Zola Jesus: "That's the most frustrating thing, when people just reduce it to a copy of the past"
Zola Jesus (due tomorrow night at Larimer Lounge) started as the solo project of Nika Roza Danilova. Shortly after she released her earliest recordings, she came to the attention of Caleb Braaten of Sacred Bones Records who has since been a champion of her singular creative vision. Danilova's 2009 album, The Spoils garnered her near universal critical acclaim among critics paying attention to underground, experimental pop. The music of Zola Jesus has drawn many obvious comparisons, but at the heart of her songwriting was time spent cultivating a core of creative vision, which comes from having to seek out knowledge and make her own fun as a kid growing up in rural Wisconsin.
As an adult, Danilova has wisely held on to the knowledge that superficial distractions can erode the creative spirit. In her music, you can hear a sense of reaching out to experiences and emotions that run deeper than and resonate more strongly than any surface level expression of the artistic impulse ever could. Zola Jesus' music is haunting, and her 2011 record, Conatus is the latest proof. We spoke with Danilova at length about Diamanda Galás, her need for quietude to create and her willingness to challenge herself as an artist and her audience as listeners.
Westword: For an interview in L.A. Record about a year ago, you said that growing up in the country "you have nothing to stimulate you but what you seek." How did that contribute to your development as a creative person that runs through what you do today?
Zola Jesus (Nika Roza Danilova): I think growing up in a place like that where you're kind of really left to your own devices, it forces you to explore things that are inherently interesting to you and intriguing. I guess in a way it taught me to use that creative muscle much more than maybe someone that grew up so much stimulation and had so many things to choose from. Maybe things were just kind of offered to them. Whereas for me, if things intrigued me, I had to seek them out rather than them seeking me out.
When you moved away from Wisconsin and out of the country, what were the biggest adjustments you had to make personally and further as an artist interacting with other artists?
It was challenging. I'm kind of in the heart of L.A. now. When you live in the country, you kind of idealize this industrialized, commercial world that so many other people have been existing in. So I had this beautiful ideal of living in a city. So I moved to the city and felt really kind of stifled. It's been very stressful. But at the same time, there are so many opportunities and resources at your disposal, it almost feels too easy sometimes to make music based solely on the resources available.
As far as inspiration goes, if I was still living in the country where I could be as loud as I wanted to be -- which is probably why I sing so loud because I'm not used to having to be quiet -- I'm not so self-conscious of singing, because I have so many neighbors and the walls are so thin. As far as people in the town, I've always been kind of a loner and that hasn't really changed.
You first heard the Residents at thirteen. What was the first thing you heard by them, and what was it about them that was so terrifying, and how did you come to appreciate that band?
The first thing I heard was Eskimo. My brother had the record. It was a strange introduction to the Residents because it's an Eskimo concept album. So he would listen to it in a dark room, and I would come into his room, and he would just be sitting in a chair listening to it. It's kind of how I was taught to listen to music. You just sit in a dark room and then you just kind of let it penetrate you, it being the only kind of stimuli. And it's just terrifying.
Like when you really give a record like that so much of your attention and focus, every small sound becomes so much more effective and overwhelming. That was kind of my first experience and while it was very scary for a thirteen year old who had only ever really, at that point, heard punk music or pop music on the radio, it just makes you so curious that something like that can exist. You don't realize that things like that existed. That just kind of spirals into this obsession and curiosity with finding music like that.
The first Residents song I remember hearing is "Kula Boca Says So" from that album.
It's such an anomaly, it's amazing.
Did you ever get to see them live?
Never. I've always wanted to. Their newer stuff I'm not as much of a fan of, and I would have preferred to see them back in the day. But it's still on my list.
Why did you take part of your stage name from Émile Zola?
I don't really know. I came up with the name so young, around thirteen. For some reason it felt right. I was reading Nana by Zola, and even the moment I saw the book in the book store, I had no idea who Émile Zola was and no context for him. So I just thought the name sounded really amazing. I just put to two together and reading the book, "Oh, my gosh, I'm going to name this thing Zola Jesus." There's a natural duality between the two figures. The spiritual in Jesus and the very starkly, naturalist and realist, almost pessimist in a way, in Émile Zola. So this dichotomy grew organically between the two but it is reflected in the music I sing.
