Interview with Zola Jesus
Nika Roza Danilova (AKA Zola Jesus) returns to New Orleans this Sunday for the first time in three years. Along with her operatic vocals, she’s bringing with her a brand new album, Taiga (Mute Records). Leaning more towards the pop scene than perhaps her previous works, the album nestles itself in a strange, yet desired middle ground, balancing itself between darkness and light, despair and hope, and even self-doubt and confidence. Musically, Taiga is minimalistic in nature, yet it yields the grandiose peaks of a symphony. This compliments the meaningful lyrics, allowing one to give their full attention to the words, while the powerful sound of brass and string instruments floods them with emotion.
Danilova spared some of her time to chat with me about the album, past and present collaborations, and the story behind her stage name.
Where Y'at: Referring to the taiga in Eastern Russia and growing up around the boreal forest in Wisconsin. Can you tell us a little more about why you chose the title Taiga and what it means for you?
Zola Jesus: Well, There’s already quite an obvious connection with growing up near the forest, and then also my family when they moved to the US, they moved from Russia. They lived off the land. Yeah, there’s just something about the connective tissue there, and I was thinking a lot about, when you look back at your ancestry, and you kind of never really change. Everyone evolves in a certain way, but if you’re a farmer, you always have that farmer spirit in you in a way, if you’re a merchant, you kind of always have that spirit in you, and no matter what it’s always going to follow you. I liked that idea in a way, so I would explore that a lot. That’s part of the theme of the record. More philosophically or culturally speaking, I started thinking a lot about humanity and how, you know we are essentially animals, yet we feel so uncomfortable in the natural world. And the way in which we build these synthesized microcosms within nature to protect us from nature. It just feels very bizarre to me, so I thought a lot about that as well.
Taiga is now your fifth studio album. How have you transitioned and changed as an artist between each album, or do you consider yourself the same Zola Jesus?
Zola: Because it [Zola Jesus] is a solo project, the things that I believe in, the things I’m fixated on, those things never really change. But so much of what I do, I feel, is a reaction of what I did in the past or what I just did. So there’s always going to be ping ponging and evolution happening that will constantly change and transform.
WYAT: You collaborated with Blackbird on a new, unisex perfume & incense inspired by Taiga and you are selling it on tour. It’s described as smelling like firewood, ash, dry moss & mineral. Did you intend for people to wear the fragrance, or burn the incense, while listening to the album, creating a visceral experience utilizing multiple senses?
Zola: Definitely! That’s the goal and the exciting thing about doing something like this fragrance. It helps control the universe of the record more and the experiences of the record and I like that. That’s the thing that I love about music videos. You have this other medium to communicate your ideas in a whole different way, you know? I got really into scents recently because it does something really similar. I’d smell firewood, and it would remind me of being home at my childhood home where we would always burn fires and they had a wood stove and everything, and it instantly transports you to a different place and time, and I like experimenting with that.
WYAT: Luckily, only the second track to be released from John Carpenter’s debut album, Lost Themes, was “Night” so I was able to check it out. So until the February 3rd release date, I can only imagine what you added to this track. Can you tell us a little about your experience remixing the track with Dean Hurley?
Zola: It was actually a lot of fun and very automatic in a way. Dean sent me his adjusted remix and I just did top line stuff and sang over it. Quite instantly I thought of, like, a deranged hunter. I don’t know why (laugh). But it was a lot of fun and I got to explore different things that I maybe did more of in the past. Musically, I’ve shied away from making things that are overly dark and sinister in a way. It was a cool exercise to do something sinister and a little off, which I didn’t do much on Taiga. So it was fun to do that.
WYAT: You’ve done a couple collaborations in the past, most notably with M83. Can you speak to how those came to be and who contacted whom?
Zola: Well I certainly love solo work, but that’s the fun thing, you have this freedom to work with other people in a very unencumbered way, and that’s what I loved about working with the people I’ve worked with in the past. Usually those things happen really organically. With M83, Anthony and I just had this really strange kismet. I’ve always been a really huge fan of his work since the beginning and I really wanted to work with him. I was trying to find out how to contact him, and a day later, someone from his camp contacted me and said, “Hey, Anthony wants you to sing on his record.” He didn’t know I wanted to contact him at all. That was really funny. So yeah, that was really cool and working with him was just completely unbelievable. Everything happens organically, or they’re friends, you know? I just love what they do and we feed off each other, so it just becomes really, really easy to work with people like that.
WYAT: Do you plan on collaborating more in the future? Do you seek it out sometimes?
ZOLA: Definitely. I think it’s fun to seek it out when you find other artists that you feel you have something in common with and you think that putting the two artistic mentalities together would make something really interesting. There’s a collaboration I’m working on now that’s kind of like that which I can’t really mention, but it’s cool because the person I’m working with is in a completely different world, but I’m a huge fan, and I don’t know, it could be cool.
WYAT: I was curious about your stage name. I read online that you donned the name Zola Jesus after Jesus Christ and the French writer Émile Zola because you consciously wanted to alienate peers. Can you explain that a little further?
ZOLA: Well I came up with the name outside of music, when I was just a 14-year-old high school student, so I wanted my peers to call me that. I don’t know why, I guess I just thought it was funny. When I started making music I was just like, well I’m not going to put it under my own name because it seems a little vain, so I’m just going to put it under this Zola Jesus thing. Yeah it’s interesting too because I’ve noticed, as I’ve been doing this for five or six years and it’s interesting witnessing people having a hard time trying to say it. They don’t really want to say the name, which is frustrating, but it also makes you realize what a stronghold Christianity has over this country. It’s just a name. ‘Jesus’ is just a word, but it holds so much weight and I just found it very interesting that it holds so much weight.
WYAT: Do you consider your music written for a specific group of people with specific beliefs?
Zola: It’s definitely written for everybody. You can only hope that everybody will find something. I don’t set up to write a song for a particular group of people. That feels a little alienating.
WYAT: What can your fans expect from you in 2015?
Zola: A lot of touring. I’m not really ready to write yet. The record’s still pretty fresh.
WYAT: Do you have another music video in the works?
Zola: Yeah, I have one for “Hunger” that should come out soon, and maybe one after that. I’m not sure yet.
Do you have anything else you’d like to tell your fans?
Zola: I’m very excited to come to New Orleans and eat some really good food (laugh) and see the beautiful city.
Well, Nika, we’re just as excited to have you back in town to do so.
Grab your tickets now and come out this Sunday night to hear this “dark princess of sound” live at Republic.
Sunday, Feb. 1, 9:00 p.m.
Republic, 828 S. Peters St.
Hi.Good.Music is a bi-monthly blog highlighting and introducing lesser-known artists in the EDM, hip-hop, and indie scenes, both locally and beyond. Check back for free downloads, interviews, and concert reviews of New Orleans as well international acts.
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