In the weeks leading up to a fall tour supporting her latest release Versions, Zola Jesus (a.k.a. Nika Roza Danilova) is seemingly complacent and calm. This isn’t exactly the state you’d expect to find the 24-year-old Wisconsin native, whose fervent and—at times—timid demeanor has fueled her form of dark wave, which ripples from her gothic and experimental industrial roots. Her music is more than a sound, though; it is her vessel for expressing her impassive alliance with the world around her.
Take the song “Sea Talk” for example, a melancholic ballad that first appeared on 2009’s Tsar Bomba EP. Here, it’s muddled in lo-fi fuzz and reverb that constrains her classically trained opera voice to a distant cry. That track has since been recorded twice more, appearing on 2010’s breakthrough Stridulum EP and again in its clearest iteration on this year’s Versions, a collaboration with the Mivos Quartet and Foetus rocker-cum-composer J.G. Thirlwell in which Danilova’s songs have been re-interpreted with delicate string arrangements that awaken Danilova’s fragile voice from its core. Evolution of songs like “Sea Talk” are demonstrative proof of Danilova coming into her own. As an artist, she is finally discovering the most honest means of expressing her complex introversion.
In a phone interview, the artist remarks on the busy year so far, which began with a winter writing session of a new, untitled album from a light-filled cabin overlooking Puget Sound. Flash forward a few months later to New York City, where she staged one of her most monumental performances to date at the Guggenheim alongside Thirlwell, who metamorphosed familiar songs like “Fall Back” and “Night” into delicate string compositions that inevitably became Versions.
In many ways, this album symbolizes a turning point for Zola Jesus. It is prevalent on earlier works like 2009’s The Spoils and the New Amsterdam EP how the esoteric ethos of Zola Jesus is inspired by depressive 19th-century philosophers like Schopenhauer and such early ’90s industrial groups as Thirlwell’s own Throbbing Gristle. But with the melodic ballads and Danilova’s delicate vocal work on Versions, there’s no question that she’s pushing herself out of a dark corner that has been a limiting force until now.
Boxx Magazine contributor Jess Blumensheid talks to Danilova about working with collaborators (also including David Lynch), writing in the winter, and why her new albums will never be the same.
Jess Blumensheid: What influenced you to re-record your songs for Versions?
Zola Jesus: Essentially it was for the show that I played at the Guggenheim. I really wanted to do something different for that amazing structure, so I decided to hire a string quartet because I felt they would resonate in that space better than electronics. That show went over very well, and it instilled something in me I wanted to explore. I had these arrangements and wanted to continue the thread I was following with the show. What better medium to put all of these arrangements than on a record?
JB: You’ve wanted to work with strings for some time. How was the Guggenheim show the tipping point for that?
ZJ: The Guggenheim show gave me an impetus to finally commit to recording with strings. When I got the offer for the show, I knew I wanted strings. And once I played the show, I wanted to record them. I was following my intuition the whole time.
JB: What has it been like to work alongside J.G. Thirlwell?
ZJ: I met him through the Guggenheim show because I needed a string arranger. I was asking around friends if they had any ideas of people I could work with, and they introduced me to J.G. It’s been incredible because I’m a huge fan of his. We really hit it off, and his arrangements were more than perfect—they were more than I could ask for. We kept pulling the work out of each other, and that’s how Versions was written.
JB: You have quite the backlog of collaborators, from David Lynch to J.G. Thirlwell. What’s the most rewarding experience having worked with other artists?
ZJ: I’ve never been in a band. I’ve never made music with other people. It’s always been a very isolated event for me, which I love. But at the same time, I don’t know if I’m doing things right. I was classically trained, but you never know if what you’re doing is the right way to do it. So collaborating is a fun way to watch the way other people work, bounce off ideas and get your footing in the world.
JB: What were you able to express on Versions you haven’t been able to before?
ZJ: I invested a lot emotionally and musically into the making of Versions. I couldn’t have made this record in 2010, when I made Stridulum or Conatus. Everything finally fell into place for me. I had so much fear for my voice after studying opera and trying so hard to have a piece for myself. It took so long to become comfortable with singing purely, not criticizing it and just letting it be what it is. That was really important on Versions. I didn’t want any reverb, any echo, any vocal effects. I wanted it to feel live. It took me a long time to get to the point where I felt comfortable.
