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Risky Business - By jschiewe - June 29, 2017 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Risky Business

Ramona Gonzalez (Photo by Leo Garcia)

In recent years, it’s become trendy for critics to harp about the many bands and artists that are leaving the Bay Area for other locales. Rising costs of living are generally the culprit for this artistic mass exodus, but it turns out there’s another motivator at play — at least for Ramona Gonzalez.

The Berkeley-and-Oakland native — who creates lush, electropop tunes under the name Nite Jewel and who possesses a crystalline voice that sounds uncannily like Janet Jackson’s — has been living in Los Angeles for the last decade and has no plans of returning to NorCal any time soon.

“It’s so comfortable and so nice that you don’t really feel the need to be very ambitious,” she says of her home region. “If I had stayed in the Bay, I can’t imagine that I would have gotten as far. It would have been too easy to chill.”

Gonzalez — who just released her fourth album, Real High, and who’s had her songs included on the Spotify playlists of retail behemoths like Starbucks and H&M — is no stranger to mining her personal life for musical material. In “Suburbia,” a burbling, lo-fi track from her 2009 debut Good Evening, she bemoans the banality of her childhood home, cooing lines like “In suburbia, I only wanted something else to do but hang around.”

But though Gonzalez claims she always knew she wanted to leave the Bay Area and do “something more” with her life, her journey getting to where she is today was not without its bumps or challenges. In fact, most of her career successes hinge on a number of dicey, gut-instinct decisions she made throughout the years, like dropping out of college and getting married at the age of 21.

“I feel like the only way that I ever got anywhere in this life was to take extreme risks,” Gonzalez says. “There were so many potential risks involved in abandoning a ‘normal’ way of life and leading a nontraditional existence. But I’ve learned that you just have to follow your instincts about stuff and do ridiculous shit.”

While living in New York City, Gonzalez — then a student at Barnard College — met her future husband, Cole M. Greif-Neill. She dropped out during her second year even though she “was in a really good school and on a path to do something that would make me a lot of money, like being a lawyer,” and the couple moved back to the Bay Area. They lived at the Vulcan, a live-work warehouse in East Oakland, where Gonzalez honed her skills as a vocalist, bassist, and songwriter. But even though she was spending the bulk of her time making music, Gonzalez still had no idea what she wanted to do with her life.

“I always thought of myself as an academic person, and that I would just continue to study philosophy for the rest of my life and grow old in a library,” she says. “I never thought that I was going to become a musician in any sense, because I just didn’t have the confidence.”

But the arts called to Gonzalez, and within a year, the young couple decided to relocate to L.A. where they felt “the best music and art was being made.” Gonzalez enrolled in school at Occidental College, spending her free time recording songs as a solo artist using a portable eight-track cassette recorder sent to her in the mail by a friend from Oakland. Greif-Neill, meanwhile, clawed his way into Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti band as a guitarist and started producing songs for Beck.

Gonzalez built her early tunes using electric keyboards and drum machines, but something about the sounds she was creating wasn’t adding up.

“Every time I sat down at the piano to write music, I felt like I was Elton John,” she says. “I just didn’t understand how to communicate my message with this very antiquated-sounding instrument. I was like, ‘Why is this turning into soft rock?’ ”

At her husband’s behest, Gonzalez purchased a Roland synthesizer, even though she was scared she “wouldn’t be able to figure it out.” She was wrong — “It’s actually super user-friendly,” she says — and her finesse with the instrument spurred her into a creative frenzy that resulted in her first slinky pop album, which she released in 2009 through her label, Gloriette.

Even though Gonzalez says “there was no part of my mind that ever expected anybody to give a shit about that album,” the exact opposite happened. The album started selling out, festival offers rolled in, and her songs began appearing in films like the Ben Stiller dramedy Greenberg. In between national and international tours, Gonzalez spent the next few years concocting new music and releasing a trio of EPs that were equally successful as her debut.

Around 2012, she signed with the indie label Secretly Canadian, which released her second album, One Second Love, and sent her on a world tour in support of the record. But once Gonzalez returned to Los Angeles and started working on her third project, relations with Secretly Canadian began to turn sour. The label was not a fan of her new demos, giving Gonzalez critiques she felt were toxic and destructive for her creativity.

“They were giving me a lot of shit,” she says, “and were almost pushing back, saying things to me like ‘This isn’t a single’ and ‘We need a pop hit from you.’ I was super-confused. I’m not a pop musician. I’m an indie musician. Being a Katy Perry was not what I signed up for.”

When Secretly Canadian amended her contract to allot her less money “because they weren’t happy with the sales on the record before,” Gonzalez found herself in a position yet again where she had to make a gut-wrenching decision on whether to stay with the label or not. She chose the latter.  

Luckily, Gonzalez’s decision to do so came at just the right time, as the video game series Grand Theft Auto soon made an offer to pay her a huge sum to use her track “Nowhere To Go” in one of their soundtracks. But though she was free from the label with a sizeable chunk of money in her bank account, it took another two years for Gonzalez to bounce back from Secretly Canadian’s critiques, or, as she says, “for those voices to fully go away.”

By the time she released her next album, Liquid Cool, in 2016, her self-doubts were behind her and she was ready to talk about that traumatic period of her life. In “Running Out of Time,” a buzzy, slightly New Wave song on the record, she makes veiled references to the label, like “I tried to make it right, and I failed so many times.”

Now, with four albums under her belt and a fifth EP in the works, Gonzalez has no regrets about any of the decisions she’s made thus far in her career. In fact, now more than ever, she believes that success has less to do with skill and everything to do with making bold decisions.

“Because it’s not talent that gets you places,” Gonzalez says. “It’s drive, it’s shrewdness, and it’s just an overall willingness to take risks.”

Nite Jewel
plays at 9 p.m., Friday, July 7, at Rickshaw Stop. $13-$15; rickshawstop.com