Zola Jesus, Interview
Interview with Zola Jesus
Nika Roza Danilova has been making music all her life, from classical and opera through her childhood to her current guise as singer, songwriter and all round creator of Zola Jesus via a stint with Jamie Stewart's Former Ghosts project in-between. Although still only twenty years of age, Danilova has written an incredible number of songs in such a short of space of time culminating in the imminent release of her third long player ('Conatus') in as many years next month. While first record 'The Spoils' hinted at the possibilities Zola Jesus could achieve, last year's excellent follow-up 'Stridulum II' really set the cat among the pigeons, highlighting its creator as not only a precocious songwriting talent but also an arranger of considerable virtuosity in the process.
This weekend will see Zola Jesus make her only UK festival appearance of the summer at London's Field Day, which seemed an appropriate time for Contactmusic to catch up with the diminutive Ms Danilova before her mid-afternoon slot. Without further ado, here's how the conversation went.
Field Day is the only UK festival you're playing this summer. What are your expectations and are you looking forward to the show?
Nika: Yeah, I'm looking forward to this one in particular because I've played some of my best shows in London, and there seems to be an awful lot of people here too, which can only be a good thing.
What kind of setlist can we expect? Will it be a mixture of everything encompassing all three records or will it be focused on 'Stridulum II' material?
Nika: It will mostly consist of songs from 'Stridulum II', and then maybe a couple of newer songs if we get time.
How do you decide what to play, particularly as your back catalogue is growing comprehensively by the minute?
Nika: It can be difficult but at the same time I don't play anything before the 'Stridulum' EP because basically that was a different part of my career and it's harder to figure out how to play it. Also, the 'Stridulum' and 'Valusia' records are both quite short, so when we're struggling for things to play they kinda work, and some of the 'Conatus' material too as it happens.
Your forthcoming album 'Conatus' comes out at the end of September. Are you satisfied with the way it turned out, and bearing in mind the prolific nature of your songwriting did it take long to formulate?
Nika: It was actually a very hard record to make because I wanted to create something that took a lot of thought. 'Stridulum II' was the exact opposite. I didn't have any time to think about it whereas on 'Conatus' I had time to really figure out things I wanted to get better at, to work at. It was mostly about progression within my own capabilities as a songwriter and a musician. That was the most important thing with this record. Obviously it took a long time to be able to hone those skills and try to work through that process.
The word 'Conatus' has several definitions, most notably "will to live", "striving to achieve" and "to endeavour". Do you see any of those in particular as being quite defining of your progress as an artist?
Nika: Yeah, I think it's always quite an important thing to have an honest journey with your career. It's almost like I'm saying, "This is what I'm doing, and this is what I'm going to do forever", you know? It's like a way of deciding what to do at an exact moment, and from that you can see a progression, almost by way of a timeline as to where they go next. I really appreciate artists that constantly evolve and challenge themselves, and I see this record as being about that, although I'd like to think all of my records to date have actually.
I can definitely hear a progression from what I've listened to on the new record so far, namely 'Avalanche' and 'In Your Nature'. What influenced those songs?
Nika: They both have very different influences. 'Avalanche' came out of a demo I was working on that dates back in late 2009 or it may have been early 2010, whereas 'In Your Nature' and the rest of 'Conatus' is totally new.
Why didn't 'Avalanche' make it onto any of your previous records?
Nika: Just because it was done at a time when I didn't really know what to do with it. I had this rough idea but couldn't figure out back then how to develop it, so I had to wait until where I am now. I have a lot of those actually, unfinished songs where I don't think I'm in the place at that exact moment in time to take them to the next level and finish them.
Although you're technically a solo project, you've kept the same live band members with you all the way through, and I notice your drummer Nick Johnson plays on several tracks off the new album. Do you see yourself collaborating with other people more in the future, and would you ever let anyone else get involved in the writing process?
Nika: I'm really really scared about that because I'm a bit of a control freak! I really don't like to compromise anything that I do and I feel that if anyone else gets involved, that in itself would be a form of compromising. But, I'm starting to try to force myself to do it because it's the only way that I can grow as an artist and break through certain things. I can only create so much on my own. I collaborate sometimes with my bandmate Nick Turco as Nika + Rory and it's been really fun because in that way I can see how someone else works and we can bounce ideas off one another. I haven't really figured it out yet. Every day I'll probably say something different and there's still an element of fear in having to walk someone else through that process. I definitely think it's something I'll have to do eventually.
Brian Foote from Jackie-O-Motherfucker co-produced 'Conatus'. How did that come about and would you consider working with him again in the future?
Nika: He's just a friend of mine, and when I was thinking about where I was going to record the album and who I was going to ask to mix it, I had a lot of ideas. Some of them weren't really a good fit, as I found out during the process, and by the end I kind of realised that I needed someone to help me along the way. So, it made sense to ask Brian as he's a great friend of mine that also lives in Los Angeles and he has a great studio with lots of resources. He helped oversee the production of the record and made sure that everything was done on time and nothing was missed out during recording and it worked out just perfect.
