Zola Jesus has always been a mysterious character. Starting with her debut “Spoils” and “New Amsterdam”, Nika Rosa Danilova passed through a series of metamorphosis and artistic changes – from evolution of her sound, to her lyrical focus that has changed as well.
“Okovi” – the name of her last record is translated as “fetters”. Contrary to it, Zola Jesus seems to be breaking down any barriers with this record pushing the boundaries of her creativity.
I got a chance to speak with Nika Danilova for Louder Then War. About collaborative aspect of her work and plans for the upcoming record, about self-identification and creative environment, about references and love of lo-fi.
“Okovi” – your last full-length album came out in 2017. Since then, you used to release live-record, different collaborations and your recent single – “Krunk”. How much the place of songwriting in your life and your perception of the work have changed since that last record ?
Well, so much. Especially due to pandemic and everything and the conditions of making music. I was supposed to put out a new record this year and record it. But I haven’t been able. So, I’m kind of behind of where I thought I would be by now. But yeah, also, I’ve been drowned to a very different types of songwriting and musical experiences. So that’s definitely gonna show up on my next record.
It took a couple of years before you released “Okovi” – to move to the direction on the next record. At that point, you passed through a series of personal problems, including loss and self-searching. When you understood that you should write about it ?
I was working on my album and dealing with a lot of transition. Moving. Dealing with a lot of loss. People around me were really struggling. And it a period where I had to be strong for everybody else. And kind of put my needs on a backburner and show up for my family and my loved ones. Just moving through a lot of difficult moments. That record definitely reflects that. And just feeling a little lost. But at the same time, feeling grounded and wanting to just remind people that struggle is a part of life. It’s a part of what we must go to in order to have a really joyful life. You can’t have one or the other. So much about life is about this balance between suffering and joy. That record is really devoted to a dichotomy of that.
In a recent year, you moved back to Wisconsin, where you came from. This is what you’re referring to with the song – “Doma”. How important for you to get back to your beginnings ?
I think it was very important. And that’s why I did it. It’s not something I really thought about until it actually happened. Just had this kind of instinct, this intuition that I need to home. Because, I was looking to put my roots down somewhere. But I felt so driftless. I didn’t know where I wanna go, I didn’t know where I want to be. At the end of the day I was like: “Let me just go back to where I started!” – cause, that’s really what I want. I just want to be in the woods. I wanna see my family when I can. And feel very grounded. It’s easy to fly away when you live in cities like Los-Angeles. It’s easy to lose your sense of humility and grounded-ness when you’re in the places so fixated on things that aren’t really important, when it comes out. At least, to me.
And how it feels actually ? Right now, when you’re in that environment you’re comfortable with having certain ideas you’re thinking on now…
I’m really used to working on my own. Writing songs, taking the demos. And then, working with someone who just like re-record my vocals, make the demo sound a little bit better. And replace the instruments and stuff like that. But the songs are pretty much the same. But after having done that for five albums, I’m feeling much more excited by the idea of collaboration. Which is why my album hasn’t done yet! Because, I want to get in the room with musicians. I want to pull all my ideas apart and see how far they can go. And I want the record to capture more of the live-energy I have when I’m performing. Something less controlled and perfected to more raw, wild and exploratory… And intuitive! It’s been scary to me, because it’s so antithetical to how I usually work. But I do feel like I always follow my intuition. So, this is what it’s telling me to do. Just get in the room with people and see what happens. I’m just waiting to do that ( laughs ).
Aren’t you actually afraid that this collaboration could draw you in some unexpected areas ?
Yes! Yeah, it is! But it’s exciting! Because, at the end of the day, I may call the decisions. So, whether or not if something goes to anywherenowhere – if it’s going to a place I’m not expected, I’m always prefer that. Because, it’s offering me a new set of circumstances to respond to creatively. And I’m excited by that, by that potential. By the potential for something unknown. It’s kind of lean into unknown and lean into chaos of the process seeing how I work. I kind of wanna put my life, my creative skills to a test. And I think, that’s the best way to do it. Because, at this point, I can keep writing the same songs over and over. And keep delivering the same type of music. But I feel like I’m kind of bored of that ( laughter ). I want to try and see how far I can take it to other directions based on whom I choose to collaborate with. What they’d pull out of me and what I’d pull out of them.
