Music

Totally in Character: An Interview with Zola Jesus

Rob McCallum

As Zola Jesus, musician Nika Roza Danilova has come off as a mysterious figure, thanks in part to her music's dark, brooding sound. In a conversation with PopMatters, she reveals that the distinction between Zola Jesus and Niki Roza is not an easy one to make.

Veiled. Mysterious. Masked. Call Nika Roza Danilova what you will. As Zola Jesus, she has certainly been a shrouded figure since her first release on Sacred Bones Records last year. Carving out a unique space--much in the vein of a young Kate Bush or Björk--to sit in since she shot to the forefront of the blogosphere last year, it’s hard to believe the operatically trained 21-year-old from Wisconsin is such a new figure in the music scene, as she presents a sound with a maturity way beyond her years.

There was an undeniable lack of expectancy for the transition she made from the solitary lo-fi of last year’s The Spoils to the all-enrapturing ethereal pop on this year’s Stridulum EP. It is a transition that seems to signal her ascendancy into the art-pop hall of fame as – backed by her new band – she embarks on a tour later this year with the Swedish songstress of insomnia, Fever Ray. Popmatters finds out more.

Zola Jesus is a stage name. Are you getting into a character when you record/perform your music?

No, that would be dishonest. Zola Jesus is too personal for that.

Do you still write/record all the music alone?

Yes.

Your music is quite dark and atmospheric. How does this reflect on you personally?

The world is quite dark. It’s easy to live in denial and not face uncomfortable realities, but I’ve never been an escapist. I'm just reflecting what I see.

In vocal tone, who would you say you aspire to as a young artist?

Mariah Carey, Tina Turner, and Meredith Monk.

You started releasing material at the tender age of 16. What in your background led you to become such an accomplished artist at such a young age?

I didn’t have any other choice, this is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. To be honest, I felt like my first record didn’t come soon enough.

Your music almost defies genre-casting as it sews so many elements together. Is this something you feel is important as a musician?

It’s vital. Making genre-specific music defeats the purpose of becoming an artist. If you’re choosing to make music you’re promising to contribute something special and exclusive to society, unless you’re a covers band. My own record collection is starkly varied; there is so much beautiful music out there, disregarding genre or style. It’s most important to appreciate a song distinctly for its impact and power and not for the way it’s presented.

You're actually trained as an opera singer. Do you think this alters your approach to the music you're now making?

I don’t think so.

You recorded quite a deranged cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”. How did this come about?

I wanted to cover it. Grace Slick has an incredible force in her voice.

The Stridulum EP feels much less lo-fi than your earlier recordings. Was this intentional and if so what lead to the change?

I felt like I did everything I wanted to do with that form. It was just a personal and artistic decision in order to grow as a musician and challenge myself.

You played with Xiu XIu for a show at the Bowery Ballroom. That must have felt quite a moment.

I felt very lucky.

You're also part of Former Ghosts with Xiu Xiu frontman Jamie Stewart. How does this project differ?

Freddy [Ruppert] writes all the music, and I only sing on several songs. It’s a lot more electronic and definitely Freddy’s baby.

I hear you're inclusion into the band came from quite flattering circumstances?

Yes, he contacted me about singing on a particular song, and he liked it so much he asked me to be a full-fledged contributing member. Freddy is a very brilliant musician and the biggest sweetheart. It’s been a great experience.

You were a part of some of the most influential end-of-year lists last year. You seem to be getting quite a lot of exposure and attention of late; do you feel like things are really beginning to happen for you?

I hope so but I will always feel very small. There is still a lot of work to do.

And finally, what does the future hold for you?

Everything. I will not stop.

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