The name isn't blasphemous, at least not intentionally. In fact, Zola Jesus (sometimes known as Nika Roza Danilova) combined French writer Émile Zola with our Lord and Savior's name to alienate her peers, not to piss off the pious. But it seems now Zola has more friends than she could ever imagine, or she sure works well with others, having collaborated with artists ranging from M83 to Fucked Up to Prefuse 73. Not to mention the time David Lynch remixed her song "In Your Nature" or the time avant-garde composer J.G. Thirlwell helped her remix her hits neo-classical style.
What's the attraction? First and most obvious are Zola's vocal stylings, which have grown into her own distinct technique, owing to Elizabeth Fraser as much as Ian Curtis. She has more than 10 years of classical opera training. But perhaps deeper than that is Zola's masterful command of mood, atmosphere, and environment that she weaves into her dark, raw dirges. With her latest album, Taiga, Zola explored more pop star territory, but whatever she does is a welcome relief from normal.
We called up Ms. Zola as she was making her way through New York toward Toronto to ask her how she weaves such a range of moods into her recordings. Interestingly, Zola was born in Phoenix in 1989, before her parents moved to Merrill, Wisconsin. The 100-plus acres of woods the young singer explored were vastly different from the concrete sprawling desert oasis most of us are more familiar with.
"I resented my parents for having moved me away from Phoenix because I thought Phoenix was much more interesting than Wisconsin," Zola says. "It's a great place and it's very interesting there, beautiful."
Even at a young age, Zola took a heavy stake in environment and still does, saying she's a fan of "any place that instigates a strong emotion, which can be almost anywhere." Her fifth album, Taiga, is the Russian term for boreal forests, the world's largest terrestrial biome. Keeping the theme of feral landscapes, the video for the record's lead single, "Dangerous Days" was filmed in the Hoh Rainforest, a Dr. Seuss-like woodland that inexplicitly exists in Washington State.
"I certainly prefer being in more natural environments because it just feels more innate in a way, and that's very inspiring," Zola explains. "It's really surreal, you don't really expect a rainforest to exist in Washington State, but it does and it's so beautiful and so lush and green. It's kind of another world. It was really fun to shoot there."
Zola famously told NME, "If I never left my house or my room, that'd be just fine by me," and she admitted to SPIN magazine, "I'd inherently feel better about myself as a human being if I was removed from humanity ... There's a sense of freedom in living out in the uninhabited world."
But the word "reclusive," as in avoiding the press á la Cormac McCarthy, doesn't jump to mind when you think of Zola Jesus. So what encourages her to step out of her bubble?
"I think it's important that you constantly challenge yourself and even though you would prefer to be completely alone all the time, that's not necessarily healthy," Zola tells us. "In some ways it's a little escapist, so it's important to put yourself in situations that make you uncomfortable because in those situations you learn and grow. You become more of a fully formed human being ... Collaboration is interesting because you learn so much more about yourself and also about the craft of music because you have to adapt to someone else's roadmap of making music, which is potentially very different than the way you work. So it's very important to do that, to throw yourself in there in order to learn new things."
One of Zola's most interesting collaborations -- and she's had plenty -- has to be with J. G. Thirlwell, the prolific producer whose solo work has spanned 17 albums, seven EPs and dozens of other releases. He might be best known for scoring Adult Swim's hit TV show The Venture Bros., but his no wave, bleeding edge touch has attracted attention from everyone to Lydia Lunch, Trent Reznor, and Nick Cave. For Versions, Thirlwell and Zola revisited her earlier recordings, turning them into neo-classical revisions.
"[Thirlwell is] such a visionary and so wonderful, so sweet, so talented. His ability to work so intuitively is admirable," Zola says. "I feel like the music just seeps out of him. He's just got so much talent."
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