You’ve always been speaking about a certain freedom you’re looking for. On an artistic and personal level. Isn’t it difficult to reach a certain level of freedom when you’re speaking about something so personal and so dear to you ?
Yeah, it’s hard. But I think, there’s something very powerful about sharing that experience and sharing that vulnerability with other people. And that’s what I’m interested right now. Focusing more on sharing the active creation with people I respect, whose ideas I respect. Because, at this point, I’m not necessarily confident that I have the best ideas for my songs. And I like the idea of seeing what happens when I take them out of the context of my own bubble. Letting them breathe and having air, entering a different sort of possibilities. At this point, I’ve written enough music when I can tell you, I followed a certain pattern. And I got into habits of songwriting. That’s just something that I really wanna break out of and challenge. Because, it’s not exciting to me – I don’t wanna to keep writing the same song over and over. If I did have other stimulus, other ideas coming in and then I react to them – I just find them much more fulfilling right now.
What helps you to find the way to connect music and your emotions ? Which’s always different. But is it important for you to reach a certain organics ?
Absolutely! Absolutely! And that’s always been a huge challenge. Tring to navigate my own taste and creative inclinations with my own need to say something or make music…I think, just generally, I try to interrogate my artistic intuition in any way possible. Even if it’s visual or lyrical or musical – it’s all coming from the same place. So, it’s more a process of trying to put a feeling into something and present it in the best way possible.
There are some interesting examples – like “Vessel”, where you’re kind of building the universe that later collapses. And you could have chosen the differed way rather then were this song lead you. What leads you through the process of writing?
Em…It depends. Usually, I can sit down and write a song. And it would come from nowhere, really. Very often, I have a feeling or a memory or something intangible, that I’m trying to convey and communicating externally. And that’s the stuff I’m most interested in – is: how do I take a feeling, which is so hard to describe and to find the words for it, and to find a tune for it and to find a way to express the feeling in an effective enough way that’s communicates to other people without knowing a context of it ? And it’s a huge challenge. It’s a challenge of art! How do you externalize the internal ? How do you define the undefinable and the? But the craft of being able to listen to the inside of yourself and know how to translate it. Because, at some point, all artists are translators. [They] just translating. Their experiences, other people’s experiences into other things that are easier to digest. It’s a part of a challenge. It’s like a puzzle sometimes – ike I have this feeling, I have this emotion, I have this memory. How do I communicate in a way that adequately transmits that feeling to other people ? It takes more than words. For me, it so much more than just words of the song, it’s the feeling of a song, it’s a power or lack of power. There’re so many different things! That’s what I love about people like Parajanov or Tarkovsky. Who found unique visionary ways to communicate their dreams, their memories and their ideals, their fascinations. And they perfectly translated it in a way of transmitting a dream. And so that dream…When I watch “Stalker” or when I watch “The Color of Pomegranates”, I feel their dream. It’s perfect and beautiful. And I can make the music that feels like that.
When The Spoils came out, Zola Jesus was described as “an alter-ego of Nika Rosa Danilova”. But later in your work, you started more focusing on your feelings – reflecting the feelings you had, describing your personal losses and traumas. Was there a particular moment when you started associating yourself with Zola Jesus ?
I think, I always have. I’ve always felt like Zola Jesus is basically just a band name. But at the same time, anyone that creates art and music, or writing or whatever – you’re always trying…For me, it’s an attempt to reach out and touch the ideal. Any sort of ideal but an ideal for myself, an ideal of whom I wish to be, a part of myself that I wish to augment. There’s something about creating art that’s idealistic. And there’s a dream there. There are things I don’t put into my music because I don’t want to focus on those things. Negative aspects of myself. With music, It’s always been very personal but to different degrees of what that means. But I think it’s always been a project that has allowed me to encourage the dream of who I am and whom I wish to be. Above all in some ways. And the reality as well. I don’t know…These are hard thing to describe! These are very abstract questions…(laughs)!
Well, I’m trying to make it as interesting as possible ( laughs )!
