Zola Jesus

All By Herself

Feb 10, 2012
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Nika Roza Danilova—who writes and performs as Zola Jesus—first appeared to the music world with her 2009 debut full-length, The Spoils. A purveyor of dark sounds and goth…er, ghostly wails, subsequent releases (including last year’s double-header Stridulum and Stridulum II) found the singer slowly bleeding in elements of pop and opera into her industrial-influenced electronics. Danilova’s newest album, Conatus, pushes the formula even further, the project’s sound now refined to an intricate interplay between dark electronics and Danilova’s swooping, classically trained voice.

Under the Radar caught up with the petite musician in a park near her West Hollywood home to talk childhood opera lessons, friendly neighborhood critics, and why accidentally calling her Zola instead of Nika might not be such a leap in logic.

Have you adjusted to your new life as an in demand artist?

It’s strange, the idea of when I was little being able to travel and go to all these exotic places, it would only be a fantasy. And now there’s so much, it feels like I’m taking it for granted.

Has any of it gotten old to you?

In September I had to go back and forth to Europe three separate times, which kinda doesn’t seem like it could actually happen. At that point I’m like “uhh! I’m sick of this flight!” So in that way, yeah. But it’s still amazing.

Do you have a favorite country over there?

I really like Sweden. I want to keep going back and back and back until they really like me there. I love Scandinavia because the winter really reminds me of where I grew up.

Do you feel like growing up in such an isolated environment in Wisconsin changed the way you feel about music?

Because I didn’t have the same opportunity as someone living in New York or LA, to have all this exposure, when I did find music that I liked, it felt like this very singular, amazing experience. I didn’t know anyone else that liked that music. So it was extremely personal and informative in that way.

Making music was a very instinctive release. It was this impulse. I never really knew other people who made music or did that. It became very independent of anything that was going on around me.

I feel like you and I almost have the same big brother.

Oh really?

I think that if hadn’t been introducing me to music at an early age I wouldn’t be a music journalist. Do you feel like having an older sibling was a huge encouragement in that direction?

Oh yeah! My brother Max completely formed and changed who I am. He’s always been the person I’ve respected the most. He’s always been the person inching things closer to me, pushing things under my door at night. “Listen to this! Listen to this!” It’s funny, it got to a point where now he really loves rockabilly, and old rock and roll, and folk music exclusively. I took the things he was interested in during high school and I ran with them.

Has he listened to your new album?

Oh yeah of course. He called me up yesterday and said, “I listened to your new record. It’s good. It’s very mature. It’s cool it’s cool! You’re really doing the electronic thing.” [laughs] Yup!

How much older is Max than you?

Like eighteen months. We’re so close in age. He’s like my best friend.

Conatus is your LA album. Is this the first time you’ve recorded out here?

Yeah. It was really hard. I felt at times a little suffocated. It was hard to experiment with my voice because I had all these neighbors and people around me. I didn’t feel that liberation. So in a way there was this feeling of oppression. In having to break through that was an achievement in itself. That’s part of what informed the record. Just having to fight through that I think.

You said neighbors. Is this a home-recorded album?

Yeah, I did.

Did you ever explain to your neighbors what it is you do?

Sometimes if I would catch them in the hallway they would make comments like “Oh are you a musician?” because they could hear everything. I’m not a quiet singer. Or they would be like “Oh that sounded really good what you were doing there!” I would profusely apologize. I’m sure that they were irritated. I always tried to do it from nine to five, when everyone was at work. By the time five hit I would be done working on vocal stuff. I’d still work on headphones.

Have you ever treated recording as a nine-five job?

This was the first time I did that.

I love that you were getting reviews before you even finished the album.

There was a really funny comment. I said “I hope you don’t mind that I’m singing,” and she said, “No, it’s fine! At least you’re singing in tune!” I’m like, how do you know what I’m singing?” because it’s all in the headphones. How do you know what I’m singing in tune to? I could be singing out of tune.

Did you go into a studio at any point or was it all in the living room?

It was all in the living room. And then I would work with my friend Brian Foote who helped mix the record. I would take the songs over to his house and I’d rerecord vocals or rerecord synth parts there, or we’d mix it together. We’d flesh it out in his studio. I program everything my self.

How did you learn that?

It was out of necessity. I didn’t have any friends that were musicians. I’m really a control freak. So when I have an idea for a song I know every element in my head. Writing the song myself and playing every part, when I make it on the computer, I can play every part. I’m the bassist and the keyboardist and the drummer and the singer of my own band. Programming was the only way that I could learn how to do that.

Is it tough to let someone in, it being such a personal project?

Yeah! A lot of people think that someone else is closely involved in making the music. I went through so much work to be able to do it on my own! Everyone thinks that there is some guy pulling strings behind me! But it’s very hard to let people in, and I think I’m very protective of it. That makes it even harder for me.

