I first met the singer Zola Jesus, whose real name is Nika Roza Danilova, this September in New York. She was wearing a black dress with a high collar that formed a dome at the back of her head. It resembled something from another era and a place that has little in common with our modern society.
When we talked on the phone recently, Danilova mentioned her fascination with nature and how the modern man has alienated himself from it. This theme runs through her new album, Taiga, which came out this week. “I started to create this whole concept of man versus nature, how man regards himself in the greater context of the natural world and how he feels so separate from the it in a way that I find very bizarre,” Danilova said. “You know we should…we should feel more like animals than we do. We’re getting further and further away from nature the more we evolve. So I just kept digging deeper and deeper into those questions, and that definitely influenced the content of the record.”
Another evolution for Danilova evident on Taiga is that of her musical style. Her influences range far and wide, from opera, which she began studying when she was eight, to punk rock, noise, experimental music like Throbbing Gristle and the Residents, and, perhaps quite surprisingly, pop. The earlier records of Zola Jesus are rich in the underlying layer of sound, more influenced by noise and industrial, and therefore less accessible than Taiga.
With Taiga, Danilova decidedly moves towards pop, and she makes no excuses for it. “I wanted to make a pop record that was for people that are nihilistic, and cynical, and jaded and a little misanthropic,” Danilova told me. “Because I feel like there’s no pop star for the people that are fucking Nietzsche. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but there’s no pop star for the people that feel completely demoralized with the world.”
Though, if you are a music purist, it is tempting to be dismissive here, and many of the Zola Jesus fans have apparently reacted negatively to the first single “Dangerous Days,” there is a case to be made for a singer who aims to offer something other than the fake optimism and sheer intellectual vacuum that inflects most of today’s pop music.
There are two things that set Zola Jesus apart from mere pop. The main one is her operatic voice, which has an impressive depth – especially given her diminutive stature – and a haunting quality that has an ability to mesmerize and transport. In a way, Danilova’s voice is the most important instrument on Taiga. This is no accident, as in the process of making the record she often would come up with an a capella line first, and work in the instrumental sounds after. “What I like about pop, is that it’s this new medium [for Zola Jesus] and because that’s coming from my voice, which is usually more industrial, it gives it a different texture. And it’s no less genuine. In fact, to me it feels just as genuine,” she told me.
Instrumentally, Danilova wanted to get away from the predominantly synth sound and experiment with brass. “It feels so formidable,” she said. “I really like Mahler and Wagner, and the way they use brass is just so intense. It can just kind of blow you over. And brass feels similar in texture to synth.” Some of the songs on the album were produced by Zola Jesus and others in collaboration with Dean Hurley, who also works with the director David Lynch. She is also bringing a brass ensemble on the Taiga tour, which began this week.
Another thing that is important to understand about Taiga as an unconventional pop record is the visual representation of Zola Jesus. Once you watch the video for Dangerous Days, with its fairy tale images of nature and of the singer herself clothed in an overwhelming felt wool blanket befitting a Viking, more things fall into place thematically.
Just like her previous albums, Taiga is a reflection of Danilova’s life. She was born and raised in Wisconsin, where she made her first two albums, “The Spoils” and “Stridulum.” She was twenty when she moved to Los Angeles, and its music scene influenced her next record “Conatus.”
After four years she got tired of what she called “the superficial energy” of Los Angeles and moved to Washington state, which brought her closer to nature and to Taiga. “I just moved to this island in Washington and I woke up, made music, and went to bed,” said Danilova. “I went through that every single day for 9 months. What I did before was in the past and I was just focusing on trying to write as much music as possible regardless of genre. Or regardless of what sounded appropriate. And the more I made, the more I figured out that there was a theme running through some songs. I kind of cherry picked those and I realized that I kept returning to certain ideas and musical themes, and that kind of shaped the sound of the record.”
As we talked more about making intelligent pop music, our conversation inevitably turned to postmodernism and the idea that you can build a bridge between the popular and the less accessible, difficult culture. In a way that’s what Taiga is, a culmination of an entire spectrum of cultural experiences. “I grew up listening to pop because that was the only thing that was on the radio in northern Wisconsin,” concluded Danilova. “And I was listening to opera because that’s what I was singing. Then I got really into punk, and then post-punk, and then you get into fucking Throbbing Gristle and Stockhausen and stuff. So it all forms who you become, your taste, your cultural DNA. In a sense, it is I guess, what you would call postmodern, because none of those things should go together.”
Taiga is out now. For album and tour information http://zolajesus.com
Photograpy by Felipe Vasquez