Conatus, one of the standout LPs of 2011, marked a consolidation of a relatively prolific and resoundingly attention-commanding few short years for Zola Jesus, the musical outlet from American vocalist-composer Nika Rosa Danilova. Zola Jesus’s soaring, operatic voice and haunting aesthetic resulted in many established and revered artists seeking collaboration, with an eclectic who’s who ranging from Canada’s hardcore-inclined Fucked Up to a recent appearance on resurgent UK dance duo Orbital’s latest record. Such an abundance of collaborations conflicts with the sense Danilova is an artist without peers, as she explains, “I don’t really like to know what other people are doing.”
It’s one of the many delightful ostensible contradictions that define Zola Jesus – divine vocals overlaying aggressive industrial beats, resolute philosophies despite only just turning 23 years of age, and a emanating worldliness birthed from a rural Wisconson upbringing. “It’s just based on intuition, you see something you like and then you try to find more things that make you feel that way, because it instigates this curiosity in you, this intrigue. Discovering what you like and don’t like informs what you tend to create,” Danilova states in relation to her motivation. “It’s not necessarily aesthetic, because I can read a book and gather an idea. A lot of it stems from the overarching concept of what it means – a basis of life, philosophically. I like that. That is the ideal of how I want to live my life. Not only how you want it to look, but how to wake up the next day with intention.”
With a flourish of EPs and LPs leading up to Conatus, it seems Zola Jesus has reached a more stabilised echelon.
“I wanted to get to a point where I could release a record and take a little bit of time off, but I knew after Stridulum (the second Zola Jesus EP, which was fleshed out into an LP) I wasn’t done yet. I mean, I’m still not done now. For me, I become very intimidated by the LP because it’s such a declaration, in a way. It’s very stressful, putting together this kind of opus. Then to stand by it for a year and a half, you really need to believe in your material. Then to do that every year, it’s hard to keep up that momentum creatively and emotionally. So EPs are a good way of experimenting and trying new things without having that pressure put on you.”
As for working on new material, the touring schedule (one which will bring Zola Jesus to Australia for the first time at the end of the month) is currently taking precedence. “I’ve been working on training myself, in a way. When I go into make the record I feel like it’s almost going to be like the Olympics. That’s where I’m at right now, I can’t really write new material until I put myself in that mindset, but right now I’m focussing on touring,” Danilova reveals.
As for the aforementioned collaborations, Nika upholds a necessary selective approach. “It’s usually people that I work with that I’m familiar with, people I respect and admire. I feel like I do it because maybe I can learn something about either the process or how they’re handling things emotionally. I just like to connect with those people and join forces creatively,” she muses. “It’s fun for me, because Zola Jesus is such high stress because it’s all on me, it’s my baby. But when I’m working with other people I can be one small part of a larger thing. I almost feel like a session musician, like ‘what do you need from me?’ I can work on my chops as a player, as a singer, and as songwriter. I like it, it’s just fun,” Danilova beams.
Following on from his debut album last year, revered filmmaker David Lynch remixed the Zola Jesus track In Your Nature earlier in the year. With Lynch crossing over from the filmic world into music, could Danilova make a similar leap into cinematic pursuits anytime in the future? “Part of me feels really curious about it, but I don’t really have the patience for it,” she muses. “I really like soundtracking and composing for film, but I really like the marriage of the visual and the sonic worlds. So that is something I’m very interested in, so who knows.”
From the beginning, Zola Jesus has been beset by the label of ‘gothic’, a trend which Danilova struggles to come to terms with. “I have no idea what it means. I’m perplexed by my association with it. I like gothic architecture? It’s not my favourite architecture, but it’s nice. I think people tend to characterise darkness and the exploration of the uncomfortable because they’re not ready to confront it as a reality, so they create this cartoon. But also people who consider themselves ‘goth’ are part of the problem, they wear it as a funny costume, on the inside and the outside, rather than confronting the truths behind these transgressive issues.”
Both in conversation and in her artistic output, Danilova displays a strong affinity for philosophy. “I’m just trying to find out more about what I love and what I believe in. Reading about all those dead white guys can help teach you things about yourself, and I’m always trying to look for more answers. At this point I really have a strong conviction in what I believe in at a fundamental level. I think that is a lot of what Zola Jesus is about, projecting that outward.”
BY LACHLAN KANONIUK
ZOLA JESUS performs at Vivid LIVE Festival at the Sydney Opera House on Thursday May 31, as well as two sideshows at The Toff In Town on Saturday June 2 with Light Asylum and Forces, and on Sunday June 3 with Fabulous Diamonds.