Zola Jesus is in a playground at midnight, and she's mucking in the darkest places, searching out tiny pains and feeding them blood and chocolate until they're large and capable of decimating cities. She's a conjurer, cloaking her voice in a strata of black magic and divined emotion. Zola Jesus is shaking you, showing you the yoke of sadness hanging like a pimp chain around your neck, and asking why the hell you aren't facing it, admiring its facets and polishing it up for the world to see. Because that's what she's done -- why can't you?
This tiny wizard trapped in human form is one of the most exciting artists of the new decade. Born Nika Roza Danilova, she came up in rural Wisconsin, lost in daydreams and hyper-focused on pursuing a career in opera. The discipline didn't jive with her artistic aims -- she found singing other people's words to be creatively counterfeit -- but opera instilled a superhuman work ethic and a serious unwillingness to compromise. With her new album Conatus, she's evolved out of the lo-fi hiss and wheeze with ease and proved the old saw that every teacher teaches and no student learns -- practice makes perfect. A self-described control freak, Zola Jesus has set herself up as the harbinger of a quality revolution, one that places talent and drive lightyears above from the mantle of mediocrity plaguing music today.
We caught up with Danilova to talk about David Lynch's remix of "In Your Nature," what she was like as a kid, the worst cover she's ever done and her predilection for productive suffering. Catch her with Brooklyn noiseniks Talk Normal at the Luminary Center for the Arts (4900 Reber Place, 314-807-5984) on Thursday, February 23.
Diana Benanti: The last time we spoke, you said one day you'd like to do a Zola Jesus opera, and that you're working on it indefinitely. Is that still on your radar at all?
Zola Jesus: Well yeah, but it's not something I'm racing to do yet. I feel like there's so much time.
Do you think you'll ever make an album any differently than doing it all by yourself in the studio?
I don't know, yeah, I think so because I'd like that for a good challenge. But I'm a bit of a control freak, so that's going to be a big hurdle to get over.
Does your band ever say, 'Nika, we can't replicate this sound on stage?'
Oh no, they definitely will be like, "Oh, this isn't sounding right, this could sound better." When I play live, it's definitely a collaboration, you know, because I'm relinquishing these songs up to these people who have their own innate styles and are extremely talented and can bring new life to the songs on the stage.
The new album is pretty hi-fi. Were you intentionally cleaning up the sound or was it just a natural progression for you?
It was natural. I've just been growing so much as a producer and a songwriter and everything that I've been wanting to push myself further and further to make music that sounds very clean. Because I think when you're coming from a very clean slate, you can focus on the musicianship and the songs, I think you need to make sure that our songs have legs. That's been important for me.
Is there anything you weren't happy with on this one that you've noted for the next album?
Yeah, I'm always making notes. I think I'm going to be more time in the studio just because I think I could benefit with working with more soundboards and things like that, and more consoles. I can't really say exactly, but there are little bits and pieces of things that I'd like to try differently.
What was your first thought when you found out David Lynch wanted to remix one of your songs?
I was confused. [laughs] Yeah, it was just, yeah. It was kind of surreal. The label has a relationship with him, and they approached him about doing a remix, and then didn't really know if he'd be interested but he was, so they sent him a bunch of songs. And then he sent "In Your Nature" back to us remixed. It was like, oh, okay, it happened [laughs].
What do you think of the remix?
It's beautiful, I listen to the song so much differently now. He breathed new life into it.
Did you know that Anthony Gonzales was going to open his album with your track? How did that happen?
He sent me the demo and I sent him this kind of rough idea back. Then we got together in the studio and basically did that, except made some minor adjustments. And we worked on it together, we worked on the vocal track together, not the song.
Have you noticed a shift in the people who are turning out to your shows since appearing on the M83 album?
There might be some. I think that there's a lot of things that have been happening in the last couple of months that have gained maybe more exposure, so people are coming out and are curious, and definitely know my older stuff. It's cool!
Whose voice do you love and whose voice do you hate?
Hmm. Let me think about that. I love Scott Walker's voice. I hate, um, let me think. There's gotta be some. I just hate really thin, breathy voices, I don't know who has that. I can't even think of someone. Voices that I feel don't have any power behind them.
That makes sense, given your opera background.
[Laughs] Yeah, absolutely.
What was your first screenname?
My first screenname?! Oh man. I gotta think about that.
No fair making one up to sound cooler.
[laughs] No, I know, I'm not going to make one up! Man, these are some tough ones. It was like, um, it said something with skater in it, because I used to skate. Skatergrrl or something stupid.
So given your age and screenname, were you an Avril Lavigne fan when she came out?
Nooooo. She sucked. I was listening to like GG Allin and Fear.
Oh right, I forgot you're really cool. Seriously.
No I'm not!
What were you like growing up?