Is there a line for you between the persona of Zola Jesus and Nika?

Mmm….no. I mean the whole point of the music is to understand myself better and push myself. If I were to pass it off as a façade I think that I wouldn’t be growing in any way. I think it’s really important that they are the same thing.

Do you think the idea of persona ever overshadows what you’re doing? I hate to use the “G” word, but I know you’ve been called Goth in the past.

No, if anything it’s just a reaction. It’s never really something that I’ve been conscience of.

You’re certainly not walking around shilling for Hot Topic.

No! That’s the last thing I want! People saying that instills a sense of anxiety and aggression.

And that’s when she choked the journalist.

[laughs] Yeah!

One thing that seems to come up a lot in your work is the idea of Situationism and the idea of building your own context for work.

I think that it’s really important that whatever you do, you don’t have, “This is what I create, and this is my real life.” They should be completely connected and inseparable. Otherwise I feel it reduces the honesty or integrity in what you’re doing. Situationism in a way is just having that ultimate conviction in what you’re creating, that it’s a reflection of who you are and what your ultimate goal is as a human being. Not just as an artist or whatever.

That makes sense, like you were saying about how moving to LA and recording has changed your sound. Do you feel like getting married has done that for you as well?

I don’t know. I don’t think so. [pauses] It’s weird. I always want to say that my personal life has nothing to do with my music. But it really is my music. If anything, I think it’s made me less of a misanthrope. [laughs] I now can’t say that I don’t have faith in anyone. I know I have faith in at least one person. It’s really forced me to challenge a lot of what I believed in previously.

Do you think that the next album could be the marriage album?

I don’t know. I think this one would have been. I think Stridulum was mostly the marriage album. That’s when I met him. That’s when I was dating him. It was at that moment that I knew that I wanted to marry him. Even getting married, by the time I got married to him I felt like we had already been married, because it was that moment that I realized I’m not alone. I’m not in this alone. I have this other person that I can have that ultimate faith in.

Do you believe in the idea of love at first sight?

It’s hard, because what I want to say is that I don’t even believe in love at all. Whatever, I won’t get into that. But I think it’s a chemical reaction in a way. When I did meet Adam I knew instantly that I had a connection with him in a way that I never had with anyone else.

Is there a spiritual element to making music for you?

I don’t know if it’s necessarily spiritual, because I don’t know if I believe in that. But it’s very much meditative. When I make music I’m not really thinking about what I’m singing about. That first moment when I’m making music or singing, that first impulse reflects things inside of me that I didn’t know were there. In that way it’s self-exploration. I guess that could be considered spiritual. Maybe that’s the closest I’ve gotten to spirituality.

You studied philosophy in school. Is there a belief system—even a non-spiritual one—that you subscribe to?

I tend to believe in things that I can see. I very much believe in the truth in nature. I like to study animal nature and animal behavior. In that way, it reflects how we work as humans. We’re animals, and I think that we forget that a lot. [a group of uniformed school children skip by] They’re literally frolicking! What a bucolic scene. Let’s just look at that.

The ideal of it being an internal process reminded me of a track that was on your album “Ixodie.” Is the wordless nature of that track a reflection of your internal workings?

For me that song sounds like early Zola Jesus. In the beginning I didn’t have any words or anything, it was just that compulsion and that release. It wasn’t about what I was saying; it was about how I was feeling. I wanted to do that on the new record, because I just felt like I needed that, I needed to do that again. The thing I like about it too, is that it can never be wrong. There are no words, and there are so many different melodies happening simultaneously.  The song can never be wrong, and it can mean whatever it wants to mean. There can really be no other linguistic context for it. Sometimes I think words ruin a song’s meaning. You really like a song and then you read the lyrics and, oh that’s so stupid! I wish I didn’t hear that word! I wish I didn’t hear that phrase.

Is that a song that when you perform live you can change it up for yourself?

That’s kinda what I mean, I can never get it wrong. Part of my stage fright is the fact that I’m going to mess it up. I’m not going to do my own song justice. With “Ixode” it’s that breathing room where I can be like, “It doesn’t matter.” There are no words, I can do whatever I want.

Do you suffer from stage fright?

Oh yeah. Lots of anxiety about it.

Is that something you’ve always had to work on?

Yeah. It definitely stems from my time studying opera. The only time I’d be performing would be for recitals, where I’d be showcasing everything I’ve learned and how I’ve grown, or competitions. Both of those, there’s a sense of competition. You’re either having to prove your growth or prove your talent or your skill, and get graded on it. That’s just terrifying. It’s tough to put an eight-year-old through that. For ten years! Not to say any one put me through it but myself. That’s just kind of carried over.

If you had kids one day would you encourage them to get into opera?

