Nika Danilova is one of the most exciting and talented young musicians working today. As a massive fan, I was just a *bit* excited to interview her ahead of her February 16 gig at the U Street Music Hall and ask her about touring with the XX, recording for M83, being remixed by David Lynch, and her deep-seated desire to work with the Aphex Twin.
Recording under the name Zola Jesus, Danilova has put out a remarkable body of work in the space of four years, including 3 7”s (Soeur Sewer, Poor Sons, Poor Animal), 3 EPs (Tsar Bomba, Stridulum, Valusia), 3 LPs (New Amsterdam, Spoils, Conatus), and collaborations with no fewer than six other artists (Absinthe Minds, Burial Hex, Former Ghosts, Fucked Up, Prefuse 73, LA Vampires), as well as an autotuned pop side project (Nika and Rory).
Zola Jesus/Danilova also has toured extensively over the past few years; I had the pleasure of reviewing her twice last year – once in April at the Red Palace, and once in October at the Cat, as well as watching her open for the XX. I had 15 minutes to ask whatever was on my mind, so we got right to it.
How are you?
The reviews for Conatus have been overwhelmingly positive, but if there’s a theme in the reviews, it’s that this album is far less of a departure than many thought. What do you think?
I just don’t know what they want from me at this point. I put everything I have into the record. Conatus was so difficult for me because I was going through so much emotionally. I can’t just hire ten producers and make an amazing record. It’s not manufactured like that. People need to understand that what they’re going to get is what they’re going to get. I think people need to be patient with me. I’m not working with a major label – I’m working as one girl in a bedroom. Baby steps, guys!
You toured with the XX on fairly massive tour – how is it opening for such a popular band? Were the audiences receptive to you?
There was definitely some cross-over in our audiences, but I won’t deny that there was a difference in dynamics and energy between me and the XX – but I think no one really minded that. We have a lot in common, musically, too. I think people liked it, I’m not really sure. That was a while ago, and I was much more naïve about what audiences want or expect of me.
On that tour, you played a mix of old, seated theaters and standing venues. Do you have a preference?
I do prefer a standing venue, because I like that it keeps everyone on their feet. That gives me a different sense of awareness of the audience. But, I love playing old theaters, mainly because of the better acoustics and, of course, the beauty of them. One day, I’d like to do a tour of old seated theaters, but at this point in my career, I like everyone standing so they’re as uncomfortable as I am.
Musically, do you see yourself moving towards chamber pop, or is it about getting the crowd to dance?
I think so, but things change for me so rapidly, in terms of what I want out of Zola Jesus. However, it’s really important for me to bring in a string quartet at some point. There are songs like Seekir – and they’re dance songs – I want people to dance and move and feel it and respond to that – and you can’t do that in a chair. Then there are songs like Hikikomori and Collapse – and they’re much slower. The difference in the dynamics among all the songs makes it hard to be one kind of musician or another or play to one kind of venue or the other, so it’s difficult.
Being a fan of yours can be a bit of a headache. Your discography has more one-offs, limited editions, and impossible-to-find records than most. Is this deliberate?
I’ve been releasing things as a natural progression. I always thought I was on a pretty normal schedule – I write a record a year. I like to collaborate, and I’ve been collaborating a lot with people, so that explains a lot of the releases.
You mentioned in an interview that Anthony Gonzales of M83 had contacted you – and at that same time, you had been thinking of contacting him to work together, too. Are you an M83 fan?
Seriously, it was so bizarre. I talked to my manager, and I said, I love M83, and I would love to work with him in any capacity – I think he’s great. Then, two days later – before she [her manager] even emailed him, Anthony’s manager contacted her and said, “hey, Anthony loves Zola Jesus and would love to work with her in any way.” It was really, really bizarre.
You covered “Crimson and Clover” live with EMA in July – was that her choice of a song?
Someone yelled it out in the audience, and EMA was like, I need another singer up here. I had just rolled in from out of town, back home to Madison, so everyone looked at me – they knew who I was, and they started yelling, “NIKA, NIKA!” So, I stumbled through it. It was really award.
I saw EMA a few months ago at the 930 Club, and she was wonderful – how did you meet her.
She’s a total charmer. That “Crimson and Clover” scenario was the first time we met. After that, we played a bunch of shows together, and we really connect from being weirdoes from the mid-west –finding a community in the backwoods where we grew up, so we have a lot in common.
