We originally ran this piece in October 2014 to preview Zola Jesus’ much delayed, highly anticipated Hirshhorn appearance. She performs at Black Cat tonight. Come back to BYT next Monday for show coverage. -ed.
Words by Phelps
Feature photo: Jeff Elstone
Live photos: Katherine Gaines
Nika Roza Danilova returns to D.C. and the Hirshhorn Museum this Friday with her Zola Jesus project, nearly a year to the day since her appearance in support of Versions was a casualty of the government shutdown. A damn shame considering her palpable anticipation at the time: “I’m so excited. This particular show I’m so excited for because the space itself represents a lot of what I’m interested in, as far as architecture I’m interested in.” Fortunately, what we may have lost in an interpretation of her stunning Guggenheim performance we’ve potentially gained in one of the first presentations of songs from her new and most excellent Taiga. A re-invention of sorts, or “true debut” in Danilova’s words, the lo-fi dark pop of Conatus has given way on Taiga to more pronounced pop sensibilities underpinned by one of the most enormous, gorgeous voices in indie rock today. Recorded on the stark confines of Vashon Island in the Puget Sound, live brass appears where synths may have filled in before and tracks like “Dangerous Days” edge closer and closer to that perfect dance record she’s been chasing for years.
Zola Jesus performs this Friday at the Hirshhorn Museum in DC and Sunday in New York at Webster Hall.
The excellent new record, Taiga, is available now on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon and Insound
Follow Zola Jesus on Twitter , Instagram, and Soundcloud
So, you’re going to perform here in D.C., finally, since the government is back working.
Yeah, thank goodness.
Right? That was a weird week. Everybody just sort of went to bars and hung out. So, the new record. You’ve said this is, in essence, a true debut – a chance for you to be completely honest and free from judgment. What did you mean in terms of the growth between your last record and this one, and why you feel that way?
When I made Conatus, I loved that record very much, and I’m very proud of it. But I felt like I was always trying to approximate my vision instead of actually realizing it, and I always felt like I was falling short creatively. At least, falling short of my expectations for myself. It was really important then, whatever I made next, that I had as long as possible to do it, and I did not put it out until I felt like it was exactly where I wanted it to be. That meant asking for help, that meant traveling across the country, whatever I had to do to make it feel like it was realized. And that’s what I did. So for this record, I didn’t submit it to a label, or anywhere, until I knew that it was done. I couldn’t do anything more to this record to make it more fully realized. And that’s kind of how it feels, like a debut.
I imagine if you have a deal before, they kind of put the pressure on you to get it in. I was really intrigued by – am I saying this right- Vashon Island? (I was not.)
“Văsh’ŏn.” Yeah, I called it Vuh-shon, too (laughs.)
I’m just so curious about your experience there, starting with why Vashon? Did you hear about it while you were in Seattle, or something? Did you take instruments there with you and set up a studio? I think it sounds amazing, like a place to really get away with your thoughts.
I was living in Los Angeles in 2012, I had just finished touring with Conatus, and I was ready to leave L.A. for good. I just felt like it wasn’t doing anything for me, in fact it was making me feel more… it was making me feel poisonous, kind of. I couldn’t ever feel comfortable there. So I basically just opened a map, and I looked at little islands in the Pacific Northwest, because for some reason, I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I found this island, Vashon, and I became fixated on it. Out of all the other islands, for some reason, this one just felt like the right island.
I started looking at real estate there and I found this house that was for rent. It was somebody’s vacation home, but they’re gone during the winters, and so I had it for 9 months when they were gone. I put everything in a van, I moved all of my belongings there, and I moved in for 9 months. I set up a studio and that’s kind of where I conceived the record.
At face value, it doesn’t sound too desolate. It doesn’t necessarily sound happy. Was it lonely? Do you like, or do you need that time alone, when you’re going into that headspace to write your records?
I always need time alone, for sure.
Did you go into the city? Did you just live out there, like the locals, and go to the local farmer’s market and the little main street?