My parents never put me in it. In fact, I forced them to put me in it. If a child wants it that bad, I can’t imagine why you’d say no. I think it would be a disservice. The competitions, as an institution of studying music academically, is so rotten and so archaic. It’s not even archaic, it goes against the power of music and expression. They’re trying to strip expression from music.

Is that still in you? When you release an album, do you feel like you have something to prove?

For myself yes, I feel like there are all these things inside of me, all these ambitions inside of me, and if I don’t get them out in a way that I’m proud of them, I feel like they’re still there.

Do you feel like with the release of this new album you were able to get some out? Or is there always that feeling of “I could do a little more.”

[Emphatically] Oh no, I could have done much better. I basically worked until I couldn’t see or sing straight. That record took everything out of me. Even that’s not enough. I feel like it’s gotta kill me. When you do it all yourself, you’re responsible for everything. So I had to learn to be all these different people in the making of the record. I feel like I wasn’t the best at any of them.

Have other records been like that?

That’s how it is every time.

Do you foresee a day when you might be able to—if not outsource some of the work—than at least not hold it so tightly?

I would like that. But then, I get upset when I hear a record I really like and I realize the things that I like about it weren’t done by the person whose face is on the record. It makes me feel like I’ve been cheated. I don’t want to be that. I want to be that face that you know they’ve done everything on the record. It just means that my success will come later. My own personal success will come later, because I’ve got to master all of those skills first. So if that’s the way it’s gotta be, that’s the way it’s gotta be. Maybe I’ll try to work with other people in the future, but I won’t feel really fulfilled until I do it all myself.

That’s an interesting point that I’ve never really considered. Yeah, you want the person whose face is on the record to be the person.

Yeah, I want that person to do it all.

Outside of your own project, you do collaborate well with others?

I do like to do that.

Is that relaxing for you when you’re not responsible for everything?

It’s the ideal.  If I didn’t have such high standards for myself, or I didn’t have such high expectations for Zola Jesus, that’s what I would do. I like that, I like collaborating with people and bouncing ideas off of them. I think that’s really important.

That M83 track you guested on was amazing.

Oh my gosh! When he sent that to me I was like, “Are you kidding? Oh my God!” It’s perfect. It’s perfect.

It made me tear up. 

Me too! Me too!

And you also worked with Prefuse 73. Are you actively looking to do more collaborations?

Yeah, if there are opportunities like that with people that I respect, then it’s always an honor. It’s just fun for me.

Is there a point where you ever see collaborations happening on your own album?

That’s the funny thing, [Anthony Gonzalez] actually owes me one. We were like, “Let’s collaborate on each other’s records. So I did the thing for him, and he was going to do the thing for me. But I got so freaked out about bringing someone in on the record that I was like, “hummm…maybe the next record.” He is one of the most brilliant musicians of modern time, I feel. It is an extreme honor for him to be on one of my records. That just shows what an insane crazy person I am.

Well, you know, if the crazy doesn’t leak out in your life it can leak out in your work.

Well, we’ll see. It’s one and the same like I said before.

Maybe I should be interviewing your husband.

Yeah! [laughs] Get the real story.

You also collaborated on that really cool Serge Gainsbourg concert at the Hollywood Bowl. I imagine suffering from stage fright playing The Hollywood Bowl was intense.

Oh my gosh, it was surreal. So surreal. I got to meet one of my heroes, Mike Patton and Jean-Claude Vanier. Two heroes.

What was your response when you were approached to take part?

Beck was currating it. He put my name in, saying that he wanted me to perform. I got the memo. I said of course, because I love Serge Gainsbourg. It was a no-brainier for me.

Is there an obvious 2011 highlight for you?

Probably playing at the Hollywood Bowl. That was pretty extreme. But there were so many great things. Working with Anthony was pretty amazing. Playing shows was really great. Just going on tour. There were so many highlights.

Is this something you dreamed about as a kid? Or is this outstripping all your childhood dreams?

We haven’t even gotten to my dreams yet! [laughs] This is just on the way! When I was really little, I had these very typical goals. Mile markers. Chart on Billboard—which I did this year. A review in Rolling Stone, which was a huge deal back then. Got that! Now I’ve just got to play Madison Square Garden. Hollywood Bowl was a big one, so that’s done too. But yeah, I’ve still got a lot of work to do.

Wow. I don’t think I have any clue what I wanted to do as a child.

At least you had fun! I spent my whole childhood going [balls up fists] “Get me out of here!”

Looking into the next year, are there any goals you’re hoping to hit along the way to, say, Madison Square Garden?

Well I definitely want to keep touring and playing new territories. I want to go to South America, I want to go to Iceland very badly, and I want to go to more Eastern Europe,” Most of all, I just want to make the next record. I feel like I have so much more work to do.

(www.zolajesus.com

 

 



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