Zola Jesus performing at Waves Vienna on September 30, 2011
|Birth name||Nika Roza Danilova|
|Born||(1989-04-11) April 11, 1989 (age 24)|
Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.
|Genres||Electronic, ambient, industrial, gothic, ethereal wave, experimental, noise|
|Instruments||Vocals, piano, guitar|
|Labels||Troubleman, Sacred Bones, Die Stasi, Souterrain Transmissions|
|Associated acts||Former Ghosts, Nika+Rory, LA Vampires, M83|
Nika Roza Danilova (born April 11, 1989), better known by her stage name Zola Jesus, is an American singer-songwriter. She has released three EPs and three full-length albums that combine electronic, industrial, classical, goth, and experimental rock influences.
Nika Roza Danilova is Russian American and was raised in Merrill, Wisconsin, on more than 100 acres of forest. "I was delusional as a kid; I never spent a lot of time around other people my own age except for my brother, who's a year older", she remembered. Speaking of her childhood's harsh realities, she remembered the climate ("The cold is unbelievable. I try not to complain") and general wilderness, the lack of TV or internet. "When you live around a lot of people in a city and that synthesized stimulation, you can get lost in the hustle and bustle. When you grow up in the country you have nothing to stimulate you but what you seek," she said. Some of Danilova's later goth sensibilities might have come from the impressions of her early childhood when she was exposed to a hunter's environment and a survivalist's worldview. "My dad was a hunter so there would constantly be animal parts all over the place. He'd be out in the forest and bring back deer heads hoping that animals would eat the flesh and leave a skull. But it wouldn't happen. There would just be a deer head hanging from a tree branch you could literally bump into", she remembered. "Our milk was from the neighbor's cow. I am not a country bumpkin but this is how we live. We ate deer and pheasant and venison and all this meat that my dad would go out and kill", she added.
Danilova started singing early on, buying voice lesson tapes and opera sheet music at the age of 7; soon she began working with a vocal coach. It was not her parents' idea: "I begged them to do it. For some reason, I really wanted to sing opera even though I wasn't really exposed to it as a kid. I think my little baby toddler mind heard some opera song and then became fixated on how powerful it sounded," she later remembered. Danilova started performing opera when she was 10 years old, but experienced serious psychological difficulties. "I would too often lose my voice before performances due to anxiety, and was so hard on myself. I would beat myself up about any imperfections or flaws in my voice. I was such a perfectionist, and my voice was still so young so it couldn't do everything I wanted it to, and I resented myself for that. But since performing as Zola Jesus it's been getting easier," she later recalled. For a couple of years she had to stop singing due to anxiety and the competitive nature of opera. "I studied opera on and off for about 10 years. I wasn't in any operas, though, it was always really private and individual...I kept stopping because I was like, I'm not good enough, I suck, this is awful, and then I'd start again. I could never practice singing if anyone was home," she explained in a Pitchfork interview. In her teens Danilova started to experiment in a more rock-orientated format. By naming her alter ego after Jesus Christ and the French writer Émile Zola she said she consciously wanted to alienate peers. "It worked perfectly—a lot of people wouldn't even say Zola Jesus because they thought it was sacrilegious", she said in an interview. "Using Jesus in my name isn't necessarily supposed to be a strong statement. I respect religion and I know people do need it, but it's a weird phenomenon in our world. It's so weird," she later commented. Inspired by favorites like Ian Curtis, Lydia Lunch, Diamanda Galás, Throbbing Gristle and Swans (but also bubblegum pop and classical aria), she started to record at home, using keyboards, drum machines and "anything else she had on hand". In 2008 she debuted with singles "Poor Sons" on Die Stasi and "Soeur Sewer" on Sacred Bones Records.
Before transferring to University of Wisconsin-Madison to study French and philosophy, she attended UW-Milwaukee, where she began a business major. Of these business courses she said: "I was giving up my soul. I think I was drawn to business because it's really insensitive and unemotional, so it was the complete opposite of what I was studying with music."
In 2009, while still studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Zola Jesus recorded (in her apartment) and released her debut full-length The Spoils. The sound was in a certain way dependent on her surroundings. "I usually record in the winter because I am holed up. It's cold outside but warm inside with the heater and blankets. A lot of the songs are cold but in the coldness you find warmth. Winter has a lot to do with it.
Then followed Tsar Bomba EP (on Troubleman), New Amsterdam compilation on Sacred Bones and an untitled, limited-edition vinyl split with Burial Hex (Aurora Borealis). For touring she recruited Dead Luke (synths), bassist Lindsay Mikkola and drummer Max Elliott. Later the line-up changed to: Shane Verwey and Nick Turco (synth), Alex DeGroot ("who... does fancy controller things I can't wrap my head around, as well as backup vocals" per Danilova) and Nick Johnson, a drummer with metal band Jex Thoth.
Zola Jesus has also played with Former Ghosts. "It was fun to participate in that project. Freddy is a really amazing person, I am very honoured to be able to collaborate with him and Jamie," she commented. On Fever Ray's 2010 European tour, she performed as a support act and also toured with The xx. In the late 2009 collaboration between Zola Jesus and Rory Kane took shape (as Nika+Rory project), a demo being put out on MySpace which was described as having "more of a straight up pop feel". "Rory really nails that trance-pop-r&b style, he loves making that stuff and I love singing on it," Danilova remarked.
