I tried really hard to go to the Zola Jesus show last Saturday. (Really hard!) But everything worked against me. And it’s for similar reasons that I never made it to the Lady of Lebanon Cathedral where Zola Jesus performed her new album, Versions, with the legendary avant-garde musician JG Thirlwell, that she strikes such a cord within the echo chamber of her listener’s ear. The universe worked against Nika Roza Danilova by blessing a minimalist artist with a maximalist voice.

Though I didn’t see the show, I did make it to the interview. Danilova and I were appropriately seated within the confines of the Cathedral (amongst a stack of bibles) to begin our own confessional. Discussing her roots and the current state of her musical progression, the thing that struck me most about the very well-spoken and thoughtful Danilova was her sense of quiet containment. There was something about her sense of calm that seemed better-suited to the tethered and wise than to a 24-year-old girl from Wisconsin.

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Hillary Sproul: You’ve always recorded at home. But now you’re recording in collaboration with somebody- which is probably a whole different experience for you. Did you feel like that was a surrendering of your own creative energy in any way at all? Maybe that’s a strange question.

Nika Roza Danilova: No, I totally understand it.  I think that it made part of me–like my ego–a little nervous to let go of a lot of the creative input. It’s kind of yielding to someone else’s ideas and someone else’s energy, but at the same time, I feel like that’s where the most growth is. Whenever I tend to collaborate with people I learn the most about myself as a musician, as an artist. It’s a necessary evil in a way. You know, you need to appreciate it and to let go of yourself.

HS: You didn’t feel like you compromised yourself in any way? It was sort of like you became something new, with another person.

NRD: Yeah! Or in a way, the thing with JG just helped to peel back the layers on things that I was too afraid to say to myself. You know, he’ll commit to things or he’ll push me to do things. I have so many walls up constantly that I like to break them down.

HS: That’s kind of like entering a relationship.

NRD: Yeah. It is!

(laughter)

HS: Sorry for talking metaphorically here.

NRD: No, it definitely is! It’s like you’re entrusting everything to this other person. You need to really have faith in them.

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HS: Has the collaboration affected the way that you’ve performed?

NRD: Well, especially when we’re recording and then performing, I do have JG in mind because he spent a lot of time on these arrangements. He has attachments to these songs now too.

HS: You owe something to somebody else, which is pretty serious.

NRD: Yeah.

HS: You have a background in the opera and are sort of a theatrical performer in a lot of ways. Does playing with a string quartet and having a more fully realized operatic nature with this tour feel like a sort of dream-come-true with your original training in opera?

NRD: Actually, I hate the word “theatrical” but I can see how it would be-

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HS: I’m not saying that you are theatrical, but it can seem-

NRD: Very intense. Yeah, it’s very intense. And the thing that I really, really appreciate about this interpretation of the music is that there’s a lot for room for subtlety and dynamic. That’s really when I can listen to the song and hear the song and to live the song a little bit more, whereas before it was just this constant wall of sound.

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HS: There’s a lot of emotional honesty to your voice, which- for me- reads as theatrical. I studied acting- which is entirely about emotional honesty- and I feel that in your voice. That’s theatrical itself because it’s an emotional expression. But it’s put up against an almost industrial background which reads as being constantly at odds. Do you think that your interests and influences are at odds in a way?

NRD: Yeah, well a big problem is that I really, really value minimalism. But when I create music, it’s very maximalist because of my voice and because of the emotion behind it. So there’s always this sort of tug of war with being emotional but not being too emotional and having subtlety. That’s something that I’ve constantly tried to balance.

HS: But I think that perfect math for successful art would be conflict and emotional honesty- which is actually everything that you’re doing. How did the collaboration with JG come about?

NRD: Well, I had this thing at the Guggenheim and it was just this opportunity to play there. They didn’t ask me for a different set but I realized back then that I wanted to play with a string quartet because the space is actually very cavernous. It’s very hard to play electronics in there. So a mutual friend contacted JG because he does arranging and it just felt like the perfect match.

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HS: Was it immediately easy to work with him? Did it feel like an easy flow?

NRD: At that point I knew that I couldn’t arrange for strings on my own. And I didn’t really have faith in my ability to do that. So once I asked him, I was just like, “Do what you do!”

HS: I guess if you get to work with anyone you really want to work with, you just have to let that happen and just surrender to it.

NRD: Yeah, and let it be its own thing. You can only hold the reigns for so long.

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Long story short: I tried to get to the show and, for a variety of reasons, I failed heavily.

On my way home, I thought about a point in conversation which I hadn’t recorded for the interview. When I was leaving, I had asked Nika what she considered home. She had replied that she hadn’t any. She did this breezily, almost cheerily and I championed that sentiment. The same way in which she rolls with a life which places her in the migrant journey of her chosen profession was the same way I would have to roll with my failure to properly cover an assignment (ie. I should have been at the show!) That kind of flexibility is necessary for any artist; art itself requires a certain willingness to lose footing (sometimes entirely).

It’s a trust fall. And this recent collaboration and tour with Thirlwell is just one example of Danilova’s willingness and (likely resultant) growth as an artist.

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Airplane wings (this pertains: Nika’s on tour, she flies a lot) are built to shake so as to not totally break when in flight. The thing that seems most fragile and unsteady about them, are what keep them afloat. That’s the thing that Nika has found in her music and that’s what makes it so good. That operatic, fully realized, humanistic, emotive voice is placed within the structure of completely orchestrated electronic surrounding elements. On early records, it was the computer. In her current collaboration with Thirlwell, it’s an actual orchestra: contained, controlled, orchestrated.

Versions- the album itself- sounds particularly lonely. And yet, it’s the first that she hasn’t recorded herself. With the influence of a collaborator, how could it possibly be a lonely process? Maybe it’s company that keeps you lonely. Or maybe it’s what keeps her work interesting.

A tiny girl from Wisconsin, with a giant voice and an even-bigger burgeoning career in flight, her music and this album, Versions, capture the duality and contradiction that are at the heart of the key to artistic success. Only one thing challenges this. I asked my roommate (who did go to the show!) how it had gone and she replied, “Well, it’s kind of fitting that she should play in a church. She has that kind of voice.”

And she does. While it is operatic, it is angelic too. She goes by Zola Jesus. The connotations are readily available. The photos my roommate took show what looks like a choir girl, right at home with Thirlwell at her side, fully supported by the walls and all. I imagined those metaphorical airplane wings as angel wings for some kind of Christmas pageant.

It was, by all accounts, total synthesis. And for one show at least. It’s only up from here and that’s only a work in progress.

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Images Courtesy of ZOLA JESUS

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