Zola Jesus: "I Have This Fantasy . . . of Being a Pop Star."
When she was young, Nika Danilova trained to sing opera but often lost her voice due to performance anxiety. When Danilova began performing as Zola Jesus in Madison, Wisconsin, her harrowing voice slowly grew confident among thickets of tape hiss and ambient synths. On her latest full-length, Conatus, Danilova's voice is granted the high-fidelity expanse it deserves.
While not wholly abandoning the kinetic industrial rhythms and gloomy atmospherics of her past, the album firmly plants Danilova in electronic pop terrain. Now residing in Los Angeles, the 22-year-old has garnered critical praise and widespread acclaim; eccentric film director David Lynch recently remixed one of her singles. Still, she says, pop stardom is hardly the goal.
Zola Jesus is scheduled to perform Wednesday, February 1, at Crescent Ballroom.
Up on the Sun: Even though your older recordings have a lo-fi production quality, you've never drowned your vocals in so much reverb and delay as to become incomprehensible. Has vocal concision been a goal of yours?
Nika Danilova: I learned music basically by singing. It's always been my main instrument and tool. For it to be completely drowned out would be like losing my voice literally and metaphorically.
You're one of the first artists on the Sacred Bones roster. The label has a consistent aesthetic with its record covers, and it's got an in-house music video director. How are the visual components of Zola Jesus worked out between yourself and the label?
I think we have completely different aesthetics. I love the Sacred Bones aesthetic. I love the fact that they pay so much attention to the details with packaging and every iota of their products and music. They're presented so beautifully. I feel the same way about Zola Jesus: It's packaged. People not only listen to your music when they see you live -- they see your music. You need to give them this entire universe. I can see it inside so it's easy for me. But the Sacred Bones aesthetic is so different from mine. I don't have to give in to anyone, we just coexist side-by-side.
Working with their director, what is that relationship in terms of determining the ideas for the videos?
Jacqueline [Castel] and I have been working together for a long time now. It's always really intuitive; she can always listen to the music and understand what the image is. If she doesn't, I tell her exactly what I want it to feel and look like. I always have a clear visual idea of what the song is communicating, and translating that to her is always pretty easy because I have the vocabulary for it and she has a sense for it.
You've appeared in all your music videos and you're usually wearing quite an elaborate wardrobe. How do you feel when you're in front of the camera?
Growing up, I loved photography and film. I never had any friends, so I'd be the subject of everything, putting the timer on the camera. Because the music is so personal and intimate, I feel I need to take responsibility for what the message is. I have to give myself up to that. Is it always the most comfortable thing? No. But it's just what you do.
Is that process ever fun or engrossing?
It's definitely a little intimidating. I never think of myself as a model at all. I don't feel like someone that can harbor these physical ideals. When I'm writing a song, I'm usually writing it from my own perspective, so to be the subject makes sense. It gets a little uncomfortable sometimes.
Your lyrics are not afraid to go to dark places, but some of your songs end with redemptive lines, like you've emerged on the other side of a conflict or a breakdown. Is lyrical resolution an important part of your songwriting?
It's a means to reinforce something to myself. A lot of the songs are written about my own challenges and the things that I'm working through. I can't just write a song about something precious or something that doesn't exist.
Do you ever write songs that might be totally nihilistic or that don't have any sort of resolution?
I've done a lot of them, but I always try to have a solution. Music for me is a kind of catharsis, but it also feels progressive. It helps me to get from point A to point B. If I don't get there, I start to wonder what the point of the song is. There are things I've struggled with: depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder. Having to deal with those things, sometimes you feel there is no end and there is no solution, which you don't want to feel because that means your medication isn't working. [Laughs] I don't think that is healthy or productive, so I try not to do it.
What do you think are the qualities of a good cathartic negative song? There's music out there that wallows in misery and doesn't show any intention of resolving it, but there's lots of great depressing music that feels cathartic and isn't afraid to confront those thoughts.
Man, I don't know. The first one that comes to mind is "Crying" by Roy Orbison. I would often listen to it as my go-to song. If I was wanting to feel miserable, I would put it on. You know when you just want to dig that knife in a little deeper? That one was always pretty successful at making me feel even worse. [Laughs] But like I said, I don't think that's a productive thing. It can be indulgent or even narcissistic. I try not to do it.
I know you've got an appreciation for pop music. I've had friends tell me they hear a little bit of Mariah Carey in your voice.
Thank God. [Laughs] Could you imagine if Mariah Carey had all of her contracts voided and didn't have all these handlers and producers telling her what to do? I feel like it would resemble Zola Jesus in some way.
I have this fantasy, and I don't think it's realistic, of being a pop star. My whole life I've had it, and I'm trying to get over it because I'm someone that is humble and doesn't believe in having idols. A pop star is an idol, and they brand you to be looked up to, fawned over, obsessed with. I don't know if you can be a pop star and not be an idol. I guess when Britney Spears wasn't at her happiest -- her shaved-head period -- was when you realized that pop stars are just a brand. If they ended up making music how they actually feel, it would be very humble and very honest. In the end, you could probably appreciate it more.