The Passion Of Zola Jesus

The Passion Of Zola Jesus

We spent three days with Zola Jesus before her most daunting performance ever: to sing an opera aria for the first time since she was a child.
01 December 2016, 3:18am

Zola Jesus is jetlagged, and it's my fault. At just 27, Nika Roza Danilova has five studio albums, collaborations with David Lynch and John Carpenter, and a gig she's yet to rehearse for – and I can't even make it to our interview on time. The morning after a trans-Pacific flight is no reasonable time to bother her with questions about the nature of art and existence. But is there ever a right time?

A hundred-odd Melburnians first witnessed Zola Jesus at the musty, intimate Toff in Town in 2012.

Touring behind her Conatus album, she'd just emerged from her first career transformation – having gone from noise-punk to cult alternative pop enigma. I vividly remember how she walked into the audience, not joining us, but parting us. Her aura enveloped us even as we towered over her. We may have watched in rapture, but we couldn't see through her inarticulable mystique.

Four years and two further artistic transformations later, Zola Jesus is headlining 2016's Melbourne Music Week. She's to sing alongside a string quartet, as she did at the Guggenheim and on her 2013 album Versions – but she's not content to look backwards. With arrangements old and new, by J.G. Thirlwell and Melbourne's own Louise Woodward, it'll be her first time performing material from 2014's _Taiga i_n a chamber setting. The Melbourne Recital Centre, where she's to perform, is an architectural marvel. It's just a tram ride south from the humble Toff, but it's worlds away.

On a sunny Friday, three days before her performance, we meet in her hotel bar. In person, Nika is at once unassuming, warm, jet-lagged to hell, and clearly capable of being frighteningly intense under the right circumstances. But she doesn't necessarily have anything to get off her chest. Maybe it's the sheer number of interviews she's done over the years – at a certain point, what's left to say?

Certain things bother me more than they bother her. Case in point: the last Zola Jesus album, 2014's bright, expansive Taiga, was her first to receive mixed reviews. Many fell back on the usual lazy signifiers – "goth", "ice queen" – or fretted about her move into pop music without fully articulating the album's ambitions. Does she struggle with others' perceptions of her music?

"It's tricky when you create something outside of yourself, because it takes on a life of its own. 
I think sometimes people expect me to act in a way that aligns with how they perceive me as an artist or a person. And I don't blame them – I do the same thing with people I admire. But as a creator, you need to come to terms with the fact that others won't necessarily ingest it the same way."

Unlike some of her more out-there idols, Zola Jesus has a populist streak. Despite her avant-garde inclinations, she still wants to please – it's her Midwestern upbringing. "I like making music that's universal. It allows people to imprint onto it what they need from it. I don't want to force anyone to think about it in a singular way."

Zola Jesus is totally self-driven, compelled by her own idiosyncratic tastes. But all artists are contradictions, and on some level, a flame needs oxygen to survive. "I find self-worth in what I do. And that can be damaging, because you become reliant on people listening to you."

"Art is a public service. You can't make it in vain, just for yourself. But at the same time, you can't feel like you're not worthy of being alive unless you make something people like. And I don't want to feel dependent on that for happiness."

Earlier in the week, Nika posts a photo of sheet music – an aria she plans to perform on Monday. Nika's childhood opera training will forever be a talking point – it separates her from us. Anyone can appreciate opera, but few know what it's like to devote their lives to it.

Opera was Nika Danilova's first love. But as a teenager, her tastes expanded, and the rigidity of classical thought began to feel like the death of artistic expression. She could sing operatically, but what did her own voice sound like? "I felt like I was ruining my connection to myself", she says. When she gave it up, at 16, opera gave her something to push against. It defined the wilderness of the early noise-punk Zola Jesus, everything that opera could never be.

But over the last three years, Nika's been taking voice lessons from her childhood teacher over Skype. The Zola Jesus we've seen live is fearless. But to perform opera for the first time since she was a child – that's something else altogether. "I have a lot of anxiety about upholding the operatic tradition. I don't even sing in public with that voice, because with opera, you can be objectively bad – you either pass or you fail. So if I chicken out…"

It's a tough question to ask in a week that Donald Trump was elected, but how does she feel about life these days? "I almost feel so cynical that it feels like optimism. Everything we do is in vain – so nothing really matters, because we're all living with the same level of superfluity." Call it optimistic nihilism, then?

"It's like a circle, and at one point they meet – the snake eats its tail. It might seem bad to be that cynical, but for me it's liberating. When I made Taiga, I wasn't at that point. I had a hunger to prove myself as worthwhile. And now it's like, we're all worthy of being here, and all worthy of not being here. So whatever you do at this point is a positive."

There's nothing left to say, and with a phrase, Nika vanishes. Minutes later, the news of Leonard Cohen's passing breaks, and I wonder what she would have made of it. We're finally living in Kurt Cobain's "Leonard Cohen afterworld" – but we're on the wrong side.

Image:Melbourne Recital Centre/Photo by Kristoffer Paulsen

The next evening, Zola Jesus takes part in an In Conversation session at the Melbourne Recital Centre. The Salon room's interior is mesmerising. It's a work of art unto itself: intimate, yet uncompromisingly modern. Framed by Lynchian black curtains, high ceilings dotted with lights and microphones, it feels like a perfect, hermetically sealed structure. After the political chaos of this week, simply being here is an act of healing.

