In the World of Zola Jesus, Opera, Noise-Punk, and the Grotesque Coexist

Ahead of her Melbourne Music Week performance, we spoke about relearning how to sing opera, David Lynch, and obscure Russian electronica.
13 November 2016, 10:12pm

Nika Rosa Danilova is just 27, but she's already lived so many lives. As Zola Jesus, she debuted with the noisy post-punk of 2009's The Spoils, shifted to brooding darkwave on Stridulum and Conatus, before embracing pop full-throatedly on 2014's Taiga, the album she called her "true debut". Taiga's brighter ambitions found a mixed reception – but two years later, there's still nothing else quite like it.

Melbourne last witnessed Zola Jesus in 2012, playing to tipsy crowds at the Toff. For Melbourne Music Week​, she's reviving the string-quartet format from 2013's Versions, performing at the architectural marvel that is the Melbourne Recital Hall. The settings couldn't be more removed, but is the music all that different? That's the magic of Zola Jesus's sound: it's expansive. It's a world where opera and noise-punk, beauty and the grotesque can coexist – not in contradiction, but in harmony.

Noisey: So is this the first time you're performing songs from Taiga with strings?
**Zola Jesus: **​Yes! For the older songs, we're using J.G. Thirlwell's arrangements – which I performed at the Guggenheim, and on Versions. But Taiga's all new, and hopefully I'm doing a new song too.

I noticed you posted a preview of your sheet music to Instagram​?
  That's an aria I'm hoping to bust out. I'm a little nervous – I haven't sung any operatic pieces in public since I was a kid. So if I chicken out…
  You've spoken about your opera background before, but there's still such a mystique around it – we don't know what to expect.
  Me neither! That's why I created the Zola Jesus project – where if it's bad, it's just part of the emotional expression. But with opera, you can be objectively bad – you either pass or you fail. I have a lot of anxiety about upholding the operatic tradition. But I've been seriously studying opera for the past three years, trying to get the voice back. Between when I first quit, and starting Zola Jesus, I formed a lot of bad habits. I started singing really incorrectly, and it was hurting my voice. So I did have to relearn it.
  How do you approach performing in a chamber setting? Do you ever feel the need to subvert, even pervert it?
  Actually, no – I feel like indulging it. Performing with a band is about energy. But in a chamber setting, it's about musicality. I feel like I have to compromise that when I'm touring and playing nightclubs. But here, I don't want to see microphones or PAs. When you're simulating synthetic sounds, it's a very closed performance. But chamber music is a living, breathing thing. It's all about the acoustic bodies of the instruments, and the human body that's creating the voice. So I don't need to pervert it – I already do that every other night!  
So are you singing unamplified, as opera singers traditionally do?
  That's my ultimate goal, to have as few mics as possible. It might surprise the audience, because it'll seem quieter than they're used to. But it's like when you go to an opera or a symphony – it's all about dynamics.
  What's your relationship with David Lynch like? Does he live up to his reputation?
  Yes *laughs* he's a maniac! I've only met him a few times. But he's very much who you think he is. Very childlike, very imaginative, tells great stories – he's got a lot of 'em. He's incredible.

You've covered "In Heaven"​ from Eraserhead several times throughout your career. What does it mean to you?
  It means a lot! On so many levels – within the movie, and the scene. The song is so sweet and infantilized – but it's so dark, too. And the performance within the film adds to the surreality. I love phrases that can mean different things based on subtle inflections. Or if you say them enough times, they take on a new meaning. "In heaven, everything is fine" – it sounds like you're reassuring yourself, but with a deep underlying sadness.
  It feels like music in 2016 is more fractured than ever. But do you feel an affinity with anything that's happening out there?
  I'm really into the Ukrainian and Russian electronic music scenes. Full of Nothing​ Records is amazing, and Kvitnu​. Whether it's Karelia, St. Petersburg, Siberia, Kiev – there's lots of little collectives, where different types of musicians are collaborating and supporting each other. They're going through something that America either already went through and lost, or desperately needs to return to. And I miss that. When I grew up in Wisconsin, went to college in Madison, or lived in LA, there were really strong scenes. I don't know what happened to them.
  Globally, it's a very strange time to be a musician. I feel like people are tired of all the choices they have, of the unlimited possibilities within making and listening to music. And the music itself reflects that sense of fatigue. It's hard to narrow things down enough to feel any excitement.

So what's next?
  A new album, and I have a lot of other ideas that won't necessarily be on it. I've put out so many records – which are all different, but pretty similar too. It's like it's not a Zola Jesus song unless there's a voice or a beat on it. And that's usually not what's inspiring me, now more than ever. I start to feel like that's the only thing I can do. I want to explore making music that's more abstracted than people are used to. It's time.

Zola Jesus performs with Penny Quartet Nov 14 as part Melbourne Music Week.​ ​

Richard S. He is a pop musician and award-winning critic. You can tweet your grievances to @Richaod​.​​​