Your music and vocal style has been compared to the likes of Siouxsie Sioux, Diamanda Galas and Lydia Lunch among others. What has been the biggest influence on your career not only from a musical perspective but also a literary one?
Nika: Oh man, I dunno! There has been no direct influence but I feel really sensitive about things such as the way reading books can change the way I approach writing music. That kind of changes everything and in that it also changes what you create. When I was very young and I realised there was punk music and that there's so many different things you can do with sound. It really changes your perspective on creation, so over the years it would be impossible for me to cite one particular influence as being pivotal. Once I discovered electronic music it just opened up so many chambers.
When I listen to 'Stridulum II' it sounds as if it could have been borne out of 'The Downward Spiral' by Nine Inch Nails.
Nika: Really? Oh man that's awesome! My band are huge fans of Trent Reznor so they'll be absolutely delighted at that comparison!
I read somewhere that your initial reasoning for calling the project Zola Jesus was because you wanted to alienate your peers. Did you achieve that in any way, and is it still something you're intent on doing?
Nika: The interesting thing is ever since that period when I wanted to alienate everyone I thought that once I did that it was all too comfortable, and it seems more interesting now to bring everyone in and bring everyone together. For me it's very hard to be one way or another accessible because I really like music that's more difficult, so I wanna make pop music and eventually make things that are more mainstream and really accessible because that's so far away from what I'm used to doing. That's why I did 'Stridulum'. It was my attempt to do something that was the exact opposite of alienating people.
I guess you could compare it with Siouxsie And The Banshees 'Hyaena' or 'Treasure' by the Cocteau Twins, neither of which were seen as being pop music at the time of release but both of which, looking back, are now viewed as showing a more intelligent side to pop music.
Nika: And the interesting thing is that pop music changes and as a result, so does what people consider to be representative of pop music. I think its interesting to try and find a way of putting those two worlds together, and maybe trick people into liking something they wouldn't necessarily call pop music yet in the end that's what it becomes. I think that's where my music will go in the future, playing with those two elements and eventually trying to piece them together.
Your songs are challenging both in a lyrical and musical sense. Was it always your intention to challenge the listener and is it something you've garnered from your studies and general interest in psychology?
Nika: If you're going to put something out in public, you must have a reason for it, and there's so much music that is completely mindless. I love the new Britney Spears record yet at the same time it's the most mindless album I've ever heard! It's really bad because she has so much potential to reach millions of people and say something that's really interesting. She could sell a revolution if she wanted, you know? But she doesn't, and that bums me out. There's a lot of escapism happening and I don't want to be a part of that, and if I can insert some sort of enlightenment into the music maybe people can get more out of it for themselves and not just something to have fun and dance to.
Do you think your music can inspire other artists, particularly females, to take up the mantle and create something of a similar nature for themselves? One current artist that springs to mind where I can see parallels between yours and her work would be EMA for example, if not musically than certainly in the way she conveys her work to an audience.
Nika: I don't really see her as being influenced by me but I think she's another female artist that has the same aims and ambitions as me and I totally respect her for that. I believe that every artist whether male or female should use the power in their voice to communicate more.
You're still only twenty-two years old yet you've already achieved more than many artists manage in an entire career. Do you set yourself goals or targets and is there a plan as such detailing when you want to achieve them by?
Nika: That is so funny! Imagine that.by eighteen I'm going to have a record out but I've never had a tour bus, so that's my next goal by the time I'm twenty! I mean, I do have this insane ambition where I want to do the most extreme with my product as I can and also reach as many people as possible. In fact, I want to take it to a place where people wouldn't dream of being taken. I'm just someone from a small town in the middle of nowhere and I think I have come pretty far already. I do set a lot of goals but at the same time, they're not that time specific.
Your songwriting is extremely prolific. I can't think of any other current artists who've put that many records out in such a short space of time.
Nika: Yeah, I guess. Maybe if I just took a year off to focus on the record I'd end up with a better album? I probably should slow down a little bit!
Bearing in mind your rate of output is currently set at making an album every year, does this mean you've already got some songs in place for the follow-up to 'Conatus'?
Nika: Once I finished 'Conatus' it kind of unlocked something inside me. I was thinking really hard about what I was going to do next, and that it had to be different from any of my previous records, so I now have another fifty or sixty songs.
Nika: Yeah, but none of them are anywhere near the finished stage yet. They've got a long way to go before we're anywhere near a fourth album but it's a start.
And what about the musical direction?
Nika: It's kind of funny when I listen to the beats I'm making, because I know they won't be the beats that end up on the record. With both 'Stridulum II' and 'Conatus', the beats changed dramatically even after I'd sent both records to the pressing plant! I don't know what happened. I just kind of figured something out but that's how I work, even up to the very last minute something could change course or direction.
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