Update: Within 5 minutes of this article going live Zola Jesus’ performance this Tuesday in Philadelphia was cancelled due to severe weather. But please take the time to read my recent chat with her anyway.
As a humanities professor and an unabashed cinephile, I feel a special bond with Nika Roza Danilova, better known as Zola Jesus… The hyper-eclectic, avant-garde pop singer/songwriter spent her high school and college years studying philosophy, the likes of Nietzsche and the Situationist International, while always maintaining a love of cinema (She actually produced one of the very best Criterion Collection Top 10 lists, which includes beautiful celluloid transgressions like Pasolini’s Salo, Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and Vera Chytilova’s Daisies.)… And she also makes quite fucking brilliant music… From a young age Danilova had a fascination with studying opera, but also had a penchant for industrial, no wave, punk, and art rock… in addition to rather pure pop… The result is an amalgamation of both the delectably uplifting and the subversively confrontational. For her debut as Zola Jesus, 2009’s The Spoils, Danilova produced a hyper-lo-fi collection of songs, recorded in her apartment, but with a soul that make it ring of some of the most respectable names of ethereal wave and post-punk. Four albums later, after exploring the tendencies of goth, synthpop, baroque, and classical, Danilova arrived at her fifth full-length, Taiga.
Taiga was released last October courtesy of Mute, which Danilova has proclaimed to various publications as her most concentrated attempt at a pop record. And while the album could easily be characterized as popular, that would seem to disregard the complexity of layers of Danilova’s influences. The album is, at times, very danceable and well-suited for late-night, morale-lifting sing-alongs amongst the best of friends on a roof deck or extended drive, it also maintains Danilova’s poignant introspections and obvious knowledge of and affection for music far too brilliant to dominate the airwaves. Most often it sounds like an R&B gospel of the highest order, but it also has quite a few noisy bits… and quite a few bits of classical composition… and a lyrical commentary building upon the work of the greatest minds of the past two centuries… Inspired by the album’s namesake, taigas (or boreal forests), Danilova approached the album in a manner new to her, which had her composing songs a capella, before adding the beats or synthesizers that normally serve as the start of her compositions.
Nika Roza Danilova, or Zola Jesus, is currently on a US tour that will have her taking the stage of our very own Union Transfer this Tuesday, January 27th. I recently got a chance to speak with her post-soundcheck from her latest appearance in Montreal. I begin by asking her a rather huge question about how she feels she’s evolved as a musician over the past half a decade, nearly half a dozen full-length albums, and almost constant touring. She laughs and confesses that that’s quite a bit to sum up, but that the experience of recording so many albums in a relatively short period of time certainly has seen a difference in her as an artist: “That’s quite a general question, but I certainly think putting out five records or so you learn things about who you are as a musician. I certainly have become interested in how to make music more properly. When I started I was just working with a crappy keyboard in my apartment but trying to make it sound more professional, but now I’m able to actually use more professional tools.”
Danilova says she’s also happy to finally have a professional live production for the first time on this tour, with a light show and live elements that help to bring the aesthetic of Taiga full-circle to a greater degree than can be gleaned by simply listening to the album: “When people come to a show, after hearing Taiga, it puts it into context for them.” But she also admits, despite the larger and more dynamic production, it’s her interaction and relationship with the audience that ultimately produces the greatest and most profound aspects of her live show: “It’s very intense, in that the performance is very challenging and there’s a confrontation between myself and the audience, which is really exciting. I mean, I’m one aspect of the performance, but the audience is the second half of that.” She also admits that one of her favorite songs to perform is my own, personal, favorite track from Taiga, “Nail,” an exceptionally soulful yet exceptionally minimalist number about refusing the institutionalized oppressions that a “culture” would try to force masses to embrace as “truth”: “I really enjoy playing that live. It’s all vocals, so there’s nothing to hide behind, which is scary, but I like to be scared.”