November 18th, 2010 | Interviews

daiana feuer

The new Nite Jewel album is called Am I Real? It sounds very unreal or surreal, but perhaps it’s actually hyperreal, a new way of describing reality using knobs and dials and powerstrips in a way that’s dreamy and a little bit new age. This is how Ramona Gonzalez communes with technology. For her, it’s like being in nature, on a philosophical quest. This interview by Daiana Feuer.

What is the fondest memory of your grandma?
Ramona Gonzalez: When she died, I was in charge of going through her papers. She was intensely politically active and she kept newspaper and magazine clippings on things she thought were important. I really like this obsessive behavior she had which was to record the weather every single day because she wanted to prove that global warming was in fact happening. She had symbols for the weather too—rain, lots of rain, and raining like cats and dogs was a certain amount of droplets. She did it everyday on tons of calendars. I thought it was really awesome—the dedication towards global warming.
Was it right? Did it show?
It’s hard to say. Over the course of a couple months, yeah—it seemed like, strange, that it was warm in December. But then there’s things that contradict that as well. That’s the thing about global warming. Weather is an erratic thing.
Did you know the mid-Atlantic current has died in certain places?
That’s too bad.
What would your grandma say about that?
My grandma happened to die right before September 11 which was really good. If she had been here for that, it would have hurt her a lot and made her very sad. But then she wasn’t here for the Obama election, which would have made her very happy. There’s things she would have appreciated and things that would have upset her. I’m glad she didn’t stay alive to see that.
Do you ever think about what you might or might not live to see?
No, I don’t! That’s really interesting. The thing about artists is that they make the things they make because they like to fancy themselves immortal—in some way or another—by what they leave behind. I don’t think artists think about their mortality very often.
Or they might think about it all the time and stab themselves in the heart or shoot themselves in the face.
I think they go hand in hand. If you feel that you’re not successfully engaging with your audience or producing stuff that you think will be remembered, that’s when you feel like life isn’t worth living—because how will anybody know what you left? Artists who are very innovative suffer from that.
What do you suffer from?
Do you think about all this when you sit down to write a song?
Sometimes. Certain songs I definitely consider bigger notions and then others are just petty and personal. My new album isn’t as petty and personal as the one before, and songs that are petty and personal have to do with someone else, not myself. It’s me observing other people’s personal lives rather than just exuding my own. That’s changing now again. You go through phases.
Where did you write it?
In my house here in L.A.
Are you affected by your surroundings?
I’m more affected by what I’m doing day to day. When I was finishing up this EP, I was in school and there was a lot I was reading at the time and new people I was meeting here. Los Angeles creates a breed that is fascinating to me and some songs are about those people that I’ve met.
Is L.A. more like a sponge or more like an amoeba?
I’d say an amoeba. I don’t know that much about Los Angeles, but in my experience it’s totally confusing—the whole place. I have yet to figure out what this city is about and what the people are about. That’s why I continue writing about them. I can’t pin it down. A lot has been written about New York—biographies, autobiographies, histories—and I unearthed a lot of that and read about it. It makes it easier to discern what is happening and what people want from a city. Here it’s just less clear what people want. The EP touches on that idea.
Do you know what you want?
Not exactly but I find myself always doing things very decisively. Like moving here, finishing school, doing philosophy, moving to Topanga, taking this band in a certain direction. I feel like I make decisive decisions. Somehow they always pan out into being something that works with me. I have forethought in some respects, not all.
Do you believe in fate or coincidence?
Coincidence is interesting. That’s so hard because certain things have happened recently that really make me think there is this notion of fate. But then also the two have been considered interchangeable depending on the amount of faith you have in spirituality or science. A coincidence is based on the scientific notion of probability and then fate is something that is more a religious concept. Nowadays I’m wavering more in the direction of spirituality because I’ve never been very interested in science. It’s not very romantic. I like to consider fate as a viable idea.
Do you think philosophy is romantic?
Do you think philosophers see themselves as romantic?
Some see themselves as being very rational and lacking in romanticism and they use philosophy to stifle romantic notions. Then there are other people who don’t do that. That’s a major difference between American and European philosophy—the Americans being on the more rational end.
Where did you study?
I studied at Barnard College, at Columbia. I was very in my own head then. I didn’t hang out very much with anybody. I was also very dedicated to studying because I had a shoddy high school education so I had to work way harder. I took a year off and went back and I hated it so I went to Berkeley for a semester. That was worse than Barnard. Then I went to Occidental for two years and it was incredible.
