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.”