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Introducing: Zola Jesus

The dark LA-based singer talks to Dazed Digital about experimenting with noise and her 80s-esque vocals

The once Wisconsin and now Los Angeles based Nika Roza Danilova has been skirting various corners of US pop and noise experimentation with her Zola Jesus project. Her sun-scorched and industrial-tinged power ballads have recently preferred a more hi-fi kind of gleam, but even if the sonics are these days more polished, the gothic evocations and oblique and grittily anthemic approaches to song just smack of a particularly full-blooded urge to experiment. Much has been made of Danilova’s perhaps surprisingly powerful opera-trained vocals; in a (range of) scenes that include reverb drenched lo-fi psych luminaries like Peaking Lights, Dead Luke and Inca Ore, it’s true that her almost possessed-sounding vocals stick out over the haze, but it’s the lawless and starkly sensual  boundary pushing within her often severe jams that really make them. We talked to Nika On the heels of her latest collaboration with LA Vampires (side project of Pocahaunted’s Amanda Brown) and just before a UK tour and the release of her specially revised and expanded Stridulum II LP for UK release.

Dazed Digital: Woah, so what's Wisconscin like?
Zola Jesus: Quiet, green, farmland.

DD: I guess perhaps the trendiness of it right now skews the idea of gothic but I was interested in the particular type of gothic you're into; does living in the Midwest influence that at all do you think? Any kind of midwestern Noir? You were talking about your father's hunting somewhere...
Zola Jesus: It's only strange to an outsider.  Grinding meat, skinning deer, shooting guns... it is normal life to us. Maybe that's the beauty of it.

DD: Your new collaboration with LA Vampires is super live and sounds to me a lot how I imagine some grungy/grimey version of Hollywood and Los Angeles. Where did you guys record it? How did it come about?
Zola Jesus: Amanda sent me songs and I recorded my vocals in Wisconsin. We didn't do any recording together.  We had discussed collaborating for a long time and finally it came to fruition. She is a brilliant, strange woman and I love her very much.

DD: Do you think about "Americanness" very much? A track like "Sea Talk" has a similar scruffy granduer to U.S. Girls whose response to the idea of Americanness is real dethroned but also sort of celebratory.
Zola Jesus: America is a funny place. I enjoy the hyperreality of daily life. Especially now living in Los Angeles. But I often don't feel like an American, whatever that means.

DD: Listening back through your various EPs and LPs made me realise how keen you seem to try new things. Are you able to discern a particular urge or vision you have with making music in general?
Zola Jesus: It's about saying something. Whether in sound or lyric, there is a point to make. I like the challenge of trying to get that point across in different ways.

DD: Do you find it weird that you might get grouped with (I'm talking on a wider genre/blog-covered basis here) where strong vocals or lyrics can be hidden behind more stylized/surface aesthetics?
Zola Jesus: I find it more obtuse to be grouped in general. You know there is oversaturation when you become part of a group. A person only needs one blue and one green, one Steely Dan and one Whitehouse. Just be lucky to be the One, or else you're just excessive. If I get hint that I'm not the One I will have no reason to continue doing this.

DD: Obviously your making music for yourself but do you ever feel any pressure or general weirdness about how blogs and the internet might effect music at the moment?
Zola Jesus: Blogs are just noise. There is freedom in misanthropy.

DD: I feel like (even if it's only from an internet perspective) that there are lots of similarities between you and bands like Peaking Lights and Dead Luke. Are there any peers with who you feel particularly aligned with in terms of ideas and aesthetics?
Zola Jesus: Peaking Lights are phenomenal people and musicians. I feel an affinity with contemporary artists such as Fever Ray, Planningtorock, Soap&Skin, who have so much conviction for what they do, and are contributing something refreshing and honest to new music. It is a rare breed.

DD: When and how did you decide to take a less lo-fi approach to how you record?
Zola Jesus: It was becoming too easy, I needed a new challenge.

DD: Also, does the cover of Stridulum II with the black paint/oil have anything to do with the sort of shiny/glossy texture on top of those recordings? It seems quite synthestic to me i.e. shiny surface but dark/a litte hallowed at the same time.
Zola Jesus: It is chocolate syrup. It was a fantasy of mine for a long time.

DD: I read somewhere you like the idea of "metal and steel"; that totally comes out for me in those kind of severe textures songs that are full on "space" if that makes sense, real dense. Are you into this idea with the songs you're making at the moment?
Zola Jesus: I like to feel many things at once. Texture is important. I try to create layers of organic textures that when put together create a new sound. Many parts making a  bigger whole.

DD: Are you working on any more collaborations? On your UK tour will you be collaborating live with Former Ghosts (and Xiu Xiu?)
Zola Jesus: Time will be the answer.

DD: What do you think the three new tracks on Stridulum II add to the already existing Stridulum EP? Is it another chapter you wanted to add with retrospect or is it more a matter of circumstance that they ended up creating the album?
Zola Jesus: Souterrain asked me to write more songs to make it a full-length. I intended to make them sound like Stridulum but too much time had passed, and I've grown curious of new ideas.

DD: How do you think European audiences perceive Zola Jesus in comparison to US audiences? Do you feel that there’s a difference?
Zola Jesus: I think they understand it more, they're more patient and supportive of my goals as an artist. I really appreciate my European fans, and am so thrilled to visit them this fall.