Behind the enigma of Zola Jesus is 23-year-old, Wisconsin-raised Nika Roza Danilova. Calling from sunny Los Angeles, she speaks to Tone Deaf about her upcoming visit to Australia, the importance of growing. Getting particularly carried away talking about her past, and hopefully, future collaborations.
“I’m so excited” says Danilova about her impending visit to our shores, “I can’t wait. I’ve never been there and it’ll be such a great atmosphere at the Opera House,” she bubbles with bright enthusiasm one wouldn’t expect from the writer of such dark, epic compositions.
As Zola Jesus, Danilova will be appearing at Syndey’s VIVID festival. Bringing a full band to help flesh out her haunting masterpieces that she records all herself. She laughs however, at the suggestion that loosening her usually iron-tight grip on all things creative must have been difficult; “I’ve been with my band for a long time and they’re really the only people I trust – they’ve definitely earned it!”
Even at such a young age, she already has a back catalogue heavy with songs to choose from. Her latest album, last year’s Conatus, is her third in as many years, along with the release of three EPs. Things could be slowing down on the new material front though; as slews of performances take priority, a common trait begins to rear its head.
“Every time I do start [writing new material],” Danilova says, “I feel like it’s not time yet, because right now I’m focussed on touring and the live aspect of things. I do shows every day so sometimes it gets to the point where I don’t even think about it; but when I do - I get anxiety. I get it really bad.”
“It’s just kind of a process,” she continues, “I need to be alone, and by alone I mean really just be with my band… just to clear my head a little bit but I’m pretty good at dealing with whatever circumstances.”
Perhaps a healthy dose of Australian nature will stir further writing? “I would love that,” she fervently agrees, “it’s what I’m most excited about! I mean, I feel like my inspiration has no end but also I am very conscious that I don’t repeat myself.”
Feeling most inspired when she’s along, Zola Jesus is about channelling “really random concepts that I’m inspired by that I can’t really explain. Basically” she adds, “that’s what it’s all about: my songs are me trying to understand things I can’t work out. The things I’m interested in philosophically have naturally been internalized in my music.”
Indeed, solitude is no stranger to Nika, growing up on hundreds of acres of forest with her family and with little contact to anyone else. “My family were my only people,” she explains, “they instilled in me so many values I have with me today. Because of them I don’t really need any other people in my life. They were everything… They still are.”
Out here in Australia, Zola Jesus is best recognised for her collaborations. She sings on M83’s fantastically swelling opening track, “Intro”, and most recently on Orbital’s single, “New France”.
“M83 is a really interesting story; it’s really funny because we were both trying to contact each other at the same time,” Danilova enthuses. “I wanted to work with him and him with me, it was this weird kismet. It was so much fun to work on and it was just so easy!”
Orbital’s Phil Hartnoll recently spoke of his collaboration with the singer, his search for a vocal that was definitely “a sort of gothic, female vocal” for “New France”; “someone who could sort of wail and moan in a melancholy, mournful kind of way,” says Hartnoll. They contacted Zola Jesus after being put onto her through Spotify.
After being told this, the Zola Jesus star mumbles incoherently, humbled by the flattery before squeaking with excitement at the new of Orbital’s Melbourne show the following night, “Oh my God, they are?! Well, if you see them tell them I say hi!”
So what is it about working with others that appeals to Danilova? “For me, collaborating with artists is such a personal, gratifying experience – but they only come along if they’re meant to be. I think if it was somebody who would do a good job then yes, but not just anyone,” she says. David Lynch’s remix of “In Your Nature” for instance, “felt like a no-brainer.”
Fingers crossed she works with Aphex Twin? “Oh, me too, helloooo!”
Back to her own performances, what can Zola Jesus fans expect? “It’s all pretty organic, I can’t really think about staging at this point – I just sort of go out there and perform songs. Even if you’re having a fairly visual show I think it’s important to remain real and not to make things too theatrical, to take away from the honesty of the music.”
And after that? “It’s all just going to grow and grow” she says, before adding “I grew so much as a human being from Spoils to Conatus that I couldn’t make the same thing again and I’m going to grow even more by the time I’ve got my next record ready so it’ll be different then, too.”