Speaking in public, Zola Jesus is the picture of serenity. The interviewer asks questions with the soothing tones of a therapist; Nika's responses are precisely worded. Without ruffling anyone's feathers, she describes her songwriting process as a form of masochism. It's self-interrogation, self-abuse for a higher purpose – and as listeners, we struggle along with her to make sense of it all.

Zola Jesus has been a strange journey. We forget how young she was – just 20 when The Spoils, her debut album, was released in 2009. Now 27, she feels her Saturn return beginning. She's not superstitious, but she is coming full circle, and it's no coincidence she's unearthing her operatic roots.

This is a true salon, in the traditional sense of the word. It's more than a live interview – it's an exchange of ideas about creativity. The crowd's diverse – all ages and fashion senses, with a few literary-looking older figures looking to learn something from Zola Jesus too. They trade reference points: his Jacques Brel and Nick Cave to her J.G. Thirlwell, David Cronenberg, Maria Callas. It's genuinely life-affirming – would that we never lose our sense of curiosity.

Image: Melbourne Recital Centre/Photo by Michael Christian

It's Monday night, and the Melbourne Recital Centre is alive. Zola Jesus stands hushed: face obscured by hair, her dress a black shroud, hands wrapped tightly around her microphone stand. The stage is sparsely lit, the band – Melbourne's Penny Quartet, adding Tamil Rogeon on violin – barely amplified. Abstract projections pulse and congeal behind them. The two-storey Elisabeth Murdoch Hall is just two-thirds full, which only makes the atmosphere starker. Zola Jesus has conjured the ambience of some dark cinematic ritual. Our pupils dilate; it forces us to lean forward and truly listen.

She opens a cappella, with "Nail". It's already her most exposed song, but makes it even more challenging – raising the key two steps. Her usual alto is instantly recognisable, a deep, resonant bellow – but "Nail" pushes her into a rarely-heard head voice. On record, Zola Jesus is in control. She never lets her emotions spill over her. But tonight, every sensation is intensified. "Set me free / Pull the nail out with your teeth" – suddenly it's desperate, pleading. It makes you realise that the voice is an instrument, in a way that's rarely apparent in a club setting. You feel the physical and emotional toll of what it takes to sing.

This is Zola Jesus in her purest form. She's removed every crutch live performers rely on: reverb, noise, volume, alcohol – and she's become more forceful and vulnerable. Even Versions' programmed beats are gone. Zola Jesus is primarily known as an electronic musician, but tonight, she wants nothing to do with it.

So she creates drama from negative space – the quieter the musicians play, the more thrilling they become. There's no conductor between the five string players, but you can feel their invisible pulse in the silence between their notes. The strings flit between classical and modernist, fluttering Vivaldi runs and drone-like chords. In the chorus of "Dangerous Days", the real strings replace the familiar synths, and the song sparkles to life like never before.

  Early on, Zola Jesus displays visible nerves – seemingly for the first time ever onstage. But she settles them with force, belting "Run Me Out" and "Night", six-year-old songs, like she's exhuming them from the grave. She traces circles around the microphone, controlling her tone and volume with distance. She commands the performers – she's Michael Gira, minus the threat of physical violence. But when she's not singing, she shrinks into herself, drawing attention away from her to the ensemble.

Zola Jesus walks offstage for her encore – the customary classical bows and exits. As the crowd hushes, she begins a staggering version of "When I am laid in earth", otherwise known as "Dido's Lament", from Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. In the opera's third act, Dido, queen of Carthage, is betrayed by her Trojan lover Aeneas. As he sets sail for Italy, Dido, heartbroken, resolves to commit suicide. "Remember me, but ah! forget my fate."

Zola Jesus's voice has often been described as "operatic". We thought we knew what that sounded like – but we didn't. Her true operatic voice – an entire vocal register and expression she's _never performed with _– is a piercing soprano, even more forceful than her alto bellow. Unamplified, as opera singers traditionally are, she projects her voice directly into the crowd. But her body language exudes sorrow. She wraps her arms around her body, mourning not only Dido's death, but her own severance from the operatic tradition, a decade ago.

Opera is timeless, the realm of gods and myth. Virgil wrote his epic poem The Aeneid, based on existing legend, in the first century BC. Henry Purcell adapted it into Dido and Aeneas in 1688, and as performed by Zola Jesus in 2016, "Dido's Lament" embodies over two millennia of tragedy. The experience is unearthly – befitting a song written before any of us were alive. The operatically trained voice is every bit as post-human as today's electronic vocal processing.

When Zola Jesus became a success, it validated Nika's decision as a teenager to leave opera behind. Still, questions lay unresolved. Had she chosen to quit, or had she failed?

Tonight, she comes full circle. Zola Jesus's music has always aspired to the emotional, elemental purity of opera. So she proves that her songs can be performed alongside the operatic canon, played by classically trained musicians without concessions. She's no longer a mere student of opera. Opera's become a part of Zola Jesus.

Nothing could possibly be more Zola Jesus than living out a career high through a song about suicide. Through Dido's death, Nika Danilova achieves transcendence. Ironically, appropriately, we respond with rapturous applause. Her nerves are gone – she's visibly overcome with emotion, then relief. She bows solo, then with the ensemble. 27 years have led up to these three minutes of music, to echo as long as we remember her.

Lead image: Melbourne Recital Centre/Kristoffer Paulsen

Richard S. He is a pop musician and award-winning critic. Follow him at @Richaod.