I don't know, I guess I was really imaginative. I was constantly living in this other world. I think that's part of the reason why I'm so grounded now, because I spent so much of my life with my head in the clouds. I was really focused and I didn't have many friends, because I just didn't care ... about other people. [laughs] I was just a girl who ran around.
You've mentioned in interviews that you've struggled with depression and anxiety--without those challenges, would you still be Zola Jesus or do you think you'd have gone a different way?
No, I think that that has really informed who I am, especially everything that I've been through in my life has changed how I see the world and how I make music because of that. It's definitely all connected. You once unwittingly summed up my entire life in a single sentence, saying that you believe in suffering, because, "it makes me feel like I'm achieving something by suffering." do you still feel that way, or do you feel like you have to maintain a level of suffering in order to continue creating?
The thing about suffering or discomfort in general, facing things that you're afraid of, is that it feels like I said, like you're achieving something, like you're productive because you're overcoming. Because without suffering you can't overcome anything, and if you can't overcome anything you're living in a stasis. So, I feel like no matter what you're doing in your life you're always going to have obstacles, and it's good to have obstacles, you don't want to live in a life without obstacles, because then you're not really existing, you're not using the potential of being a human being. I'm not putting myself in situations where I'm suffering, but I'm always shooting to live a life where there can always be another step in front of me. It keeps you feeling like there's hope you know? It keeps you feeling like there's something left in the world for you.
Right? Exactly. Will you ever cover "Crying" by Roy Orbison, say, in St. Louis on February 23?
I don't know, I do love that song, but I haven't learned it. I'm very slow with covers.
Have you covered anything before live?
Yes, and then I told myself I would never cover anything again because I think I slaughtered the song. I don't like it.
I did "Baby's On Fire" by Brian Eno like at my first show ever, and then I did "Somebody to Love" by Jefferson Airplane. I don't like covering songs because it's just like singing opera. You're singing someone else's music, and I feel that I have a standard and an expectation to withhold, so it's too stressful.
"Baby's On Fire" is one of my favorite songs ever.
I know, mine too, which is why I can never go near it again. It just crashed and burned.
Oh man, I hope there's a bootleg of that somewhere, I'm going to look it up.
Oh please! Please don't! I promise you. It was my first show ever. That's like the pink elephant.
If Lady Gaga ever asked you to collaborate, would you? Since you're both Klaus Nomi fans and all.
I don't know. I think it would be funny, I think it would be interesting, but I mean, I haven't been asked yet.
If you could work with anyone alive or dead who would it be?
Probably, this is going to sound stupid, but probably like, Stockhausen, because I think he was such a pioneer. I would just like to see him work.
Are you happy with the level or notoriety that you've gained or would you like to be more famous? I know that's kind of funny sounding, but you seem like such a humble person, like being a super pop star might kill your spirit or something.
I don't know how I could exist with that sort of attention on me. I don't know how anyone can exist with that kind of attention on them. I'm not really sure. Really what I want is to be able to make the records that I have in my head, which takes a giant orchestra and a lot of money. If that means I can make the records I want to make, then sure, but I don't need that alone or apart from that.
Is there someone out there right now whose career you admire from start to finish?
I don't know, there aren't that many that have finished yet. Let's see. We were just talking the other day about how much I love and respect Crispin Glover, so maybe him. Anyone that's been able to do what they want to do and fulfill their vision completely and wholly to me feels like the ultimate ideal, as someone making music. But I guess I don't really know if anyone has had to make compromises.
Has living in LA altered your perspective or made you soft?
I think it made me realize I'm pretty cold-blooded, it's made it more apparent to me, because when I was living in Wisconsin, I just thought everything was cold. I really try not to let that happen to me because I feel like that just deadens you. Everything that I've spent my whole life. I do have pride, I have pride on being someone who has a work ethic and is from Wisconsin, so to lose that I'd feel like I lost my identity.
What's your favorite thing to eat when you're on tour?
Chocolate. I can't survive a day without it, it's like my reward when I get off stage.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Not really, I usually need to be alone with the band, I can't really be around strangers or anything, because that makes me really anxious, but other than that, I'm usually okay.
You wear some serious shit on stage -- I'm thinking of that amazing grey dress from Pitchfork last year. Where do you get your clothes?
Sometimes someone will send something to me that I like, or I'll find something at a store. It just has to be something that I can move around in, that feels like a clean slate. I don't have one go-to shop.
I really loved the LA Vampires and Zola Jesus project. Do you have a favorite collaboration?
Hm. I don't know, I've done a lot of them and they're all really special to me, I can't really make a distinction about which one would be better because they're all special. It's like saying which friend do you like more. I love them all.
If you could put yourself in an artistic arena, where would that be? In more of the pop-electronica side or the Wet Hair, Rene Hell, Not Not Fun stratosphere?
I think I'm still straddling between the two. All of my friends and everything that I'm from is from the underground, I'm never going to lose that part of me because that's what I've always been, you know, on the fringe. Even as I move closer to the pop world I still feel like I'll always have this thread to the underground.