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Zola Jesus

Nika Roza Danilova is Zola Jesus. She's straight outta Wisconsin (which isn't a phrase you're likely to hear too often), and the only artist I've ever encountered who mentions both Marvin Gaye and SPK as influences, and sees nothing unusual in that juxtaposition. She studied opera singing as a child, but in her own music she gravitated towards lo-fi industrial and electronics. Her earlier recordings mixed elements of DIY electronica - reverb, distortion, minimalism - with an intuitive pop sensibility, and the voice of a nightmare Motown diva.

Check out 'Clay Bodies', from her 2009 album Sacred Bones. It sounds like a Ronettes song being piped in from the halls of Valhalla. You won't hear that phrase too often, either.

Now there's a new album, Stridulum II - originally an EP, now expanded to album length for UK release, hence the II.

Here, Zola Jesus takes a judicious step towards the light. Only a step, mind. The music still retains its overarching darkness, its sense of coming from somewhere out there - but there's a burnished gleam to the production.

This is the first Zola Jesus material to be recorded in an actual studio, instead of at home. You can hear that difference.

You could even dance to it, if you're brave. For all its atmospherics, the music of Zola Jesus is driven by rhythm: a black-hearted pulsebeat that lurks in even the most empyrean musical dreamscapes. With some live shows in the UK coming up, it seemed like a good idea to find out a few things about Zola Jesus from Nika herself...

There's a theory (or perhaps I just made it up) that music often has an intangible sense of place. You can somehow tell, for example, that artists as diverse as Morrissey and The Happy Mondays come from Manchester; that Suicide and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs both come from New York. Do you think there's anything of Wisconsin in your music? Is there an influence there, from the landscape or the life? Do you feel your music comes from somewhere - or does it simply come from you?

I don't believe that my music is dependent on my location, but I definitely feel like growing up in Wisconsin has impacted me in a way that has inevitably trickled down into my music.

Living in the rural midwest is a very unique experience; I was raised with a lot of values and principles and had much space to grow my character independent from any outside force, and I feel like that can be heard in the music. I know what I want, I know how I feel, and I'm not going to bullshit about it. My lyrics are very straightforward because that's just how I was raised; say what you mean, don't dance around it. Anything else would be dishonest. That all comes from my environment.

At times the climate played a part in how I approached songwriting as well. I wrote Stridulum in the winter, I would write bits and listen to them as I walked around the vacant streets during a blizzard, to find more inspiration. I like winter because it's hard, and you can't be a pussy, you can't be lazy, or else you won't make it. It's like natural selection... the weak die and the strong survive. I'd like to be one of the survivors.

Zola JesusI'm  sure that artists such as Siouxsie, the Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance - maybe The Cure, in their more atmospheric moments - have all been mentioned as influences on your music.

Stridulum does seem to sit beside those bands with a sense of confidence. Do you feel that this is your area? Are any of those artists influences?

It's funny to admit I really never got into a lot of that stuff. I always thought The Cure was too, I don't know...weepy? I think they're very important and all, but I never really found influence in those types of bands.

If I were to consider any bands influential to me it would be early industrial and power electronics like SPK, Atrax Morgue, Genocide Organ, and soul legends like Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye, Jackie WIlson, Mighty Hannibal.

I think soul and industrial have a lot in common as far as personality goes. Lots of rhythm, and a lot of inspiration comes from hard times...whether commanded by heartbreak, poverty, depravity. And it's all confronted in a very passionate way.

Nobody is crying or moping; they're shrieking, they're screaming, they're throwing themselves around the room. It's all very extreme, and that's what hits me.

I see the NME described you as 'The new dawn of goth'. The NME, bless its heart, discovers the new dawn of goth approximately every six months or so. Did that description make you cheer or cringe?

I fit everywhere and nowhere. Humans rely on order and taxonomy to better understand the world around them. I can't change the human system but I will not indulge it.

On the face of it, you've followed a strange musical path altogether. From opera to minimal electronica, through noise-industrial and now to the sweeping sonic sheen of Stridulum II - the free download single 'Night' is an otherworldly pop song. You've moved from the formality of classical music to the deliberate glitches and distortion of the noise zone, and now on to a kind of nightmare dreampop. Where do you feel most at home?

I feel most at home making music that is intense and honest.

Whether I do that through pop songs or harsh noise I will find a way. I can't explain it beyond that.

I was trying not to use the word 'Cinematic' but...I've just used it. Stridulum II has a very wide-screen sound. It's music with a visual sense, in a way.

Is that a deliberate aspect of your work - that sense of cinematic visuals, music that conjures up visions in the mind's eye as much as it exists as sound?

I heard someone say on the radio once "there is no background music in real life". I would like to create that background music.

I always wanted to score a film, but even better: an entire existence. I love the feeling of finding a song that perfectly complements a particular mood or moment. I had a very short amount of time to write and record Stridulum and this is what is instinctive to me, to write powerful songs. They are the most satisfying because I feel like they serve a civil purpose, more than just entertainment.

Is it easy to perform the Stridulum songs live? You're touring with a full band - does the live show have a slightly more rock 'n' roll feel to it? How do you strike the balance between atmospherics and getting the crowd jumping? Do you want the crowd to jump?

I have a sort of permutational live setup, but at it's best it exists as a four-piece with live drums.

It does sound a bit more rock, but my live drummer, Nick Johnson, is an amazing black metal drummer, so it tends to sound even more huge and epic. His ability to keep the beats tight is incredible, he's like a human drum machine. My only expectation for the crowd is that I want them to listen.

I have been to shows where the crowd is talking over the music and almost completely unaware that there is a band playing, and that would just crush me. All I ask is that they listen. Anything beyond that is bonus.

Your use of rhythms remind me of early Cocteau Twins stuff - songs like 'Sugar Hiccup' and 'From The Flagsones', which had a massive, massive drum sound. I think people forget how powerful the Cocteaus were in their early days: they did go a bit coffee-table later on, and that's the stuff most people now remember. Is it essential to have a strong rhythm? Does it all start from The Beat?

Zola JesusThe Beat is everything.

I love rhythm, and when writing it is the beat that is most important to me. I think without rhythm a song becomes a lot less tangible.

I usually gravitate towards minimal but huge drums, because I think it makes a song so much more powerful and formidable.

What next, where next? Where do you see things going from this point forward? Is there a plan?

I always have a plan.




Zola Jesus: Website | MySpace | Facebook

Photos on this page by Indra Dunis.

Videos directed by Jaqueline Castel at Future Primitive Films.

Find a review of Stridulum II here.


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Page credits: Interview and construction by Michael Johnson. Photo/video credits as above. Nemesis logo by Antony Johnston.
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