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Zola Jesus

Serving The Song

Dec 17, 2014 Issue #51 - September/October 2014 - alt-J Bookmark and Share

Nika Danilova aspires to be more than a cult artistshe’s not afraid to admit that. In fact, with her fifth full-length release as Zola Jesus, Taiga, she is aiming for the Top 40 charts, for pop stardom, for a place beside Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Rihanna. A trained opera singer, there’s no denying she has the voice for such a transition. But after four full-length albums that set up camp near the borders of goth, industrial, and noise music, she would seem an odd candidate for a pop makeover. And, she soon found out, she couldn’t even take her voice for granted. After years of singing at maximum effort, of equating emotional catharsis with physical pain, she had started to lose her ability to convey emotions with her voice the way she wanted. She had lost confidence in her ability to sing at all.

“I tend to have a very emotional and psychological relationship with my voice,” she says. “And if I’m not confident in my voice, if I’m not feeling like I have control over it, I start to lose the ability to sing. It becomes very tense. That’s what I could start to see happening, that my voice was starting to get more and more tense, meaning I was losing the ability to move.”

Reconnecting with her opera coach from when she was growing up in Wisconsin, Danilova began the process of learning how to sing again, taking to heart the wisdom that she was allowed to break her own rules if she wanted. If she wanted to make a pop album and sing in a different, more direct way, that was her decision. Her confidence reclaimed, she would build her new album around her voice and change the rules to match. No reverb and no synthesizers would be used on this new record, shifting most of the weight onto her voice, not to mention on the fundamentals of her songwriting. No auto-tune, pitch correction, or compiling the best moments from vocal takes meant that she would only settle for perfect performances, and it would take literally hundreds of attempts to get one. Holing up in a friend’s house on the isolated Vashon Island off the coast of Washington, she wrote over 200 songs, most of them a cappella, forcing herself to focus on songs and not texture. By the time she left, she had a singularly hypnotic set of pop songs.

“I feel it is a very classical way of writing pop music,” she says. “It definitely requires you to have a really solid song. The way that I wrote [before]which I think is the way that a lot of people write these days-is that I focused on vibe. I thought it would be interesting to do something that was totally different from the way that I worked before, which was to actually have a true song in there and then build the vibe around that. As a musician, you have to constantly reevaluate what is challenging to you, because if you’re not doing something challenging, you’re not evolving,” she says. “This is the challenge I needed to face at this time.”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s September/October print issue (Issue 51).]



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