Yeah, and I appreciate it! The thing with making anything that, I think a dream is above all. Like, it’s a dream of what I wish the world look like. And for myself as well!
At the same time, there are some songs of yours as “Veka” where the lyrics refer to the dialogue writer has with inner self. What you’ve been thinking about while writing this one ?
That’s…It was based on Anna Akhmatova poem that I really love. “Why Is This Century Worse…” – that’s the poem. But it goes on and talks about: “Are we always living the better part of historythe worst part of history ?” – that was the first inspiration of the song, within the lyrics: “Who will find you, when all you is dust ?”. So as a creator, as an artist, as a creator or as a writer, at the end of our life, our work is what would be left over. It’s going to define who we were and it’s going to leave that indefinitely. And it’s like: “What do you putting out there ?” – when your words become you, when the things you’ve written become who you are and that’s all there is – what you’ve created. I find it very interesting, ‘Cause, you’re kind of re-writing your story, and you’re rewriting what people remember.
I think, it also may be referred to Roland Barthes and his thesis about the death of the author. And I believe it’s true to the point. Since the piece is finished – it lives its own life. You can’t add anything.
Exactly! There’s something really scary about that but also kind of exciting. ‘Cause, it’s like giving birth, in a way. You give a birth to a thing that has its own life. After it’s born. And you can’t do anything with it.
I was wondering if the things you’ve been writing always very personal. And they’ve always been! You weren’t one of these writers who learnt to transfer their emotions and thoughts through the prism of a lyrical character. What do you feel when all these things you’re writing about – very personal and dear to you, got on public ?
It’s strange. Especially when “Okovi” came out. I was writing about a long of very personal things. About people in my life, their struggles. And that makes me feel like I’m making these people vulnerable by writing about them. But at the same time, there’s something so deeply humanizing and fulfilling witnessing other peoples’ respond to the music that’s very vulnerable. Because, if I wrote song that I didn’t have a meaning, I didn’t really connect to and people really loved it – it wouldn’t feel as fulfilling for me. It happened a few times – when I’ve written a song I like, but they didn’t have a strong feeling. And people love it! And I’m like: “What do you like about this song ?! I don’t have that meaning for that song!” – which is fine! I’m ok with making meaning for other people. But there’s a song that’s meaningful to me and I can share this meaning with others and I can see it’s resonating with them – that’s an extremely profound human experience we’re sharing. At the end of the day, it’s kind of what I want! I just want to communicate – really real shit to people ( laughs )! And I want them to communicate it back to me. It’s just like…a conversation. Conversations are better when there’s something on the line there. Conversations are more interesting when you’re talking about real shit. When you’re really connecting about profound feelings.
What was the very first music you’ve heard ? Lots people forget about it, over the years. I, myself still remember some songs I’ve heard many years ago…
Yes. I remember. One of the first songs I really loved was David Bowie’s song – “Changes”. And it was the first time I became obsessed with. As a child. But it’s so interesting. When you so young, you don’t have any contacts for it, other than: “I like this!” – this is speaking to me, in a way. It so much more strange and magical feeling. The music that speaks to you as a child versus the music speaks to you as an adult.
To me, there’s an opposition between your personalities represented on debut The Spoils. It’s lyrical. At the same time, right before it, you released “New Amsterdam” compilation – the same record, basically. But stylistically more equal to what Michael Gira does or what Throbbing Gristle did. At that point, what helped you to find your artistic identity ?
The noise was helpful ( laughs )! Cause, I love noise music. But then, my favorite thing is making textures out of noise. And to merge things together. Because, it’s so much more like painting. When you’re layering paint. And you’re creating new colors by merging paints together. That’s why in the beginning I love layering things. Once you add a new layer to a song – it changes it. But I like noise and static and lo-fi production, in particular. It has its own quality, its own energy, its own life. The noise itself is a life. And I live that. But I guess, as I started making records, I wanted to prove that I didn’t need noise. That’s what led me to the path of thinking everything up. ‘Cause, I got sick of people calling me “a lo-fier” which…I deeply love lo-fi but there was something in me that’s: “No! I just want to be known for just being a good musician!” (laughs)
But I believe, you took that attitude of layering things and made it a part of what you’re doing right now. Approaching things in a different context but with the same concept.
