your area of studies and the music you make gathers inspiration and information from so many eras. Tell us a little about the hierarchy within pop music.
I have taken many courses from medieval manuscripts and medieval music and early modern music. I would say that studying that kind of music—chant, madrigals and motets—is very modal, in that it doesn’t think about music in terms of harmonic progressions and “goal-oriented-ness.” Early music is all about melodies and interlocking melodies. There was a shift in music history in which chords became a thing and harmonic progression became a thing and structure and goal-oriented-ness became a thing. Before that, people were kind of just chanting and hoping they didn’t make a super-crazy dissonant error—it was just all about melodies and interlocking melodic lines. That’s modal music.
I definitely was influenced on No Sun to hold that music up in my mind and think about music in terms of melody more than harmony. A lot of songs on No Sun are really focused on the melody—and the chords, if there are any chords, came after. Not only are chords and harmonic progressions more a pop music trope than anything, but also they kind of confine you—they create sort of a hierarchy.
Can you explain a little more about that hierarchy, and how you wanted to reconfigure or eliminate it on No Sun?
Dispelling hierarchy was a huge part of my initial impetus to work with improvisation, [and a] lack of rhythmic hierarchy, 4/4 time, beats per minute, certain digital metronomes—to not start with percussion, to not start with a beat. I think a lot of popular music is built on drums, bass, keyboards, guitar and vocals and it goes up like that. I wanted to think: what if the drums were just like a voice? Like any other voice? What if the drums came last? What if I wrote the entire song, and then brought in a percussionist who could think like a singer—and have his drums become a melody.
I’m not trying to get too grandiose here. But there is a sense in being a woman and being a woman of color that sometimes music, it’s hard to express how you feel and how you feel marginalized and how you feel different. Sometimes it requires deconstructing music itself on an instrumental level, or on a structural level, to express how you feel and what your position is in society. It was a super-important conceptual point with how I came to make the album.
You also explained laments, in part, via a playlist. Can you tell us a little about the music chosen for that?
Not counting Solange—I just love Solange—the other people that I have on that playlist are people that are my case studies for my research. The people that I’m investigating as professional mourners of today that pique my interest. I mean, the list that I have of professional mourners in the 20th and 21st century is so long, it’s insane. But I’m particularly interested in these artists because I think that within the genres that they’re working in, they bring certain controversial issues to light, whether it’s Rosalía retooling flamenco, Sade retooling lovers rock, or Lana questionably using blues tropes. These people I find very fascinating, and I want to know more.
The songs from early music, I included those because those are sort of these centerpieces for me—about a certain period of time in music, in Western art music. There was this neo-classicist revival where composers started using texts from Greek tragedy to compose operas and madrigals and things like that. They went to laments, obviously, because that was a huge part of these tragedies.
So there were tons of laments being made and they were always about a woman being scorned or abandoned or something like that. They were at a time that composers were trying to think about how to get music to mirror a lamenting woman… Trying to figure out how music expresses sadness, particularly for women. So these pieces are important for me to study because they are really ingrained in the popular imagination—a lot of the tropes that are used in these songs we still see today. Their particular music techniques have stood the test of time in the popular imagination. It’s a transhistorical playlist, for sure. I also just really, really love these songs. They’re sad songs that I adore and think are really beautiful.
It speaks to an unspeakable power to express what’s inexpressible, not only personally, but culturally and collectively
No Sun is partly about you attempting to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a professional mourner?” Have you gotten any closer to an answer?
It means different things—every historical time period has a different kind of professional mourner. I guess that’s what I’m trying to figure out. What does it mean for me to actually be a working mourner, at least for this record? But I think what it might mean—if I could universalize it, slightly—is that it speaks to the empowered position that women have throughout time. It speaks to an unspeakable power to express what’s inexpressible, not only personally, but culturally and collectively. It does point to a particular power that exists for these vocalists that hasn’t been codified in scholarship necessarily, or delimited in any way. I want to know more about what that means to have that power.
Images by Tammy Nguyen