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Zola Jesus' obsessions

As she prepares to unleash her fourth album ‘Taiga’, the powerful experimental pop singer shares her love for Miley Cyrus, Pusha T and Catherine the Great

In a secluded side-room of Mute’s label offices, arms clasped tight by chunky silver cuffs, Nika Roza Danilova is stroking her wrists and reflecting on the obsessions that influenced Taiga, her formidable fourth record as Zola Jesus. Each topic kick-starts a punishing intellectual workout. You see the changes in her demeanour: forward lean, wild gesticulation, cool expressions framed by deep black hair. Her look, somewhere between future-servant and brooding empress, is quietly magnificent, a controlled display of power, obedience and poise. “I’m a pop star in denial,” she later claims, and it’s hard not to agree.

For all its emphatic, brassbound extremity, Taiga is Danilova’s brightest effort yet. It’s still the music of eyeliner and solitude, but this time when it soars it stays airborne, lifting the listener from the bedroom to the clouds. “(Taiga) is about striving,” the 25-year-old explains, kneading the air intensely. “With Conatus I knew that I was striving but I felt like I was drowning. These two records are the pre- and the post-. Before, I couldn't swim, but Taiga is about overcoming, arriving, taking control. I feel like now I'm ready to dive.” Ahead of the record’s October 6 release, we picked Danilova’s ever-churning brain on the icons, conflicts and obsessions that make her tick.


I actually really love “Wrecking Ball” – so, sorry! It's a song that can become legendary like "Halo" by Beyoncé. To me it sounds like a classic rock ballad that Journey or Foreigner would've done in the eighties, super catchy and emotional. The video? I don't know yet. At first I was repulsed - it’s playing into something I think we have too much of, which is hypersexualised pop music. But I like that she's transgressive. In her own way, she's her own Lars Von Trier, so good for her. She’s just not reinventing anything except a very old shock value strategy, and that seems a little passé.


My grandmother would talk about this woman a lot. She was the Queen of Russia in the 1700s, and she’s one of the reasons my family lived in Russia. Her rise to power is really interesting: she was supposed to be, like, the queen of the king, but she was so ambitious, driven and diplomatic that she actually drove out her own husband and became queen. She led this nation, who were a huge power at this point. She was a badass, basically. She's kind of my hero.


On an aesthetic level, nudity is something I'm not open to. But I like the idea of us having this skeleton that makes us feel ashamed. On a musical level, I really want the voice to be naked. On Taiga there’s no autotune, no reverb, maybe a little bit of echo. Miley has a very affected voice, so while she's getting naked in the videos, her voice is covered in a million layers. She's hiding in other ways.


For a long time fear used to fuel me, and I liked that. But it started to turn on me, to control me. In the past I thought I was giving up control, but in that way you're asserting more control. You're grabbing on stronger, but in a weird, opposite way. This is kind of abstract, but I think the more you confront the fact that you need to take responsibility for your destiny and for your art, the more anxiety it gives you. Yet at the same time you feel freer.


Growing up in the woods, in an insular rural area, I learned who I was from a very young age. So I'm probably more naive than most people, but naivety makes you think you can conquer the world. Recently I was talking to my friend who's an experienced rapper, super-jaded dude, and I'm telling him, ‘You know? I want to play stadiums. My whole life I've wanted to be an artist who could speak to millions of people. But I'm starting to realise that unless you're Katy Perry, that's never going to happen.’ He goes, ‘Don't say that! Don't do that to your dream!’ (laughs) And it made me realise there's still a chance for that little girl in the woods to be what she's always wanted. And not get thwarted by the real world.


I usually do four-on-the-floor, very clunky, insistent beats. With Taiga I wanted more of a swing, more groove. I'm obsessed with Pusha T and Clipse. Clipse has always been great – Neptunes beats, you can't go wrong. Of the pair I particularly love Pusha T – you can just tell he's smart. A lot of rappers feel like they have something to prove, but Pusha T doesn't have anything to prove.


Louis CK has this skit where he says, ‘Do you ever think, like, “I know your son has a peanut allergy... but maybe people with nut allergies should die. Because that's natural selection.”’ (laughs) It’s not that exactly, but sometimes I'm like, ‘Okay, I know that everyone who's here should be here, but maybe there should be some population control.’ In terms of (technological advancement), we’re building these microcosms, and we feel like we have control of the world, and in our own way we do. But at the same time we're aliens. I feel like humans are a disease – we use world’s resources like they're ours but don’t share them with the world itself. It's bizarre. This record is like, ‘Why are we doing this? Who are we? Why don't we want to be animals?’ We're in denial.


How would Taiga smell? It would smell like white birch trees... on fire. (laughs) Actually, this is something I've thought about. I was in Iceland for a couple of weeks in the fall, walking down the main street at night time, and it was starting to get a little cold. And you could just smell all the wood stoves burning. That smell, mixed with the dry salty air, is the greatest smell. It reminds me of home.