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20 Q&As: Zola Jesus

In Dazed's new 20th-anniversary issue, we talked to the goth singer about pop culture, hyper-reality and opera

There aren’t many people who would namecheck Christina Aguilera and Nietzsche in the same breath, but blonde goth siren Zola Jesus, aka Nika Roza Danilova, says she owes as much to bubblegum pop as early existential philosophy. The 22-year-old is an amalgam of contradictions, most obvious in the epic operatic wails that she layers over bleak synth-laden electronica. Danilova trained as an opera singer from seven to 17, before giving it all up to start Zola Jesus.

Five years later and Danilova has released three EPs and three acclaimed albums, with critics heralding her emotive dark sound as the second coming of goth. Along the way, Danilova has toured with Fever Ray and The xx, worked on her side project Former Ghosts and somehow found time to graduate with a degree in philosophy, get married, move to LA and release a new album, Conatus.

Dazed & Confused: You and Dazed grew up simultaneously, how have you seen popular culture transform?
Zola Jesus: I feel like things were more subtle in the 90s. I’m really interested in the evolution of pop music. All of Mariah Carey’s albums in the 90s were so beautiful, subtle and acoustic, now everything’s completely synthetic, loud, crunched and compressed. It’s getting to the point where everything – pop culture as a whole – is completely over-stimulated and hyper-real. It’s like Disneyland and nothing can cut through unless it’s a cartoon. There’s so much noise, that these days pop stars have to be extremely vibrant and flamboyant to even be noticed. Pop music today has taken away the human qualities. Lady Gaga’s so dead-centred on doing things that are inhuman, it’s just weird, no one wants to be real, everyone wants to be the simulacra of what’s real. It’s a little scary.

D&C: You studied opera for ten years and then quit, why?
Zola Jesus: Singing opera is like training to be an athlete, because there’s an ideal of what you need to sound like and if you don’t sound like that, you need to change your voice. I was so passionate about it, but I spent a lot of time trying to break the way that I sang and the way I used my mouth. I found out eventually that I just don’t have that voice. After a while I said, ‘I don’t want to have to change, this is just the way I sing.’ I also had a very hard time singing in front of other people, so I couldn’t practice when anyone else was home. And I had to keep cancelling recitals and competitions because I’d lose my voice right before. I didn’t know why, and then I realised it was a psychological response to my stress.

D&C: Did you have a tough time fitting in at high school?
Zola Jesus: I didn’t have friends. My brother always had friends, I don’t know why I didn’t. Girls would spit in my hair and stuff when I was in elementary school, so I learned to be like, ‘Meh, I don’t need friends.’ In high school people were into shopping, going to the mall, prom, dating and who wore what. It wasn’t important to me. I read, I’d go to the library a lot, I was really busy with school,
I played and listened to music. I graduated high school in three years because I just wanted to get out.

D&C: How did Zola Jesus start?
Zola Jesus: After I stopped singing opera I quit music for a year and then I started Zola Jesus to come to terms with what I went through and to redevelop my relationship with my voice. I came up with the name because I liked Émile Zola, and the area where I grew up was very Christian and it got under their skin. It was the kind of thing where people would be like, ‘You’re weird…’

D&C: Did you ever collaborate with other people when you were starting out?
Zola Jesus:There were times when people would ask me to sing in their band because they knew my background. Then I’d go there and just freeze up, I couldn’t sing anything. I didn’t know what they were expecting and I realised I had to do it on my own.

D&C: Have you overcome your anxieties with performing?
Zola Jesus: Performing was always the hardest part and it’s still the hardest, just because you can’t take it back – you can’t un-see or un-hear a bad performance. But I have a natural drive to succeed and I have very high expectations for myself and I need to get there, so touring is just a part of it. Things like this are all part of getting where
I want to be.

D&C: You have such a disciplined approach to your music, do you ever just want to be a normal 22-year-old…hang out, go to parties?
Zola Jesus: Yeah, sometimes I wish I could just write a song about dancing or partying! I love the new Britney Spears album so much because there’s nothing of substance – it’s a complete escapist record.
I kind of envy that in a way, because it seems like she doesn’t give a shit about what people think of
her or what she’s putting out in the world. That must be kind of liberating, but I just wouldn’t be happy with myself.

D&C: What are some of the things that have inspired you?
Zola Jesus: I was mostly inspired by experimental music because it showed me a canvas for what you can create. Bands like The Residents, Throbbing Gristle and Diamanda Galás were really exciting. I loved Bikini Kill and Kathleen Hanna so much – she was such a spitfire and did whatever she wanted. But I also loved radio pop music because that was the only radio station we had. Things like Ace of Base, Mariah Carey, and later on there was Christina and Britney. That’s just as much a part of who I am as the experimental stuff. With books, my favourite author is Philip K Dick. I’ve basically read everything he’s ever written, which is a lot. He just had the most amazing view on the world and he completely changed me in the way that Nietzsche has, or any philosopher has.

D&C: How did studying philosophy influence your approach to music?
Zola Jesus: Philosophy completely alters the way you see the world when you wake up in the morning. It changes everything, especially what you create. It’s liberating because you realise that like any animal, you are born and then you die, but in between you can do anything you want. It’s society that creates rules for us, but you can break out of that. It was so exciting when I realised that musically I don’t have to stick to anything. I can explore new territories and challenge myself as a songwriter. You have to believe in the path that you’re on and then everything is going to work out. I wouldn’t have gotten through a lot of stuff if I hadn’t just let go of the system.

D&C: What was it like following up Stridulum II with Conatus?
Zola Jesus: It was actually a very difficult record to make because I wanted to make a record that was way bigger than anything I’d ever done before. I had to both restrain myself and push myself in other ways. Conatus is a Latin term  that means to move forward or to progress. That was really important for me because I felt like if I made another record like Stridulum II, I’d just be staying in one place. With this record, I wanted it to be more introspective and a bit quieter.

D&C: What do you see yourself doing 20 years from now?
Zola Jesus: Hopefully I will be doing this still! But I’d like to feel like I’ve got to a point where I’ve done what
I wanted and I can take a vacation. When you can afford to take time out for a vacation – that’s when you’ve made it.

D&C: How do you think popular culture will have changed by 2031?
Zola Jesus: Everything’s going to come to a head and there will be a breaking point, that’s always what happens. I noticed that’s what happened with me, I used to make really lo-fi music and I just got to a breaking point where I wanted to make really clean and well-produced music. That’s how we react as humans – we revert to the complete opposite. It won’t be
a subtle change, it’s just going to snap.

Photography BENNY HORNE

Dazed & Confused's October issue, 'Come Together: 20th Anniversary Special', is out now. Click HERE to check out the other, already published, Q&As celebrating the issue