Confronting contradictions with Zola Jesus
The goth-pop singer-songwriter and onetime Madisonian plays October 9 at the Majestic.
Since launching Zola Jesus in Madison more than a decade ago, Nika Roza Danilova has evolved the project in a number of ways, both through sonic unfolding and personal growth. Her latest album, Okovi, released last month on Sacred Bones Records, draws on feelings of reunion and return, and strikes a particularly personal chord by grappling with multiple levels of darkness. Her output has incorporated everything from noise and industrial to classical, pop, and goth elements.
While most of Zola Jesus' music on Sacred Bones leans toward her more sonically adventurous side, her relatively commercial record Taiga, released on Mute Records in 2014, marked a pivotal point in her career as a pop artist. Okovi, on the other hand, achieves a balance of her disparate musical interests, making each—whether pop or noise—seem all the more pronounced and personal. In addition to Okovi, Sacred Bones also recently reissued Zola Jesus' 2010 EP Stridulum, which she wrote and recorded as a student at UW-Madison.
Zola Jesus will be back in Madison on Monday, October 9 for a show at the Majestic, with the formidable noise artist John Wiese opening up. Ahead of the show, Danilova caught up with us about the new album, her experiences in Madison's music community during the early years of Zola Jesus, and her recent move back to Wisconsin.
Tone Madison: You've shared that a big part of Okovi was a response to or a product of some darkness in your life. When creating something with that sort of emotional attachment and weight, did it feel instinctual to tackle something specific first in your songwriting? Like getting as many lyrics down as possible, or honing in on a certain vibe right away? Or did it feel more like an outpouring, with Okovi being the result?
Nika Roza Danilova: Definitely the latter. The past couple of years, in all of its difficulty, it was really hard to try to metabolize all of that in a coherent way. So, in the beginning when I was writing, it was a lot more...unconscious––it wasn't needing to talk about this specific thing, but using music to make sense of everything that was happening, however abstracted it would be. And as time went on, it started to get focused and I was able to actually make direct statements through the music and really come to terms with things in a more literal way.
Tone Madison: Do you think your work has always been this personal?
Nika Roza Danilova: My music has always been very personal, but there has been an extreme amount of growth within me in the past couple of years led by many difficult moments and a lot of sadness, and it forced me to use music in a [more] directly cathartic way than I have in my past albums. And even though my music has always been personal and vulnerable, for some reason this record felt more nourishing, like I absolutely had to write these songs. Some of these songs are very important not only for me, but because I wrote them for specific people, so it seemed much more unadulterated and less censored, maybe.
Tone Madison: I guess another thing that sticks out with this album is the return to Sacred Bones from Mute, which released Taiga in 2014. Okovi is rawer and darker than Taiga, and it seems to hearken back to some of your past work on Sacred Bones. How does it feel to return to the label, and had you planned on it?
Nika Roza Danilova: It kind of all happened at the same time. I was writing the album and then I just decided that I wanted to return because Sacred Bones is like family. I've known them for so long and they're some of my best friends, so it just felt like I had to return regardless of the album I was making. One of the shifts in my life in the past couple of years involved coming to terms with the people who believed in me and who I also believe in—focusing on that and the unity in those honest relationships. So in returning to Sacred Bones, I also felt more liberated to not overthink the record from an objective standpoint.
Tone Madison: And I guess the return to Wisconsin is a big factor in Okovi as well. What about the return, or about Wisconsin in general, inspires you?
Nika Roza Danilova: Wisconsin is where I grew up and it's where I first sort of came to know myself as a musician and artist, even as a young child, as a creative person. It was this feeling of true freedom and empowerment and imagination...especially the land where I grew up, that I returned to to build a house—never have I written something or came up with something on that land and felt like it was too rooted in the external world. Writing for me in Wisconsin feels like an intuitive, internal process, and as soon as I returned back here, it encouraged that sort of process.
Tone Madison: Kind of like isolation, but more comfortable?
Nika Roza Danilova: Yeah, totally.
Tone Madison: Since you lived in Madison when you were releasing a lot of your early material, was there something about the city, the scene, the people you were working with that helped catalyze Zola Jesus?
Nika Roza Danilova: Yeah, man, yeah. The thing with Madison that I miss and that I have not been able to find anywhere else where I've lived since then is its extreme openness and the variety. When I was living there, the scene was rather small, but it was really supportive and there was a strong sense of community. So, regardless of what you made, whether it was dark, psychedelic, punk, drone, noise, anything that was alternative or underground or couldn't find its own scene, everyone banded together and created a scene just based on the disparate people trying to find a community within that. You'd end up playing shows with totally different bands that all made sense because they were all doing something very different and that's what bound us together. So that freedom and encouragement to follow your own vibe and your own intuition as an artist, and to not worry about fitting in, was so so incredible and special and unique and I've only ever found that in Madison. And that really encouraged me to dig into the things that I'm truly interested in as a musician and establish that within myself, and the community would be there to support no matter what you did. So yeah, I have an extreme respect for the Madison music scene for that reason.
Tone Madison: So some of your early shows would have been a whole hodgepodge of lineups.
Nika Roza Danilova: Totally. I'd be playing with a metal band and then a noise project and then a grindcore band. Or someone doing techno and someone else doing drone.
Tone Madison: For those of us who have only heard your recorded material or seen your more recent live incarnations, did Zola Jesus fit into a certain vibe at these shows? Not to box in genres, but would you have fit in more with the "noise" side or the "pop" side?
Nika Roza Danilova: I mean, I don't even know. I think that because I've always written songs, there's always been some sort of structure in what I do, and that usually gets less freeform. But at the same time...I guess I can't even tell you what it fit into. It always had some sort of essence of pop just because of the inherent structures that I use.