Yeah, I was just living there. They have a really good video rental store (Scarecrow) in Seattle, so every week I would go there to get movies. But that’s about it. I would just … this house had everything I needed, you know? I just kind of lived the way that I used to live when I was growing up, which was you plan your trips out, you get a lot of stuff, and then you don’t leave for a long time (laughs.) In that way it felt, actually, very innate, and it felt native. I felt like … it just felt like home, because that’s what I’m used to. So it was very easy.
I looked at that. It looked like the population is very similar to Merrill (Wisconsin, where Nika is from.)
It is, yeah. Good work! [Laughs]
[Laughs] A friend here and I, we’re always like we should go to Maine for 2 weeks in December. It’ll be cold as shit, and we’ll get away from everything, it sounds awesome!
The song you just released, “Go (Blank Sea)”, about loneliness downtown – was that born while you were on the island an opposite scenario?
Yeah, it’s mostly about this dichotomy, about how when I was living on the island in this forested … you know, it was very private and secluded. I felt more alive and more connected with myself as a human being than when I’m in the middle of a really busy city, like in a downtown metropolis. You know how you shouldn’t feel that way? In a sense, you should feel lonelier or more isolated when you’re alone in the woods. But in fact, I felt very much the opposite.
I can totally see that, especially in the United States, where everyone speaks the same language and is kind of doing the same thing. But it felt different when I went to Colombia this summer, alone. It felt different than being in New York, where it’s like no one’s paying attention. But, when you travel to other countries, don’t you feel differently about that sort of city vibrancy, the feeling of being more alive in a city when you aren’t necessarily used to the customs? You have to change your own mindset, you don’t speak the language…
Well, I think it feels even more alienating, then, because you have absolutely no concept. The most subtle things about, let’s say, being in Europe or being in South America… the most subtle differences to what you’re used to, growing up in a different country, they make you feel even more alienated, down to what the power outlets look like. I feel like where it’s all the different – weird, subtle changes in civilization, society you feel even that much more removed, you know?
But then let’s say you’re in Colombia and you go into the forest, and you’re hiking or you’re camping out in the jungle. That never changes. No matter where you go. I mean, the climate might be different, the geography might be different. But the feeling will always be the same, because once you’re removed from all the civilization, the feeling is static. That feeling of being a part of the world machine, you know? You’re a part of the greater ecosystem. That’s worldwide.
Yeah. I guess, for me, I don’t know … I also like a lot of time alone. Maybe I just kind of dug walking around the city and just being completely alien.
No, yeah, It is interesting!. It’s totally valid and interesting, and a unique experience, as well. I’m not discounting it, because I live in a city right now, you know? It’s just like … it was an interesting sensation to feel when I was removed. It was a weird dichotomy.
With these new songs, you went for the less low-fi sound, and some more cleaner, pop sensibilities, or at least angled towards that. And speaking of dichotomies, you’re out there in the woods alone making songs that have already been remixed into dance tracks that lend themselves to a more communal experience in a dance or rock club. I just found that interesting, having these bangers on the record. When you’re making a song with heavy electro beats, or Juan MacLean does a remix of it, do you think about how people will react to that? Will people dance to that?
Actually, when I made Conatus, I wanted to make a techno record, and I thought I was, but then in hindsight, you always realize you’re not even close. For that record, I didn’t want anyone to remix my music. I thought I was very … I was a purist about it. This is the music, and you just take it or leave it. I’m not going to change it for you. I still feel that way, but at the same time, this is the first time I’ve really, collaboratively worked with a co-producer, and that yielded such interesting results that I’m open to the idea of people re-envisioning the music, especially if it’s dance, because that is so… making dance music is so alien to me.
I try so hard to make dance songs, and I never come across that way. Maybe I got a little bit closer on this album. I’m getting a little bit better as a dance producer. But still, it’s just something that does not come naturally to me, because I don’t go to dance clubs, but I love dance and electronic music. So that’s why, like, I love Juan MacLean, and I’ve loved him for a long time. So it’s cool to hear him do his very Juan MacLean house version of “Dangerous Days.”
Are you going to be playing some instruments on this tour again, or just singing? How is it shaping up?