Did you get good grades?
I did OK at Barnard and I was in the top 10 percent of Oxy’s class but I worked super hard. I really like school and I take it seriously. I don’t like to socialize very much and I saw a lack of discipline at Columbia. I was super-uninspired by the students. They’re like, ‘Yeah, I wrote that paper in a night on seven Adderall.’ And it’s like, ‘Fantastic—that makes me so happy to be in class with you, especially when you get an A. Here I am working my ass off and not taking Adderall as much because I don’t have a hook-up or whatever.’ At Occidental I got better grades because I was allowed to pursue whatever I wanted. At Barnard you had to pass a test or take intro to be in advanced courses. You couldn’t just write to the professor to get in. Unless the professor wanted to fuck you.
Who is your favorite philosopher?
I like David Hume. A lot of the newer philosophy I read—and by ‘new’ I mean ‘turn of the century’—the stuff I get into draws a lot from him and his notions of pragmatism, naturalism and empiricism. I like Wittgenstein. He and Hume see philosophy as this disease or problem of people abstracting from common life. Another person who touches on that is Heidegger. Nietzsche touches on the notion of being engaged not necessarily with common life but with your visceral emotions. That matters to me a lot. The notion is that whatever you do day to day, that’s where you should draw your philosophical ideas from—not from some abstract logic or something that you can’t see in front of you or create by way of the things that you use.
You mean like looking at the behavior of people as opposed to what you idealize?
Behavior is one aspect. The way people talk to each other. Any phenomenological idea—like what happens when you have a good conversation? What does that mean to have a nice conversation with someone? What does it mean to be inspired by something or create an artwork you are proud of? You talk about the details and the process. Then you stop doing the analytical stuff of what makes an artwork good or what should a good artwork be. It’s rather, ‘What happens when you make something good?’ That to me is more important from an artist’s standpoint.
You don’t make music like it’s just a folk song that came out of you on a porch and that was it and you left it at that. It’s much more involved. How do your principles fit into what you do?
That’s a very good question! That question touches on the fact that in a lot of senses we’ve advanced as human beings. We’ve engaged with technology and we’ve decided to use certain things as our daily instruments, like cars and computers. Then there’s a part of us that thinks, well, the most basic elements of human experience are sitting on the porch with your acoustic guitar. That’s a natural reaction. I think that’s changed. That natural reaction means that we don’t know how to use these mechanical technological devices in a way that viscerally speaks to other people or to us because we’re not used to it. Technology is separate from us. You can’t hold a computer in your arms and play. I’m trying to understand how you can have that relationship with technology. I’m interested in how new age artists use synthesizers in spiritual experiences—how that’s possible when you’re doing things like twiddling knobs. There’s a part of me that relates to those people. I have this cerebral character and I’m able to speak to myself when I’m flipping faders and turning knobs. This really is a visceral, tangible and physical experience for me. Somehow it works for me. For others, it doesn’t.
It’s not unnatural to turn knobs or push a fader.
I think it’s becoming more natural. As history evolves, humans begin to relate to their surroundings differently. That has to do with oral history—how you teach your kids to do this or that. It relates to genetics. It relates to consistent notions ingrained in culture. It doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It can be positive. I want to figure out where that positive relationship lies. Otherwise it just seems futile, if it’s not positive.
Emerson would talk about nature and returning to nature. Does nature need to be redefined in the technological age?
Unfortunately I think it does. I wish it didn’t have to but the more that we think of nature in Emerson’s beautiful words, the more we become dogmatic about what nature should be like. What Emerson is talking about is a historical idea. I think Heidegger suffered from that because he was trying to create a dichotomy that didn’t exist anymore. The dam on the Rhine and how it ruins the Rhine—it’s stopping it up and turning it into this mechanical thing that we ‘use’ and it doesn’t have to be like that. It only has to be like that if you have the idea of the Rhine that isn’t the Rhine with the dam in it. If you have another idea of what it was like in the past. … The only way that we can continue or start living happily is by having a different idea of what nature is. I know that sounds shitty but it might be necessary.
We’ll just need more electrical outlets installed in the parks and the woods.
If you think about it, what good is it going to do to be dogmatic about nature being this thing of the past? It’s not going to change anything. It’s not going to make it any easier to communicate nature in technology, so the only thing you can do is try to think of a progressive idea. It’s not anything that I desire. I mean, I’m moving to Topanga, man—like, I want to go back to that! I’m very idealistic in that sense. But I’m very realistic otherwise.