Nite Jewel’s new best-of album, ‘Gems,’ celebrates a diverse catalog

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

A best-of album is not what you’d expect from an artist who has been around for five years. But that’s exactly what Ramona Gonzalez, who records under the moniker Nite Jewel, released in advance of her upcoming Japanese tour.

“I sat down and thought about which songs fully represent all aspects of my career and which songs have gotten the most response from audiences over my years of performing. I wanted to showcase a song from every release I’ve done,” she says.

For Nite Jewel, this approach is almost a necessity — so far, Gonzalez has jumped from eight-track-recorded numbers to clear cuts taking cues from 1980s pop. Japanese label Big Love’s compilation “Gems” offers a great gateway into Gonzalez’ short career before she plays shows in Tokyo and Osaka this coming week.

“I’ve never been to Japan. I am looking forward to shopping for clothes in Tokyo because I’m small and it’s hard to find clothes in the U.S. Also can’t wait to go to a cat cafe and eat Japanese food.”

Nite Jewel started in 2008, while Gonzalez was still an undergraduate at Los Angeles’ Occidental College. With some assistance from her husband Cole M. Greif-Neill (who will tour alongside Nite Jewel in Japan with his band The Samps), she recorded and produced her debut album “Good Evening” on an eight-track cassette recorder. It was a decidedly lo-fi affair, with Gonzalez’ take on pop and disco sounding fragile and her vocals coming off as if they were recorded from down a hallway. That album, thanks to its recording style, got lumped in with the burgeoning “chillwave” genre at the time.

“I am really proud of ‘Good Evening,’ even though I wish I had done a few things differently as far as all the noise,” she says. The bulk of “Gems” features tracks from this era, four from her debut and several songs culled from EPs and 7-inch records. It also includes one unreleased track, the galloping “Stay a Little Longer,” which Gonzalez recorded a few months ago.

“I felt that that song was really quirky and I loved the demo version of it so thought it would sound good alongside the older recordings on “Gems.”

Last year, Gonzalez released her second album “One Second Of Love.” Despite also being recorded at her house, Nite Jewel’s sophomore outing sounded clearer and catchier than anything that had come before it, with her voice unmuddled and the songs unabashedly pop. Expect this sonic shift to carry over to her Japan gigs.

“The live performance is really modern sounding and all electronic,” Gonzalez says. “I have rearranged and recorded all my old material to be suited to a solo performance. That means everything is sort of stripped and slowed down.”

This year, she also ventured into the world of hip-hop. Gonzalez contributed the vocal hook to Bay Area rapper Droop-E’s song “N the Traffic.” Droop-E’s little brother connected the two, and it was an opportunity Gonzalez says she couldn’t pass up.

“I couldn’t believe when he told me that (rapper) E-40 was his dad because I am a huge E-40 fan, since I am from Oakland. He is like a god in the Bay Area and I was like, ‘I’d love to work with that rap family!’ ”

When she comes to Japan, Gonzalez will play songs from across her catalog, which is quite diverse for a project that has only been around five years. The artist says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think the cool thing about everything I’ve done is the fact that it doesn’t sound like anything else. It sounds unique and that’s the most important thing.”

Nite Jewel’s “Gems” is on sale now. She plays Harajuku Vacant in Tokyo with The Samps and Sapphire Slows on Oct. 6 (5 p.m. start; ¥4,500 in advance; 03-5775-1315). Nite Jewel plays Conpass in Osaka with The Samps, Metome and Talking City 1994 on Oct. 8 (6:30 p.m. start; ¥4,000 in adv.; 06-6243-1666). For more information, visit www.nitejewel.com.