A lot of musicians talk up the notion of artistic truth, speaking in quasi-spiritual terms of the struggle required to attain this higher goal until it’s calcified in cliche, another meaningless soundbite in an era where artifice prevails.
Yet speaking to Nika Roza Danilova you’re convinced that her struggle was very much real. After all, the teenage Danilova conceived Zola Jesus as an outlet for a creativity stifled by severe anxiety over performing within the perimeters of her classical opera training. It got so bad that we nearly lost this singular musical force to business school. And that would have been unforgivable.
Thankfully it wasn’t to be, and gradually the Madison, Wisconsin native carved out a place among the outskirts of US experimentalism, drawing on influences from ’80s industrial – think the likes of SPK, Esplendor Geometrico – through to marginal noise artists and the avant garde. Her 2008 album The Spoils on Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones label saw her master a unique vocabulary of drones, cavernous acoustics and rich, anachronistic vocal timbres buried within a dense layer of lo-fi grain that suggested that Zola Jesus had very much found her voice.
Now, the release of Stridulum II offers proof that the very voice is growing in force: the production is cleaned up, the structures more delineated – it sounds a lot like pop music. Huge, gothic-imposing, immediate pop music. FACT tracked her down to talk about fun stuff like philosophy and noise bands but ended up getting deep…
“I feel like you have to reach people and win them over and you need to speak to them, then they’re willing to grow with you and learn with you and then you can take them places that they wouldn’t have gone before.”
Your album is coming out in August. It’s your Stridulum EP which came out in the US recently but with three additional tracks. Was it originally conceived as a whole album?
“No, the songs came in later when Souterrain Division – who are putting it out in Europe – wanted me to put forward tracks to make it full-length size. I tried to make them fit in with the EP but they didn’t really, I don’t think. When I feel like I’ve done something already I want to try something new, so at the time that the EP came out I already wanted to try new things and I didn’t really want to revisit an old format.”
How would you describe the new songs?
“I think they’re all fairly different. They weren’t all written together. ‘Sea Talk’ was written a couple of years ago, that’s actually on an older release of mine from 2008 but I kind of cleaned it up and made it into an almost straight-up pop song. Every song I approach with a different theme and a different vision and ‘Lightsick’ I wrote because I wanted to write a very vulnerable stripped down piano song with no electronics. Then ‘Tower’ was very aggressive.”
For Stridulum II you’ve moved away from the lo-fi aesthetics of The Spoils into a sound that’s altogether more produced, there’s a lot more clarity now. What was behind that shift?
“I just wanted to grow as an artist, I wanted to prove to myself that I didn’t have anything to hide underneath the fuzz. Sometimes it’s easy to compromise talent when you’re working with those frequencies because a lot of things get lost.”
One of the things that has become a lot more foregrounded now is use of melody, these songs feel like pop songs. Are you attracted to pop music as a form?
“Yeah. I don’t always listen to a lot of pop music but when writing songs I just think that they’re the most effective. I feel like you have to reach people and win them over and you need to speak to them, then they’re willing to grow with you and learn with you and then you can take them places that they wouldn’t have gone before. You need to reach them in a way that’s accessible and not threatening and pop music is that. It’s very emotional, instantly.
“I’m not afraid to not make pop music, I’ve had my fair share of making experimental music but to me, writing a pop song was such a bigger challenge to me than making noise and doing experimental vocal stuff. A pop song has parts, it has movements, it has to provoke a feeling from the listener on a such a vaster level because pop has to reach everyone.”
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Zola Jesus – ‘Stridulum’
A song like ‘Night’ on Stridulum has an almost rock ballad quality in its scope, yet still using sound in an unexpected way. Are you using pop music as a channel for subversion?
“Yeah exactly. I also like the people that you reach. A lot of people who listen to pop music; that’s all they ever listen to, they don’t know anything else. For me I feel it’s a duty to open people up to new things, even just new ways of thought and new ways of living.”
As a child you asked your parents to have opera lessons – why were you drawn to opera?
“I think because I wanted to be a singer and to me, if you’re going to do something you’ve got commit to it and you’ve got to do it 100 per cent. When I said I was going to be Zola Jesus I was going to do it 100 per cent. When you’re taking voice lessons that’s how you become a professional singer, to sing opera. That’s the most extreme, final way to do it.”
Do you still take lessons?
“I did a couple recently but I haven’t lately just because I’ve been so busy. I feel like now the more attention I’ve paid to my past opera training, the less comfortable I’ve felt using that voice, that training and that music because I quite opera a while ago. I had a lot of struggling with it because I was so critical of myself and how I sounded. It was terrible, I would have all these recitals lined up where you would learn a song for a recital or learn it for an opera and I could never perform in any of them because I’d would have this physiological response to anxiety and stress where I’d lose my voice before I could sing.
“It was a very ambivalent love-hate relationship with my voice and then Zola Jesus was my way of saying I don’t need opera to sing, I can sing in other ways and I can rediscover my voice. But doing that, people have been oh but you sing opera, you should have this opera-trained voice and prove it all the time and that just brings me back to feeling all those emotions I felt previously when I didn’t want people to listen to that voice and point out everything that was wrong with it.”