Any other covers in your future?
We’re working on a couple covers right now, but I’m so terrified of doing cover songs, because it reminds me of my days in opera, having to sing someone else’s work, and it really stresses me out, but I want to do it. We have a couple that we’ve been working on pretty actively. But with my live band, not really recording them. Maybe you’ll hear them on this tour!
What happened to the Nika and Rory collaboration?
We just haven’t had time – Rory, whose name is Nick Turco – he’s on tour with me…always. We try to work on music on the road, but it’s just so hard. There is actually going to be more – we’re not at the end of it. Plus, I didn’t want to take it too far – a lot of labels were interested in releasing it, but I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea about where my energy lies with music. It was just for fun – we enjoy pop and dance music, and this was our way of doing our own version of it.
Have you stopped work with Former Ghosts now that Zola Jesus has taken off?
No, it’s still going; there’s been no formal end. Freddy [Rupert] keeps writing records, and then he keeps throwing them away. He’ll write a song that’s amazing and ask me to sing on it, and then he puts it in the trash. It’s kind of working with what he wants right now.
What about Fucked Up – how did your collaboration with them come about?
They were fans, and my manager was good friends with them, so they asked me to sing on their Year of the Ox single with them, and the song was super-epic, so I wanted to do it.
I noticed you contributed a song in 2009 exclusively to a 250-copy only 12” for Sacred Bones as a Xmas present, with 100 copies sold through auction to raise money for a San Francisco shelter.
Every year, Caleb Braaten – founder of Sacred Bones – puts out a 12” as a holiday a record, and all the proceeds go to charity. I was happy to be part of it.
That’s very nice of you! How did you get involved with Prefuse 73 (The Only She Chapters, 2011)?
[Guillermo Scott Herren] contacted me, and told me that he was writing a record with a lot of female vocals, asking if I wanted to participate. I was already a fan, so I said why not! It was a good opportunity. Since then, we’ve formed a friendship and we really get along. He’s a very sweet guy.
Trish Keenan contributed vocals to that album as well – were you a fan of Broadcast?
I never got into Broadcast, but I had a lot of respect for them, and their style, and what they were trying to do. Her death was such an unfortunate loss to music.
How did you get involved in putting together a compilation to help out indie music distributor Play It Again Sam after the August 2011 warehouse fire that destroyed their stock (“Zola Jesus and Prefuse73 Supports Finders Keepers”)?
I have just as much investment in the UK as I do in the U.S., and a lot of my friends have labels that lost records in that fire. Finders Keepers – the label that the compilation was intended to raise money for – a record label that I really support and was a fan of for a long time – Guillermo [Prefuse 73] was friends with them, and I became friends with them, and we just wanted to help out, and this was a way to send our condolences and give support. It was really, really tragic how many people lost their stock and how many little labels got taken under because of that massive loss.
I don’t think I’ve heard of a single artist on that compilation – how did you hear about them?
All the songs were process music and library music. Some of them were from Finders Keepers’ back catalog, but most were these really esoteric library musicians, of whom I have collected quite a discography on my own.
What is the Absinthe and Minds Cassette?
[She pauses to ask me to repeat it, and then it comes to her.] Gosh! Absinthe Minds?? That’s a really deep cut – I don’t even know when it came out! . It was a cassette for a band that my brother was in, along with a couple of my friends. I just happened to walk into the room when they were recording, and I liked what I heard, so I sang along. That happened a lot back then, when there were bands around, and I would just stumble in and it would come out on a limited tape release.
How did the David Lynch remix of “In Your Nature” come about?
It happened through my label. I don’t even know the details – I got a phone call and they said, “David Lynch is going to do a remix.” I don’t think I really believed it. It’s amazing – it’s the first time I’ve ever heard one of my songs remixed before – I’ve never allowed it. It was surreal, first of all, and secondly, to hear David Lynch’s newly-signature drumming and guitar was bizarre, but really, really cool.
Are you more open to remixes of your tracks now?
It would have to be a really exceptional situation for me to welcome a remix – like, Aphex Twin, or someone else I highly, highly respect, who I’d imagine would never in a thousand years want to touch my music. This was one of those exceptions. But who knows?
All right, homework, then, I’ll go find Richard D. James and ask him. Thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to seeing you in DC!