Zola Jesus Puts Intuition at the Forefront With Okovi

Zola Jesus
Zola Jesus
Tim Saccenti
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The world has changed a lot since the release of the 2014 Zola Jesus album Taiga. That record was the only one that Nika Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus, has put out with well-known experimental-music label Mute, which she doesn't regret working with. But for her forthcoming album, 2017's Okovi, she is returning to the smaller independent label that nurtured her early career, Sacred Bones, an imprint started by former Coloradan Caleb Braaten.

“I loved Mute, but I missed that sense of home and sense of family I had with Sacred Bones,” says Danilova. “So I was just ready to come back.”

That sort of homecoming extended beyond just going back to a record label that offered familiarity and comfort. Since the rise of Zola Jesus as a buzz artist in underground circles, Danilova has lived alternately in New York, Los Angeles and Washington. She has written spacious, emotionally cathartic music that parallels and perhaps informs some of the minimal synth, atmospheric post-punk, goth rock and industrial music that has emerged as a cohesive scene over the past decade. Danilova even worked with industrial-music legend J.G. Thirlwell on the 2013 remix album of her earlier material, Versions.

Despite her success, Danilova experienced an existential crisis over the past three years, and she moved back to Wisconsin and built a house on the land where she grew up. Hummel had traveled far, guided by her creative vision, but her intuition brought her back to where that journey began.

“Other than the things happening around me in terms of the emotional situations I was put in by people around me, I felt [drawn back] back [to the] land where I cut my teeth on who I am,” explains Danilova. “That's where I discovered the things that made me different from other people, and that's where I grew up. Going back, I felt this comfort and freedom to be that person. There's no one telling me that what I'm doing is wrong. Even if I didn't have that in Washington, I was disembodied, so it's easier to be more self-aware of what you're doing and thinking and second-guessing it. I didn't have that in Wisconsin. It was just me and the woods.”

Being in Wisconsin around family and old friends helped Danilova reconnect with her roots; out of that process and coming to terms with her struggles personally and creatively, Okovi emerged. The title comes from a Slavic word for “shackles.”

“In life, people have completely different struggles,” says Danilova. “We all have our own demons, and we're going through our own turmoil and trauma and different ways. I wrote in [a] statement [on the album that] some of us are prisoners to life, some are prisoners to death and some are prisoners to their bodies and minds. But at the end of the day, we are all prisoners to something, and we all have these things that we feel hold us back from our true selves. That's what I was going through, that's what the people around me were going through during this period, and that's what these songs were about.”

For the new record, Danilova challenged herself to trust her intuition. Even as a self-described “overthinker,” Danilova allowed herself to bypass an impulse toward technical or artistic perfectionism, and she imposed few if any conditions on the songwriting in terms of what would constitute "correct" in any sense beyond the instinctual.

Okovi is not about technical proficiency. For me, it's an emotional and cathartic release, and that's what I wanted to put at the forefront,” says Danilova.

Zola Jesus at the UMS, Saturday, July 29, 8:30 p.m., Main Stage, theums.com.

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