JB: Where does this fear for your voice stem from?
ZJ: My lack of confidence in performing. There was some time between touring for Conatus and recording Versions when I started singing a lot more and started studying with my old opera coach. I’d ask her if I sounded good or bad. Sometimes she’d tell me: “This sounds bad. Why are you doing this?” Other times she’d say, “No, this sounds beautiful.” I needed someone to have faith in my voice. I feel like I’m doing the right things. But when I look back at myself, I often wonder where I was coming from.
JB: How long has it been since you’ve worked with your opera coach?
ZJ: I studied with her when I was young until about high school. I stopped because, at the time, I didn’t think I needed lessons and thought that studying the voice actually ruined it. But really I was hurting my voice on tour because I was singing incorrectly for so long.
JB: How has your relationship with your voice changed over time?
ZJ: I’m learning to become more objective. I’m now able to listen to my voice and think about it as a technical instrument. My voice was a gateway to everything about me. So now I’m trying to let go a little bit and look at it objectively.
JB: What will you be doing different on this upcoming tour for Versions?
ZJ: In the past, I always played rock clubs with a lot of lights and fog. Everything was very moody. We’re open on this tour to make it feel more raw and to allow the songs to speak for themselves. I want it to feel live and intimate, which is a huge challenge I’m excited about.
JB: On the many iterations of tracks like “Sea Talk,” there’s a prevalent fear of isolation or vulnerability that has defined the essence of Zola Jesus. How do you see this sensitivity in your work?
ZJ: So much of Zola Jesus is about my own disorder. It’s been about internalization, alienation and catharsis. That’s why I’ve been afraid to sing pretty or have a good voice. To be up there and be a performer goes against the honesty of my songs. Part of me wants to reach forward to be a very objective performer and be up there with a pop star. But another part feels that’s so wrong and not me. It’s interesting to try to find the balance to reconcile the two. You can’t grow if you’re constantly curled up in a fetal position with your head down, too afraid to look at the audience.
JB: The industrial influences that have a heavy presence on earlier albums like The Spoils and Stridulum are less so on the more melodic Versions. What are you doing differently now to channel your experimental roots?
ZJ: With Versions, it’s about the songs. I don’t care about the sound. I just want the songs to be good. The structure is more important to me. Whereas in the past, it was all about the sound, the aesthetic, the set. It’s a different way to approach music and the act of a songwriter. Evolution is inevitable. What I was doing with the industrial and noise sounds of my past records will not be on my future records in the same way. That influence might appear in bits and pieces. But whatever I made a couple years ago, I will never be able to make again.
JB: You were writing new material earlier this year on an island of Seattle. What was most inspiring about that space?
ZJ: I had the most incredible view from my studio. I’d spent hours just looking out onto Puget Sound through a wall of windows. Nature and architecture really inspire me when I’m writing or recording.
JB: Do you still prefer to write in the winter?
ZJ: I prefer the winter because it’s much quieter. I can hear myself. I grew up in an area where winter plays a large part in everyday life. I’ve always loved the endurance of winter, how it feels like a massive journey to get from point A to point B anywhere in the city. It makes me think about the fragility of life in a way, how much we’re willing to work to just get out of our house during those times. It still inspires me.
JB: What are you thinking lyrically for the new album?
ZJ: The lyrics that I’ve been working for the next records have been neither positive nor negative. For the past three years I’ve been touring and playing these songs, and as cathartic and amazing as it feels as I’m writing them, it’s gotten to the point where I keep reliving and delving into this emotion every single day. I want to sing in a space in which I actually feel hopeful. That’s how I feel right now, I feel very hopeful. There are a lot of things that I’m exploring that aren’t necessarily about humanity collapsing in on itself. What can we do to fix it? That’s more important for me right now.
Catch Zola Jesus on the Versions tour:
9/26/13 San Francisco, CA @ Palace of Fine Arts
9/27/13 Hollywood, CA @ Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever
9/28/13 Seattle, WA @ The Triple Door
10/24/13 Chicago, IL @ Garfield Park Observatory
10/25/13 Washington, DC @ Hirshhorn Museum
10/26/13 Asheville, NC @ Mountain Oasis
(Cover photo by Angel Ceballos, inset photo by The Impossible Project)