- Posted on Mar 1st 2011 6:15PM by Brian Voerding
Sam Comen for AOL
How long have you been singing?
My mom was super into the arts. She was a dancer. She set me up with voice lessons with a woman who was one of Bobby McFerrin's singers when I was around 5 years old. I remember being really excited about doing it and remember telling my mom that I wanted to be a singer when I grew up. I really wanted to be on 'Star Search.'
Did you write songs when you were little?
My mom used to do group singing with world-music hippies in the Berkeley area. She recorded them. She had these tape recorders, hand-held, and lots of cassettes. I used to take them into my room at night and record different songs on them, write lyrics down and do radio broadcasts. i would be the announcer and the musical entertainment.
How did you move from singing to synthesizers?
I started buying synthesizers when I moved to Los Angeles. It didn't occur to me before. I didn't know what a synthesizer was. I knew what keyboards were, but it wasn't really clear to me that you make fake natural sounds using mathematical equations on this instrument.
However, I listened to a lot of electronic-based music as a teenager. In Berkeley, there were the rockers and the hip-hop people, then there were the freaks. I was a part of the freak group for awhile, because I didn't like wearing brand-name clothes, which you had to have if you were in the hip-hop group. Eventually I gave in to not being beat up and not being made fun of and joined the hip-hop crew. They used a plethora of electronic sounds, so I started to make the connection when I got my first synth.
What was that first synthesizer?
The first synth I bought was an Elka One Man Band, with cartridges and stuff. It was the most complicated synthesizer to use. It wasn't even making sounds but full-on songs, and doing this weird mathematical-notation thing -- the worst possible synthesizer to buy. Nonetheless, I had fun with it. Nite Jewel basically spawned out of that keyboard. Then I sold it to buy a Juno-60. It was the best thing ever. It was simple.
As someone who previously worked only with acoustic instruments, did you struggle at all with the element of technology?
The building blocks of forms of expression is logic in many ways, whether it's notation, melody, harmony or synthesis. I realized synthesis was no more or less technical than writing a song or playing a drum beat. I have a tendency though, to not like to read manuals. I bought a programming manual from the '80s once to use on a new keyboard I bought, because it was so complicated. Playing music is really technical, and when it's not, it's just a story that musicians tell you. They want you to think that it's easy, and that's the whole point.
Was it difficult at first to create music using electronics?
When I was in college in New York, before I dropped out and went to L.A., I was really interested in a lot of philosophers writing in the turn of century and grappling with new technology. When I moved to L.A., I listened to a lot of electronic music -- people who were working around the time of the krautrock explosion. I realized that what those people were doing was necessarily an expression of what was going on at the time. These people were grappling with technology.
I'm always grappling with our paradigm of being technological beings, especially because I grew up in a household where we couldn't have the Internet for a long time. Now the world is where all my friends communicate on Facebook. Synths were so inherently interesting to me. Using them as a way of expressing yourself musically was, in a way, advocating for technology as an emotional form of expression. I had never thought that was a possibility. I fell in love with the concept. It's become an art form. These art forms are my synths.
How do you seek that emotional expression using electronic instruments?
It's a day-to-day journey. Each song has its concept, whether it's about love or paranoia or jealousy or peacefulness or quietude, and your instruments help you along that path. In a way, your concept and sound have a reciprocal relationship that get you to the final product. Recently I've been using an acoustic guitar, and that's funny, because I always thought acoustic guitar can be lame. I didn't know how to put it in a song and make it sound good. In a way, it's the most obvious instrument in the world. There's a song I wrote that has an acoustic guitar miked and processed and sent to cassette. Why do we go through all these processes? I don't know. But that's why the song is called 'It Goes Through Your Head.' It's an emerging process.
And then I can talk about it after the fact, like I'm so informed.
How long did you tinker with synths before Nite Jewel became a serious project?
I had an eight-track and was recording a bunch of stuff on it for about six months. I recorded four or five songs and started playing them for friends of mine, and then I just made a MySpace page because my friend starting calling me Nite Jewel. [At first] it wasn't mildly serious at all. When I moved to L.A., there were so many things I had my hand in at the time: writing, doing art, going to school, doing music. It was just another way to showcase something I was involved in. It didn't become serious until recently. It didn't become something where I thought, "OK, this is something I really have to be careful with."
And now it's your primary work.
It's totally my primary project now. I've always been super involved in music and wanted to pursue it forever. It's not just a pet project of obscure sounds I'm playing for my friends. It's more like my primary investment in my own desire to become better at something, trying to formalize a craft.
Is there anybody in particular you would like to collaborate with?
Most of the people I'm inspired by are people who might not even exist anymore -- forgotten one-hit wonders, '80s dudes. I was just saying today, there were so many cherished, forgotten hits of the '80s. A lot are from the UK. I'd really like to work with producers and engineers and mixing engineers who have a good take on what new music sounds like. I just don't know what new music sounds like.
Catch Nite Jewel's SXSW Sets on Friday, March 18 at Klub Krucial (614 E 6th St.) 1:15AM, and Thursday, March 17 at the Bat Bar (218 E 6th St.) 9PM.
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