“I’m singing about my life and myself and nothing of it is a character, nothing of it is put on.”
How did you eventually overcome the anxiety of performing?
“I went to college, I just decided to go to business school because I wanted to do the exact opposite of what I was doing. I pretended music was never the enormous part of my life that it was previously. But then I felt really empty, it got to the point where I just felt sick and I went into a depression because I was so passionate about music and I struggled with it, I had so much passion for what I was doing, to doing something that was so intrinsically not me, going to business school and doing things that were so cut and dry. So I started Zola Jesus again, I did it when I was in high school but I gave it up but when I went to college I really started it again. It just made me realise how it’s like a curse, I need to do it.”
Do you think you hide behind the character of Zola Jesus, as something you’ve created? Obviously your look as Zola Jesus is very striking and very made-up…
“It’s definitely not a character to me. I’m constantly talking about my life, I’m talking about myself, and when I sing I’m singing about my life and myself and nothing of it is a character, nothing of it is put on.”
Is conveying truth as an artist something that really drives you?
“Oh yeah. I like to observe things, I’m sure everyone does, but I notice a lot – and now I live in Los Angeles it’s really severe here – I notice a lot of inauthenticity, a lot of people that just aren’t genuine. If someone looks you in the face and smiles at you they’re just not genuine about it. Everyone is so selfish. In a sense it’s fine to be selfish because this is your world and you’re living it for yourself, but be honest about it, don’t lie through your teeth like that. I think it’s important for someone that’s speaking to the public and speaking for the public to be honest about it, to bring up things, emotions, that aren’t usually in the mass media.”
You seem to be attracted to extreme forms of expression…
“Yeah I am.”
On the one hand you’ve had opera training but you’re also really influenced by noise. What is it about that particular genre which fascinates you?
“It’s harsh, it’s unpleasant and sometimes the process of creating the music or listening to it live or listening to it on record or on tape is uncomfortable. Not only is it that the frequencies are uncomfortable but the subject matter and the content and everything around a certain project is just completely uncomfortable. I really like the intensity of it and when people do it they’re so committed and so intense I just think that it’s very honest, I think it’s some of the most honest music out there and that’s what I like about it.”
“I was accustomed to music just being something you listened to and that’s it, you enjoy it. But when I found out about The Residents and Diamanda Galas and Throbbing Gristle and all these bands it made you feel a certain way that wasn’t just pleasant radio music. That blew me away.”
Talking of discomfort, there are moments in your music that are genuinely frightening. for example the EP you did with Burial Hex there’s snatches of noises that, if you listen to on headphones in a dark room, will freak you out. Do you actively want to shock listeners?
“Absolutely. I think that there’s a lot of music these days that is really pleasant and really easy to listen to. There are people that are making music that is uncomfortable and I want to contribute to just making honest that isn’t putting the listener in denial about anything. Maybe it’s scary, maybe it’s unpleasant but it’s honest and it’s not going to put anyone in denial…”
Are there any records that have stood out for you, that have disturbed you?
“The Residents have done that for me, they’re so brilliant. The first time I listened to them I listened to their record Eskimo and it was just, as a child listening to it, it was so far out. I loved how they made me feel, I was blown away that music could make you feel that way. I was accustomed to music just being something you listened to and that’s it, you enjoy it. But when I found out about The Residents and Diamanda Galas and Throbbing Gristle and all these bands it made you feel a certain way that wasn’t just pleasant radio music. That blew me away.”
“It mostly has to do with confronting yourself as a human and learning to find your place in the world.”
You’re from Wisconsin and you grew up in the country. How has this environment influenced you as an artist?
“It’s really shaped me in a unique way because growing up I was close to a normal-sized city but I didn’t live there, I lived in the country. I often didn’t have a lot of opportunity to go to that city just because I didn’t drive and so when I grew up, I grew up learning to be alone and learning to have my family. My family values are very strong, I’m very close to them, and they became all I really needed.
“I never had that desire to socialise or be with people my age, and that made me made me feel really comfortable with being alone and locking myself in my room and playing music or singing for hours and hours and hours. It just made me focus more on myself and learning, in my house we had a library and I would constantly be reading a book. That’s what I did as a child.”
What kind of books did you read?
“I read classics when I was younger, because I felt like you need to get everything out of the way. I always think of the 18th century, you had to develop yourself as a person, to be a Romantic. You had to be well versed and play piano, you could sing and you could play chess and you would have a knowledge of all these certain subjects. I just tried to learn everything so I could be like that perfect 18th century woman, you know?”
You studied philosophy – are there any ways of thinking that have left a lasting impression on you?
“That’s a big question. There are plenty but it mostly has to do with confronting yourself as a human and learning to find your place in the world. To me the ideas are really simple but they’re the ones people ignore because they’re the most difficult. I mean, people give themselves reasons for why they’re here, but when you realise you’re here for no reason, that’s the most difficult thing to accept because you should really take control and figure out what you want.”