How did you become exposed to the music of Joy Division and what is it about Ian Curtis that inspires or informs what you've done in music yourself?
The thing I liked about Joy Division was the iciness and coldness of what they were doing. And I think it was a different way of expressing kind of a disdain for the status quo and their own lives. Of course Ian Curtis was very depressed. I think that really drew me to Ian Curtis was that when he performed live, and he had epilepsy, and just...I don't want to sound superficial, just the way that it looked.
I found it alarming in a way. Although he couldn't really help it. I just think his tenacity to want to be on the stage, regardless of his physical condition and anxiety or anything getting in the way. I think my music is more overtly emotional and more of an exaltation. Joy Division is a bit more restrained, but I do really respect that about them.
How did you learn about Diamanda Galás, and what is it about her music that you find most interesting?
It was a similar situation. The black box playing loudly next door in my house and I go into Max's room. Max is my brother, and I was studying opera back then, and I was just like, "What is this? Oh my gosh!" So I ended up getting way more into Diamanda Galás than he did. It was at a point when I was studying opera and I was really struggling with it because of my anxieties and self-criticism.
Diamanda Galás taught me, at least, that your voice can do so many different things unbound by the structures of technical, classical singing. You can really express yourself in ways beyond what any sort of opera could do. I had thought opera was the purest form of singing but then I heard what Diamanda did and that was truly unhinged. I found that amazing.
You've mentioned that you suffered from severe anxiety when you were younger in performing live. Is there any experience you can point to or any technique that helped you to overcome that in performing as Zola Jesus early on and even now?
It helped when I decided...I used to play everything live myself. Then I realized I was doing too much at once. Whenever I perform, I focus on the singing because it's extremely physical for me. Like when someone that learned music through guitar, they feel like they're really speaking through the guitar -- that's the vessel. For me, it was always the voice. I was always just singing to get it out. So I would end up playing everything wrong on a keyboard -- hitting everything wrong because I was so focused on the voice. It was becoming a little overwhelming.
Also, the main thing was that because Zola Jesus was my own creative project, everything was my own. I had so much freedom, and it let me go a lot of my anxiety. A lot of my anxieties were about getting it right. If it's my music and I wrote it, it's never right unless I say it's right. That's really the only reason I'm able to do it.
You did an interview with AV Club Philadelphia in April 2011 where you said you didn't like the concept of the "theatrical" like it was a put on. How do you reconcile that distaste with performing music in general?
It's hard. It's especially hard for me because the music is incredibly personal. It's very stripped down. I have a very strong visual counterpart to the music. It's hard to try to communicate that visual counterpart while still remaining honest and personal. People think when you bring in a visual aspect to music, that it's becoming theatrical. But it's not that. It's just another way of getting the point across. Having to reconcile that has been a little bit difficult.
I've never completely been a fan of theater. Believe me, I've tried, being a singer in high school. It just feels so dishonest. I'd be on stage in a play and then I would just freeze up and be like, "I'm sorry, I can't. I can't pretend to be this other person." It just feels very awkward to me. So the theatrics part of opera and everything, really, has been a little bit difficult for me to wrap my head around.
How did you get hooked up with Sacred Bones Records?
Aw, man, every since the beginning of Zola Jesus, through mutual friends, he's the greatest. He's been with me since day one, or maybe day two or day three really--I made the music and put it out and then he saw it. [Caleb Braaten] has remained kind of the most honest, hard-working, trustworthy that I've known in the industry so we've grown together a lot.
What about the L.A. Vampires Meets Zola Jesus collaboration appealed to you enough to be a part of that?
Amanda [Brown] and I are good friends. She's amazing. We always talked about working together but we didn't really know in what capacity. But she would always be sending me beats and songs and things. I was always so busy then but I would always make time to try to send things back. Some of them got used for the record, which was a lot of fun.
Do you feel that you consciously chose to make more accessible music since Stridulum II and if so, why?
The weird thing is that I always thought I was making pop music. I have early songs on 7-inches that were just straight pop songs. Of course they were noisy and trailed off into kind of experimental noise outros. But at the root of it, they were always the same sounding songs because that's just naturally how I write. When I made Stridulum, I was like, "This is a banger. This is some real deal pop music."