Yeah. I think you’re right – the things I’m drawn to haven’t changed, really. But it just about finding different ways of doing it. Constantly. I guess I’m just get bored very easily. Once I do something, I feel like I need a new challenge. I like the challenge and creating. And that what creativity is – it’s a problem-solving. To be given different challenges to work through. That’s when I feel like I’m the most creative.
There was a moment in your career, when you said that decided not to hide yourself or scream but create certain dynamics working with the arrangements, for instance. When these changes started incorporating in your creativity ?
Em…Couple of years ago. I think, after “Conatus” – right after it, I decided I want to have control over my voice. So, I just started practicing singing again, taking voice-lessons again and really trying to focus on making sure that I was really confident as a musician, as a vocalist, as a performer – all those things.
When you’re writing – is there any specific mood or conditions you’re looking for ?
It’s hard because, in the beginning my inspiration is extremely abstract. These are mostly images, feelings and environments. Like with “Okovi” it was really black and write and a lot of very aggressive visuals and the woods. The woods in fall, when they’re ugly – all the leaves are gone. And there a coldness to it. But also, the warmth. Because, the woods are worm. This is the problem – I have these very abstract things, experiences and memories I want to make into a music. For instance, the last time I was in Moscow, there’s a monastery called Andronikov. I was staying right near there. And I couple of days I was there, I would walk to the monastery, I would walk around. It’s just the most incredible feeling I had – being there. It was so beautiful. I think, “Andrei Rublev” might have been shot there. I don’t know! It just gave me this feeling now I want to translate to music. But I don’t know how. I have these memories and feelings. Trying to communicate them musically is a challenge. That’s where I get stocked usually.
For a number of times, you’ve noticed that you changed your approach while writing “Conatus”. At that point, you released a number of released during basically, a short period of time: “Stridulum II” and following “Valusia” and then, right after it, “Conatus” came out – what pushed you working in such tempo and in what way these releases, their stylistics and the direction you’ve been moving to, affected your approach ?
Back then, I put out “Stridulum”, the EP. It was lot cleaner then “The Spoils” and “New Amsterdam”. And It started getting more attention. My label, Secret Bones said: “We need this record out by South By Southwest!” – they kept encouraging me to put out EP’s and stuff, because I was touring and things like that. I would just write some songs – put them out, write some songs – put them out. And, when “Conatus” happened, I was really stressed out. I was being pressured to write the album pretty quickly. At that point, I was very tired. I was touring a lot and things were just moving very fast for me. But I finished “Conatus” – I was proud of it. I took some time off and that time allowed me to reflect everything I’d done. So in between “Conatus” and “Taiga” was the first time I slowed down being able to reflect on where I’ve been, where I want to go. From there, I started slowing down more and said: “Ok! I put those records out. Now I wanna grow!” – at one time, really think down about where I wanna make and how I wanna make it. And I wanna make sure I’ll do it right!” – by the time, I did “Okovi”, at that point, I was very set in my ways and didn’t want to get the record until it was done. Whereas in the past, I made deadlines and stuff like that. So yeah, where am I’m now. Just really asking myself questions: Is the record done ? Am I satisfied ? I don’t want rush anything! I don’t want to put anything out that feels like it wasn’t just finished!
At the beginning of our conversation you mentioned some ideas you have for your next record. But in generally with whom you’d be interested to collaborate with, what you’d love to do next, really ?
I’m gonna keep it all secret now! Just to protect the energy of the whole thing. Just like we were talking on things taking different lifes. When you give a song away it loses it’s meaning. But I’m really excited to collaborate with a drummer – a really talented drummer, percussionist. And I have a co-producer whom I have a lot of trust. I work with co-producer whom I trust very deeply. I’m very excited to collaborate with him. There’s a choir I’m talking to, there are some string players I’m talking to. Because, I really want to work with other people, that’s the most exciting part to me, the people I’d bring on and how we play off of each other.
Photo credit: Tim Saccent
Words by Dan Volohov. Find his author’s archive here.