In 2010, Zola Jesus released the Stridulum EP, described as "a much grander effort" (next to her debut album) and her "most melodic work to date". Inspired by Giulio Paradisi 1979 film of the same name, it marked "a huge leap forward in terms of fidelity and accessibility". "With Stridulum I've tried to find a better balance; meeting in the middle with melody and texture," she explained. After the release Zola Jesus performed at the SXSW festival, for her second time.
The Valusia EP was also released on Sacred Bones in 2010. LA Vampires Meets Zola Jesus EP, the collaboration with Amanda Brown of Pocahaunted, presented "a dingy, lower-than-lo-fi sound and very little of what one would call traditional songwriting," according to Pitchfork review.
Zola Jesus's second full-length release was Stridulum II. Although regarded as her debut album in the UK, this album simply combines all six songs from the Stridulum EP (in different sequencing) with three of the four songs from the Valusia EP; the cover art is modified from the cover of Stridulum. It received 8/10 from the NME which praised Danilova's classically trained voice as "the deadliest weapon in her arsenal" and called the album "dark masterpiece". Both NME and Q declared her one of the names to watch out for in 2011.
Zola Jesus's third LP, her second album of new material was Conatus, released in late September 2011 via Sacred Bones. The album's 11 tracks were produced by Brian Foote (aka Nudge: Jackie-O Motherfucker, Cloudland Canyon) and Danilova herself, including elements of cello, double bass, violin, and viola. She was featured on Issue #76 of the Fader.
She provided guest vocals on the song "Intro" by M83 from their 2011 album Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. She also sang on "New France" by Orbital, from their 2012 album Wonky.
According to the NME, Zola Jesus "wails like Kate Bush" on a music sometimes evoking Joy Division. For Q magazine, her "haunting vocals and swirling, electronic athmospherics are located midway between Florence Welch and Siouxsie and the Banshees." She has also been linked to Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance and Elizabeth Frazer of the Cocteau Twins. Her style has been described variously as "commanded by ominous lyrics and a sultry Goth delivery," and "noise music that scrapes and glistens in equal measure." In a Spinner interview, describing her own artistic self, she said:
"I try to create songs that are really massive and intense, but at the same time remaining honest and raw. I love the feeling when you hear a song that is so overwhelming and powerful it makes your veins hurt. I'd like to write one of those songs one day. I keep the lyrics simple, no nonsense. I've always enjoyed the way old folk songs say what they need to say without becoming convoluted or ostentatious. Just words of wisdom straight from the heart of a little midwestern girl."
Reviewers praise the quality of her vocal performances. "Whether creaking or soaring, her voice transmits with a directness that easily cuts through the layers of lo-fi grime that usually surround it. You don't hear singers like this every day, or even every year," according to Pitchfork.
Danilova's been exposed to modern music through her father who listened to bands like Oingo Boingo, Dead Kennedys, Squeeze and Talking Heads. When older, she discovered The Residents and Throbbing Gristle. "I liked exploring how uncomfortable music could make you, which is how I found noise. I was terrified by the Residents when I first heard them at 13, but then I got intrigued by it and wanted to listen more," she said. "Their catalogue is one of the few of any artist where I never know what to expect with each album. [They're] constantly changing and experimenting in their art, as any great performer should. As far as a composer, I'd have to say Karlheinz Stockhausen—absolutely out of control brilliant." Answering questions about her favourite artists and composers, she was also mentioning "singers with big voices, like Diamanda Galas and Tina Turner. Divas, film scores from the '70s and '80s. Industrial and power electronics. BBC Radiophonic Workshop, opera, Philip K. Dick." Speaking to Spinner, she said: "I listen to anything that stands out. I guess something people wouldn't expect me to listen to are artists like Alicia Keys. But she is so incredibly talented. She has this huge voice and great work ethic, which I really respect in an artist. She is also very humble and gracious and devoted to her skill." Of her operatic upbringing she said:
"It has probably influenced me in several ways. When recording I look at the entire album as a whole, and not just song by song. As in operas, there are arias, interludes, etc., that all weave together to create a mood and story. Singing opera has made me very self-critical and analytical; I'm a severe perfectionist due to my studies. I was taught to sing in a way that was very biological and scientific. I resented the idea of opera as a 'skill' to be mastered, so Zola Jesus was my way of using what I knew but allowing the sounds to come out of my voice however was most comfortable, regardless of correctness."
Being a philosophy student in some ways shaped both her lyrical concepts and attitude. "In high school I was really into Situationism, which is basically the idea that you can live art. That's part of my music now, because I feel like it's not worth doing something if it's already been done. So I'm trying my best to do something that's completely novel within the parameters of it being accessible so people won't dismiss it right away", she said in an interview. "...Reading about certain philosophers changes your perspective. I was just reading this guy named Arthur Schopenhauer, who's dark as fuck. He's basically like: Kill yourself, it's not worth it. After you read his essays, you can't feel good about anything, so it's obviously going to affect my art and how I live", she added.
Serious reading played an important part in her self-education. "I probably read Dostoevsky and Nietzsche before I should have", she confessed. Danilova, much interested in philosophy, described herself as an atheist. "If there were physical evidence then maybe I would consider it. But...The Bible and all these books written by people, they are stories, compelling, yes, and they teach you about life and how to take care of people. Taking them for fact, that's really naive. They are great stories to teach moral structure, but they are just stories." When asked of her personal philosophy, she said: "I believe in not avoiding things you're afraid of. Especially really dark things."
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