Zola Jesus: New resident of Los Angeles; owner of fearsome wildcat voice
Zola Jesus, a.k.a. Nika Roza Danilova, has a voice like a savage animal. You can’t help but want it to get close to you, but to let it creep near might also guarantee that you get shredded from limb to limb. Now we understand, just a little better, the kind of paradox that must’ve enthralled “Grizzly Man” Timothy Treadwell.
Over the last couple of years, Danilova, 21, has churned out an impressive body of work with her raging stentorian vocals as the star, including 2009's full-length debut, “The Spoils,” and “Stridulum,” an EP that came out earlier this year that marked a shift from distortion-laden experimentation to a more direct songwriting style.
Opening her midnight crypt to a little dance-friendly air gained her some new fans, such as Swedish dark heart Karin Dreijer Andersson, better known as Fever Ray, who invited Danilova to open for her in Europe, as well as accolades from the New York Times and Pitchfork.
Danilova’s already back with another EP, “Valusia,” released Tuesday, that builds on her brooding but classically informed style, something like the goddess of death performing at the opera. Zola Jesus is right on time to ride the latest wave of goth proffered by Mercury Prize winners the xx, who gave Zola an opening spot on their latest U.S. tour. Thankfully, the xx and ZJ do not sully their goth with horror-show theatrics. Instead, call it minimalist bleak, with an oversize heart beating wildly underneath it all. The song below, “Lightsick,” is one of Zola Jesus’ most profound works: not much more than the thinnest damask of synth and a piano thumping around Danilova’s wounded yet strong vocals.
But for all the force of her light-smothering alto, Danilova is really a nice Midwestern girl from northern Wisconsin who values hard work and humility. Settling in Los Angeles only a month ago, Danilova is rightfully freaked out by Hollywood. “The obsession with fame and celebrity and other people,” she mused. “I just can’t wrap my head around it.” She’ll be playing tonight at the Echo, mercifully off-path for the paparazzo, with Obstacle Corpse and Broken Spindles.
May Zola's presence in Los Angeles usher in the gray-sky fall we’ve all been waiting for. Hopefully, the city won't do anything dreadful -- like make her happy.
You just graduated this summer from UW-Madison, where you studied French and philosophy. How do either of those influence Zola Jesus, if it all?
Everything influences my music subconsciously, because Zola Jesus is very personal and intimate. It pulls out who I am as a person. And especially studying philosophy has really made a huge impact on how I think, how I feel, how I live my life. It penetrates the music through the lyrics because it’s a lot about how I view the world.
Who are some of your favorite philosophers?
Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dosteyevsky. I like bleak philosophy. I like Kierkegaard. I like philosophers who are realistic, and who approach humanity as a very animal or mammal concept, giving us humans the same kind of discretion as an animal. We are animals. I like reading about humans in that context. It comes out in my lyrics. I feel like when I’m writing music it’s very aggressive and very personal. I only write when I feel like I have something to say. In a sense, philosophy has inspired me and influenced me to feel like I have something to say.
I find it interesting that you used the word aggression to talk about writing music. Can you say more about that?
I feel like everything I do is done with a lot of aggression, because I want this so bad. I’ve wanted to be a musician, a singer, to have this position in the world my whole life. I come at it with a lot of aggression because… well, maybe more so passion, because I feel like I want to show people, I want to show myself that I really do want to be here. I’ve got to prove that, prove that to the world, prove that to myself. And so I put everything into it.
You said you’ve wanted this for a long time. When did you first know that you were going to seriously pursue music?
Initially when I was about 4 or 5 years old. And then I gave it up when I was a teenager because I thought it was an unrealistic goal, that I didn’t have any talent and that I was worthless. So then I studied business and then maybe six months or a year went by and I realized again that this is what I wanted to do, and here I am. Business was the first thing I studied at college. It didn’t come natural to me at all. I’m not an analytical person; I’m not a cold person in that way. I’m very emotional. I just kept trying to fit myself into that role and it was never going to happen. The only thing that gave me joy was to sing and write music and to be in that world. It got to the point that I just let myself embrace what I truly wanted. You just have to follow what you love. When you do what you love, it just comes naturally.
You’re a trained opera singer. How much of that traditional technique do you bring to Zola Jesus?
I don’t know. I think less and less, the more I write because now that there’s been so much attention put on that part of my life, I’ve become really self-conscious of it. I quit opera singing when I was younger because I felt like it was a very technical, self-critical or just a critical in general study. People are constantly scrutinizing your voice, making sure you’re doing the technique right and that you’re a well-developed singer. It wasn’t emotional, the singing, so less and less, I’ve been focusing on that opera side because I’m very sensitive about it. When I studied opera there was a lot of performing and recitals and singing competitions where they would grade you on a scale of 1 to 4, based on how well you sang. And I don’t like the idea of singing being a skill; I like it to be more of an expression. That’s why I never focus on technique or correctness in Zola Jesus, because it’s an expression. It shouldn’t be a skill; skill either means you’re good or you’re bad at it.
You’ve been touring with the xx and Fever Ray. What have you learned from them in terms of your stage show or anything else about writing music or the business end?
Karin [Dreijer Andersson] is such a strong artist. Her concept and her idea of what her music should look like and sound like is really stunning; her conviction for what she does with her art is so fresh and so inspiring. I felt really lucky to perform with her and to have the opportunity to speak with her. There’s always a hole in culture and art and someone’s got to fill it. There was a need for something refreshing and progressive, and she’s definitely filling that hole. I felt proud to be invited to play with her. The xx are the sweetest, most humble kids. I bonded with them so much. They have such strong vision and they know what they want to be doing and they work so hard at it. It was very exciting to play with both of them.
What are you working on now?
Now I am touring so I’m not working on anything, which is kind of stressful because I want to be producing something. When I get back from touring in December, I’m going to start writing the next record. I don’t like touring that much. I don’t like being away from home, being around people all the time. I don’t like people very much. It’s kind of like a beat-down. I’m not at the point where I experience any of the luxuries of touring; I don’t have a tour bus or stay in nice hotels. It’s very hard and difficult and challenging and for that, I like it. It’s a good challenge to my body and mind and my spirit. It reinforces how bad I want this.
Who are some of your favorite singers?
I love Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Mariah Carey. I like all the greats as far as singers go, but probably my favorite vocalist is Diamanda Galas. I think everyone should be that because she’s probably the most powerful vocalist in the world. I think she’s incredible. I love big, strong, powerful vocals from a woman. I think big voices tend to carry across and communicate passion, which I feel like is important in any art, whether it's film or music or painting. You’ve got to have a lot of passion for what you do, and conviction and tenacity. And big voices communicate that really well. It’s a force to be reckoned with.
Zola Jesus plays tonight at the Echo, 1822 Sunset Blvd. 8:30 p.m. $10.
Photo by Sumner Dilworth