by David Diehl
Photography by Angel Ceballos
As she churns out more and more music, audiences and critics alike are really beginning to note Zola Jesus as a driving force in the industry – and whether she cares about their opinions or not, the spotlight is now shining bright. Zola Jesus’ music has been described and categorized in many different ways: synth-pop, haunting, electronic rock, alternative, gothic-inspired, beautiful, mood music and scary. But the woman behind the music, born Nika Roza Danilova, is smart enough to make it look easy. And for some reason, she doesn’t like that. A Russian-American raised in Wisconsin, Nika studied opera and whizzed through college focused on French and philosophy. She denounced her operatic training to start Zola Jesus – an alter ego inspired by the biblical counterpart and French writer Emile Zola – and has since become an indie darling. Although Zola Jesus has been around since 2008, it’s now with her recent tour and new album, Conatus, that the project has been labeled one of the upcoming and noteworthy acts of the new year. Her brilliance and amazing pipes have proven to be a gift to audiences of all kinds – no matter what genre they’re looking for – but have also become a burden and cause for reflection for the songstress.
YRB: How did the Zola Jesus project become a reality?
Nika: I wanted to make things on my own. After studying opera for 10 years, I started presenting my voice. It got to a point where I felt that I needed to start over – rehabilitate that relationship that I once had – the relationship with my voice. Because I had been singing for so long, it got to a point where it turned into something else when I studied opera, and I didn’t like that. The passion and emotion from my voice was gone, and it became technical and I wanted to bring back that expression. Everything I do vocally is a reaction to my opera studies. I can tell every time I open my mouth how opera has changed my voice, and I want to get rid of it.
YRB: Your voice has been described as “haunting.” Do you think that is a correct representation?
Nika: I think that is a misinterpretation. Everything that I do is a way for me to work through something – in order to understand the world better. The whole point of Zola Jesus is to work through things and work through the compulsion and the anxiety and the frustration and the stress that I have felt in my life. Similarly, everything that I do and that I write, especially within this record, is about working through those same anxieties and fears. And why I think the way I think. I’m trying to figure out my purpose and place and everyone’s purpose and place.
YRB: Where are these “fears” derived from?
Nika: My whole life I’ve struggled with severe anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’m a very anxious, fearful and overwhelmed person by the nature of how I’ve always been. And I’m working through these [things] through my music.
YRB: Is Conatus a direct manifestation of you channeling that energy?
Nika: In every way. Being creative. To progress. To move forward. And you’re not moving forward unless you challenge everything that you’re comfortable with. And challenge what you do and challenge what you know. And challenge your fears and your anxieties. Zola Jesus is my catharsis. It’s my only release. It’s my only way to understand.
YRB: When you’re performing or recording, do you have an audience in mind, or is your music about self-expression?
Nika: I’m making it for me. But knowing that I’m releasing it to the public, of course, there’s going to be the sense of wanting to simplify things and get down to brass tacks. My music is made for human beings. If you’re a human being, then I hope that it affects you. The whole point is that everyone is the same. Everything is the same. We’re all going through the same problems, the same anxieties, the same fears. Without really knowing why we’re here. There is an overarching question of purpose and will. Anyone can relate to that. None of us have the answer to that. I don’t have the answer. I don’t want to alienate anyone from asking those questions and for trying to work through it. That would be a disservice or would just be rude.