It’s about to start. I was planning on playing instruments but then, during rehearsals, the songs actually demand way more than I remembered. Vocally, they demand a lot more. So I’m right now focusing on singing because I’m really afraid of fucking up (laughs.) These songs take some concentration because I’m singing in a way that I didn’t sing for the past 5 years. It’s still very new for me. I think once I get more comfortable with the new songs, I’ll probably start playing more instruments live and doing different things.
You packed your van up and took it to the island. Before you took everything back to L.A. to produce and mix the record, did you play all the instruments when you were putting it together?
When I was on Vashon, I was just making everything. That song, “Hunger”, was totally produced by me. That was 100% produced on the island.
And then, I had it brassed in later, like real brass. Mostly I’m a producer in that I sit at my computer, and I’ll come up with a vocal melody and then I’ll try to … in Logic, you’re able to enter and try to figure out how to put it together. For more acoustic things, and more practical things, I worked with Dean Hurley in Los Angeles. For some songs, it was very collaborative. A song like “Dust” was way more collaborative. But yeah, a lot of the songs were actually straight up written on the island.
Where did you film the “Dangerous Days” video? I’m sure I could have googled that. But is that a taiga forest?
No, it’s not. It’s actually in the Olympic National Park in Washington. It could be kind of a taiga, but it’s not really.
Do you see yourself going back (home,) eventually? I know you want to have space, a home studio. It seems like people … not disown, but, don’t want to go home. But you have an affinity for Wisconsin, and the forest, things like that.
When I was living… It’s the classic story of grass is always greener. When I was growing up in Wisconsin, all I wanted was to live in the big city. You romanticize the idea of a big city. New York, L.A., London, Paris. And that’s all you can think about, because for some reason, it’s so exotic to you. And then I travel there, and I stay there for extended periods of time, and I realize that it’s like, for what I do, as a creative person, I can’t possibly live in an environment that noisy. I will never yield anything of quality living in that environment. Also, where you grow up, you kind of feel like … like I said before, it’s innate, you know? It feels good. It feels natural.
Are you interested in other mediums of art, whether with the Zola Jesus project or not? Like in film, or print? You’re obviously very interested in the visual aspect of your shows.
I mean, music is the epicenter of everything. I’m a musician. I’m not a visual artist at all, but I have strong aesthetic. I like creating environments, and I love a bunch of different types of visual art. I don’t necessarily make them myself, or feel like that comes naturally to me. Music is my vessel, and anything I can do on the periphery to communicate the music better, that’s exciting, and it’s fun for me. Maybe in the future, I’ll do something, but right now music is like … whenever I have an idea, I want it to be musical.
You talked about going into Seattle and getting movies. Have you been asked to score a film before?
Yeah, all the time. I mean, that’s the ultimate. Film scoring, and that sort of things is just like … the best. You get to see your music in the context of a situation and they work and bounce off of each other. That, to me, that’s kind of what I love about the visual aspect of music, is that there is such a strong connection. I definitely would love to do that in the future.
I hope it pans out. I’ve been really intrigued by the stuff that Anthony Gonzalez (M83) has been doing. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross killing it with the shit they’re doing. It seems to be exciting to artists like yourself, too, because it’s still within your wheelhouse of creating music, but you have this visual given to you that you sort of get to reinterpret on your own terms. It seems like it would be very cool.
The visuals on tour are really important to you. Do you have all of the stage set like you want, or any sort of backdrops or props? I read, at some point you were building something to go on the stage. A statue?
Yeah, that will be there. I don’t want to go into detail about it because I don’t want to de-mystify it. I want to keep refining the sense of control I have over the environment, like I’ve been saying. The venue is always a huge variable. So the more I can do to feel like there is a cohesion with the visual that you’re seeing… that’s what’s great about playing live. You’re performing your songs but also you have this amazing opportunity to have a strong visual representation of the music that’s happening as well. There’s just so many … there’s infinite possibilities, really. That’s really exciting.
The Hirshhorn Museum is like a… it looks like a doughnut from the top. It’s a big, in the round thing. I don’t know if it will confine or open up some opportunities for you, but it’s a cool place. It’s an awesome, progressive museum.
That’s another thing that I like, if there’s an interesting environment, finding ways to augment the environment or play off of it. It has to be special.