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Zola Jesus Finally Has Her Diva Moment

"I needed to make what I considered a 'diva' record with a strong vocal that said something."

Photo by Jeff Elstone

When Zola Jesus emerged into the dark pop world in the late 2000s, she came with a ready-made differentiator: A bellowing, rich voice honed by more than ten years of classical opera training. Instead of highlighting that instrument, however, Danilova tended to bury it, and the rest of her sound, in industrial static and noise, a decision surprisingly born less of artistic choice and more out of insecurity. “My music [has] always been pop. I’ve just been so ashamed of it that I would cover it in noise,” claims Danilova, who on her fifth album, Taiga, has ditched the reverb and stripped down her sound to highlight her powerful pipes.

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“I came to terms with my voice and instead of pushing against it,” says Danilova. “There was so much fear in my life—I felt like I needed to embrace it.” The process started on her previous album, 2013’s Versions, a collection of re-recordings of some of her previous work on which she traded her at times abrasive avant-synth sounds for strings arranged by Foetus’s J.G. Thirwell. Entering that process, Danilova gained an education in what paired well with her vocals, and without the bustling tracks to back her up, confidently grew into her own voice. On Taiga, Danilova steps even further away from reverb and instrumental resonance; here, she has so fully embraced her vocal ability that while holed up on an inlet on Washington’s Puget Sound, she wrote the entire record a capella. It's her most stripped-down record, which has in turn resulted in her most self-assured performances.

We talked to Danilova about the process of recording Taiga (out today), how she’s finally having her diva moment, and why her business degree is now Plan B. (It’s OK, though! Her parents are proud, so that’s all that matters!)

Noisey: Was growing up in Wisconsin near the taiga the main inspiration for the album?
Nika: Definitely—growing up in nature, writing the record on an island full of green; it was very isolated. But it’s also about man versus nature; coming to terms with a person’s path, their drive, and being empowered to take advantage of their world. I think people are usually so afraid of the world. They don’t have the power to change it. I want to feel like I have the power to change it.

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You physically wrote the album in Washington. What was the process like while you were there?
I was very isolated. I rented this house on the water. It was this big glass house. It was so beautiful. I set up a little studio and every morning I would get up and go into that room. I would look out my window and see the water of Puget Sound and then just write. Most of the album came from that.

Did you spend a lot more time focusing on lyrics this time?
This is a vocal album so I wrote everything almost a capella. For a song like “Nail,” I had a really hard time putting instruments underneath it. I really didn’t like it, so I just kept it very a capella. This is the first album where I had absolutely no reverb and I refused to use it. I just really wanted the songs to stand out on their own and I wanted to take responsibility for my passion. Because the vocals are so clear, every song has a really strong message. I really want to empower people. I don’t want to propagate fear. I want to propagate liberation.

Was that your intention from the get-go, or did it just develop naturally while writing Taiga?
In the beginning, you don’t know what to expect because it’s a clean slate, so I tried many different things. The things that felt right, I just kept following. I knew inherently I needed to make what I considered a “diva” record with a strong vocal that said something.

Where do you draw inspiration from aesthetically?
Architecture is a huge inspiration to me. People like Louis Kahn, Tadao Ando, Frank Lloyd Wright—architects who use nature and interpret it in a synthetic and artificial way. I find that very interesting. I really like minimalist sculpture artists like Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and John McCracken. Stuff like that is really inspiring to me.

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Is there anyone who inspires you in terms of fashion? That wooden collar on the cover is tight!
I work with this woman, Jenny Hensler, who has a very similar style passion. She’s done a bunch of my music videos. She did the big wooden collar I wear on the album cover.

What’s your take on pop music in general? Do you feel yourself slowly becoming more recognized as a pop artist?
It’s a hybrid. The thing about my music is that it’s always been pop. I’ve just been so ashamed of it that I would cover it in noise. If you took all the noise and grime away from my older songs, they would sound just like this. I think that scares people and they can’t make that connection, but that’s OK. I’m definitely a pop songwriter. When I open my mouth, that’s what comes out—for better or for worse. So, that’s probably the direction I’ll continue in. Whenever I try to do things that are more vocally, I don’t want to say experimental, but long-form or things that are idiosyncratic, it feels forced.

Could you see yourself doing something like Versions again or maybe an all a capella album in the future?
I would love to do an a capella album. I love experimenting with different ways you can communicate song. I also feel these days people pay so much attention to production that they lose the song in the process, so it’s really important for me to just have sheet music and [be able to] sit down at a piano and play a song.

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So I heard that you’re a movie buff. Do you draw inspiration from movies for music and music videos?
Actually, I just saw a movie I had never seen before and I said, “Oh my god, this is Taiga!” It’s called Letter Never Sends. It’s a Russian movie about these geologists looking for diamonds in the taiga and they get trapped there and isolate. When I saw it I was like this is amazing!

You used to sing opera, right?
I studied classical voice for a long time and still do, actually. This is my legacy. This is my life. There is nothing else.

You also studied business in college. You sure you don’t want to dabble in that again?
[Laughs] Yeah, that was my plan B [laughs]. My parents were like, “You know, this music thing might not happen. You’ve got to have a second plan!” They’re proud now, that’s for sure.

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