Tone Madison: Do you think that the songwriting aspect then, even today and since you first started, has always been the most grounding force in the creative process for you?
Nika Roza Danilova: Yeah, definitely. I like to have some sort of stability within the chaos. So for me, having some rules helps me be creative. I think that as I kept writing, I became more and more interested in mastery...mastering those rules. So, I think I got a little off track...the thing I liked about making music since day one is having those opposing forces and having this contrast of being inaccessible in some ways and accessible in other ways. The listener is forced to confront something, whether it's that they don't like pop music or they don't like noise. And in the beginning, they had to confront something to get through my music. And since then, I've leaned one way or the other more or less, but that's always been the grounding aspect of what I do and it's always been like the thread that kept the project what it is.
Tone Madison: Since I'm recording this in the WSUM studios, I have to ask some about your experience with WSUM and being a DJ at college radio. Do you feel like being a part of that community helped develop the project or helped develop your tastes at all?
Nika Roza Danilova: That was another great thing about Madison, was having WSUM, which is so free-form. I met my husband at that station...it was where all these people who were so passionate about different types of music would have the freedom to play and lean into their favorite music. There was such a variety that it gave me so much exposure to different types of music and also allowed me to meet so many different people that either I had something in common with, or that I didn't and we could connect in different ways, just by our disparate love for music. I think WSUM is such an asset to the community in Madison because it does allow a breadth for variety and exposure to different types of music. And that sort of musical and artistic tolerance for the city and the station is really vital.
Tone Madison: We talked at WSUM in the past and you pulled out a California noise compilation from the library and played some of it on the air. Especially after more pop-oriented albums like Taiga and Okovi, how does noise still play a role in Zola Jesus?
Nika Roza Danilova: Noise and industrial will always be my favorite music, like that's my prefered music to listen to. But still when I write, it usually comes out as pop songs with melodies and choruses and stuff. But through the years, especially with Taiga, I didn't bring noise into it because I was trying to understand myself as a songwriter. But after that, I felt like I needed to balance out the two sides of my writing. So, with Okovi, I tried to go further into the beginning where noise was a huge part of the way that I wrote and a huge part of my process. And I think I see myself continuing down that path for the next record as well. For me, experimental music and noise music and industrial make up an enormous part of my creativity, whether or not I choose to use it from time to time. But it's not just a part of me that's gone—in fact, I see it becoming more prevalent in the way that I write right now.
Tone Madison: You released a playlist on The Quietus and some mixes on Soundcloud that included everything from Striborg to Scarlati, so obviously your tastes vary drastically. Can you pick just a couple genres or artists that are key inspirations to you that a listener might not pick up by listening to Zola Jesus?
Nika Roza Danilova: If opera isn't obvious, I listen to an extreme amount of opera and actively study it. So, [Greek-American soprano] Maria Callas is someone I listen to on a daily basis and I'm extremely inspired by. In terms of composers...Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Schnittke are the main people I've been listening to lately. And then noise of course, industrial...Hunting Lodge, SPK...but mostly during Okovi, I was listening to a lot of Eastern European folk music and a lot of Bulgarian choral music. But I guess I'm not sure what's obvious and what's not.
Tone Madison: John Wiese is opening for you on your current tour. What do you think about his newest release, Escaped Language?
Nika Roza Danilova: I love it, it's so beautiful. The cool thing about John is that what he does always sounds like him but at the same time, he's so prolific that you end up never knowing what you're going to get from him when you go to one of his shows. And that's really cool. I love the set that he's been doing for this tour. I think it's been working really well and it's some of my favorite stuff that I've heard from him.
Tone Madison: Do you have a favorite project, release, or collaboration out of his massive catalog?
Nika Roza Danilova: I like Seven Of Wands a lot—that one is really rad—and then I like any Sissy Spacek stuff.
Tone Madison: What's your live the setup like for this tour?
Nika Roza Danilova: I have a violist, a guitarist—which is very unusual for me, as I've never had guitar on tour or in any of my music until this record...I feel kind of like a rock band now (laughs). This tour seems much more atmospheric than some of my past tours.
Tone Madison: How so?
Nika Roza Danilova: There's more emphasis on mood and it's more emotional, less energetic...it's still energetic but it's less about trying to recreate songs verbatim as you get them on the record. It's more about interpreting them in a live context, and as the tour has progressed, we've been more and more interested in pulling the songs apart more and having it be more of a standalone experience that isn't so rooted in the original music that's on the record.
Tone Madison: Well, just to pull apart a little of Okovi, the track "Veka" features some Slavic language in the first half, and that comes into play with just the title of the album. How does that ancestry fit in with the album and your music? And what was being said in "Veka"?
Nika Roza Danilova: The adaptation or usage of the Slavic language on this record was kind of an homage to my ancestry and to the more primal or ancient versions of the self and trying to see it more as a circle where your life is a circle and you're living these parallel lives simultaneously...like the lives of your ancestors and the lives of all the different aspects of who you could have been are still a part of you through blood. So it became important to me to honor that more and more. In the beginning of "Veka" with the reversed words, that's taken from a poem I was reading in Russian by Anna Akhmatova called "Is This Century Worse Than Before?"—one of my favorites. She's contemplating...are we living in a dystopia? She's contemplating this dystopia and wishing for simpler times, which of course we all feel currently.
Tone Madison: What's next for you?
Nika Roza Danilova: I really feel strongly that whatever I do next is going to be a lot more abstracted. I want to write an opera and do something more longform and less about an album of songs. I want to get deeper into the things that are currently really fascinating me as a musician. But right now, all I can think about is touring...so it's all on the back burner.