ZOLA JESUS: Sacred Power

Is Zola Jesus an insufferably pretentious imitator, a visionary and innovator, or maybe something a little more complicated?

Words: Anna Graizbord

When you hear about a fresh-out-of-college musician claiming to be wild about Schopenhauer, Situationism, Opera, and dressing in all black (with a name that smacks of desperate grasps at profundity), you might put yourself at risk for rolling your eyes so hard that they fall right out of your skull. Actually listening to Zola Jesus, on the other hand, might inexplicably make you feel something real, despite all the red flags.

Sonically, Zola Jesus (Nika Roza Danilova) has been compared most to Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux. Early in her career, Danilova had a tendency toward the Lo-Fi sound, which for sure did her plenty of favors given the late 2000s/early 2010s musical climate—creating a sound closer to Bat For Lashes. As she started to release more and more EPs, albums and tracks, her voice became more clear, both in terms of the production quality, as well as that Danilova herself seemed to better understand and actualize her own direction as an artist.

One particularly personal quality Danilova says is a large component of her inspiration, when creating music, is her upbringing in the city of Merrill– a cold, woodland town in Wisconsin. If you’d never heard her music, you’d tend to think that taxidermied animals and the ubiquitous antlers of the restaurants and bars in Brooklyn would be abound in her aesthetic. It is however, quite the opposite. Though you could say she’s more of a Nouveau Goth, her aesthetic and sound are more evocative of an other-worldly, yet familiar landscape. Perhaps some combination of her Industrial/Electronic tendencies, her operatic sensibilities, and her appreciation for Pop melody is partly responsible. As she told Pitchfork:

“I love weird power electronics and industrial music, but then I also really love intensely powerful melodic songs. Something like a Ronettes song hits you in such a different way than noise stuff. For me, the ideal is bringing both the experimental and the Pop music in. It’s hard to accomplish. I think it’s all about finding a good medium.”

The result in her new album Conatus, is that she enters a similar ominous, electronic territory as The Knife. Though unlike the Swedish duo, the type of emotion communicated in Danilova’s voice is something quite more personal. Though it’s clear Danilova knows how to use her voice technically, there is an element of something unwieldy lying beneath that jumps out and surprises you in the midst of such crisp production:

“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… 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.”

In other words, Danilova doesn’t need Lo-Fi effects and filters to be able to give herself some emotional weight. The standout track on the new album is definitely “Collapse”, in which Danilova seems to be firing on all cylinders at once: composition, lyrics, melody and arrangements. Perhaps being a little precocious to start actually pays off big-time at the time of one’s peak—though it remains to be seen whether or not Danilova has hit hers or is still climbing.

Follow Zola Jesus on Twitter, @ZolaJesus

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