Some people think it's poppy, some people think it's not. So I'm not really sure. I'm always trying to make it clear. I produce everything myself so better production means that, in one way or another, I'm growing as a producer. So that's always been a challenge for me. A healthy challenge but I guess I don't really think about it -- making it more accessible or anything. It's just getting tighter.
Why do you think winter is so important to your songwriting process other than just staying holed up inside because it's cold?
The thing I like about winter -- and I don't want this to sound precious; I hate precious -- the way when it snows, it covers everything. So everything kind of becomes very one. So there's no distractions. And I work best in minimalism because I feel like my head has more space to think. So winter, to me, just feels like that. It just feels like there's a big blanket over everything and then I can finally concentrate. And everyone's inside -- thank god I don't have to hear people or anything. It just seems very isolated, and there's a lot of solitude and peace and those are things I really value. Especially when I'm writing music. To have that sort of quietude. In the least precious way possible.
Why is that quietude so important to you?
If there's noise, sonic noise, or just people or things or stuff, outside of me, I'm extremely sensitive to that, so I just can't feel calm or clear-headed, and there needs to be this nothingness in order for me to feel like I can breathe. So imagine living in L.A. because that's pretty difficult.
What's one of your favorite works of Philip K. Dick and why?
Ubik is probably my favorite. It's the first one I read and it's the one that, for me, felt the most inclusive. They all feel inclusive in being its own universe. Ubik felt like I wanted to exist within it so badly. I love the idea of Ubik, the product, or the idea. I love A Scanner Darkly, Valis. All the novels are really good. I don't like the earlier novels, though, because they're more pulpy and less sci-fi.
I think Philip K. Dick does sci-fi really well. He does it in a way where you feel like it could actually happen. In alternate universe, this is reality. He brings up these points about the world and it makes you look at the world differently. He does it in a way that's really humble and really clearly written and it's not so caught up in the jargon like William Gibson or J.G. Ballard or anyone else. I love them too but he's in a league of his own.
You know he's buried in Colorado?
Yeah, but I'm going to go see him. Caleb, who does Sacred Bones, is flying out to see the Denver show. Then we have a day off so we're going to see his grave.
Again referring to that L.A. Record interview you said, "I believe in not avoiding things you're afraid of. Especially really dark things," which seems intuitively true, to my mind. But why do you believe people should not avoid those sorts of things?
I just think it makes you a weak person. Whenever you choose to avoid something, it means that you're not strong enough to go and face it. I think that if you allow yourself to be weak and escape difficult situations, then you're never going to grow and progress as a human. I think the ultimate goal of any person in the world is to progress whether as a people or you as an individual.
"Oh, I don't want watch that movie because it's scary!" or "I don't want to go to that part of town because it's dangerous." It's like, I don't want to pull this out, but you know when the Apocalypse happens, you're going to be the first to go then. You've got to really make sure that you're a survivalist because no one is going to be looking out for you. It's a Darwinist idea. Be the best person you can be because it's a luxury to be able to escape difficult situations and you shouldn't take them for granted.
What's the been the most surprising thing to you about how you've been received in both in terms of people understanding what it is that you're doing and in terms of people perhaps misinterpreting your work?
I'm not really sure. I fear that my biggest misconception is that...The thing, I guess, that bothers me the most is when people think that Zola Jesus is this pastiche of retro-goth ideas and tropes. And that it's just basically this kind of vanity, fashion project where the music is made based on these ideas of the past. Like Siouxsie Sioux or Joy Division or whatever. Anything, it could be anyone from before now.
For me, I'm making music not only because it's expressive but because I'm just trying to challenge myself in what I'm capable of making and what people are capable of hearing. I'm trying to do something that sounds very unique and of myself. When people make that association of, "Oh, it's just like that. Oh, it's just the new goth." That's against everything that I believe in as a musician. Like everything, you know? That's the most frustrating thing, when people just reduce it to a copy of the past. That's a little bit demeaning.
I don't understand human beings. I never did. I'm trying. But I think these days, more than ever, people are not only creating less and less new things, but people are having less and less hope that things are coming from a novel, innovative, unique place. And I'm not saying that what I'm doing is completely novel. But I don't think it's healthy to constantly to reduce everything you're listening to because everything has something to offer that's new. Whenever I make music, it's never coming from a point of, "Oh, this is who I like. I'm going to imitate it." It's never imitative for me at all. So what can you do? I guess it's not even worth thinking about, you just gotta do it.
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