Name: Zola Jesus
Progress Report: Nika Danilova talks about world domination, the unshakable spector of goth, and the excellent new Zola Jesus album, Conatus. Also: Nika poses for an exclusive photo shoot for Stereogum by Andrew Youssef.
Since releasing her first album in 2009, Nika Roza Danilova — better known by her musical nom de plume Zola Jesus — has proven herself to be a veritable one-woman force of nature. With an operatic voice and penchant for the hyper-dramatic, Danilova has engendered a devout — and increasingly fanatical — fanbase, largely on the strength of her ferocious live performances. Part industrial rave nymph and proto-goth queen, Danilova is (hopefully) the pop star of the future — a sonically adventurous, multi-instrumentalist songwriter with a voice big enough to knock down buildings and a deep-rooted need to blow people’s minds. In October Zola Jesus will unleash Conatus — the band’s third proper full-length–and once again hit the road to bring magic to the masses. I called up Danilova to talk about it.
STEREOGUM: Where in the world are you right now?
NIKA: Los Angeles, California
STEREOGUM: How is that?
NIKA: It’s ok, it’s nice, it’s fine.
STEREOGUM: You don’t live there do you?
NIKA: Yeah, actually I do.
STEREOGUM: Oh, That’s funny. For some reason I would not have pictured you in LA.
NIKA: Yeah, me neither.
STEREOGUM: Then again, I know a lot of people that live in L.A that I can’t really picture living there. People defect from New York all the time.
NIKA: It’s a strange place
STEREOGUM: How long have you been there?
NIKA: I have been living here for about six months.
STEREOGUM: Ah, so you’re still getting used to it then.
NIKA: Yeah. So far, so good.
STEREOGUM: Well thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I am such a fan of your work and the new record is really beautiful.
NIKA: Thank You
STEREOGUM: I was always really intrigued by your story because I know you grew up way out in the country, as did I.
NIKA: Yes, Yes. Where were you?
STEREOGUM: I was in Oklahoma.
NIKA: Oklahoma, that’s a beast.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that’s where all my family still is at … and why I live in Brooklyn now. I don’t know how it is for you — or if your family still lives there — but I still always feel very torn between the two places in a weird way.
NIKA: Yeah, I feel similarly. It never really goes away.
STEREOGUM: Well, I guess we should get down to business. What can you tell me about how your new record, Conatus? Was it a tough record to make?
NIKA: It was actually pretty tough and its hard to talk about it. It was just such a grueling process because I knew that this record … I wanted it to be different and I didn’t know in what way I wanted it to be different. There was a lot of trying to figure out how I wanted to change, you can’t really figure out how you want to change when all you know that you want to do something that is different then you have ever done before. So basically I just really felt the need to almost destroy and deconstruct everything that I have done in the past and do it differently. So, I mean, I was using different programs on the computer and I really abandoned the soft synths I used to use for actual strings — which is something I wanted to do my whole life. But I’d never worked with real strings before, so that was a challenge. Everything about it was such an uphill battle but I can’t make a record without it being a battle because then there isn’t anything to show for it at the end.
STEREOGUM: Where was the record made?
NIKA: It was made in my living room, and now my studio is from my bedroom to my living room, and then half there and half at my friend Brian’s studio. He is the co-producer of the record. Most of the magic probably happened in his studio; where like all of the demos were created at my house.
STEREOGUM: It’s a great sounding record. When it comes to doing something like using real strings and real string arrangements, how do you work that out?
NIKA: I basically just wrote everything they played, I just wrote it on the keyboard using the “strings” sound and then I gave it to them and I was like this would sound good for the cello, this one for the bass and this sound for the violin, so basically I sent them those parts and I sent them some notes and they did it from there. I didn’t have any formal arrangements made, so I was lucky to work with some string players that had a really good ear.
STEREOGUM: Do you usually write on the piano?
NIKA: Yeah, it’s usually just a keyboard because that’s usually what I have access to. I’m not proficient as a keyboard player, so I do the best I can. I always feel kind of nervous about it. On “Skin” I’m playing piano and I think, it might sound a little flawed but it sounds like its working in the right way.
STEREOGUM: Were you able to take a lot of time off between touring for the last record and working on this new one?
NIKA: Actually I was able to take three months to write this record and that seemed to me like it should be more then enough time because I usually write records in a week. Still, it just didn’t feel like enough time. But at the same time I think I got to the point where I was just over thinking everything, so it might have been just right.
STEREOGUM: That’s a daunting task. I guess if you’ve done it before and you know yourself and you know how you work maybe it isn’t … but the idea of saying “here is this little chunk of time and I need to lock myself in a room and do this or else…”
NIKA: -Yeah, it was terrifying. It was probably because I was basically re-learning everything and whenever I do something and it’s all comfortable, I feel like I need to do something different and I didn’t want it to sound the same as what naturally comes out of me. So it took a lot more time just to kind of, like I said, destroy within my major.
STEREOGUM: What did it that entail? Were there certain things that you were just working against — like, “ok I’m not going to do that anymore” — or was it a way of singing, or an issue of subject matter?
NIKA: It was mostly when I was just song writing. I wanted to create songs that were different in whatever way, and there are so many songs in my arsenal that I’ve trashed — like a straight house song or like lots of hardcore techno, glitch music that I ended up making — that never made it on the record. Once I started working on something and I could identify this, like, “oh this sounds right,” I would trash it and be like, “that’s not what I wanted to do, I want to do something that doesn’t sound like something I want to make.” But I think I found a happy medium with the songs that made it to the record.
STEREOGUM: I think so too. You have been putting out music and touring for a while, which some people may not realize. It seemed like a lot of people really discovered you with the last album. Are you surprised how things have gone career wise for you? The last couple of times I’ve seen you play the audiences have been bigger and bigger.
NIKA: It feels great and to be honest, I’m not going to be one of those people that think just because I am making music in my bedroom by myself that I don’t want anyone to hear it. Ever since I wrote out my first song I wanted to be playing Madison Square Garden and I had this really distorted ambition about what I wanted to accomplish as an artist.
STEREOGUM: I don’t think that’s distorted or anything wrong with that. Actually I hate it when people say the opposite because I think 99% of the time that’s absolutely not the truth.
NIKA: Yes, I mean, it’s one thing to be humble, but I’m humbly saying I want to conquer. I kind of have a Napoleon complex.
STEREOGUM: Haha, I think that’s good. I just feel like if you make art and you really love it and believe in it, you should want lots of people to hear it and see it. That’s not an embarrassing ambition.
STEREOGUM: Has your approach to performing live changed radically since you first started?
NIKA: I think its gotten better. In the beginning I found it really overwhelming. You know, performing is a big deal to me because you can’t take it back. If you have a bad show, you can’t take that back. And so there’s a lot of anxiety when I go on stage. What has really helped is having this kind of permanent band situation. They know the songs so well and I just have to focus on one thing and having that for the past year and just being able to focus on one thing in the performance aspect and having the band handle the rest of the music has been liberating for me. It’s really helped me, and now I’m getting to the point where I’m ready to start doing more then just singing. So yeah, performing has gotten better.
STEREOGUM: I’ve always found your music interesting because it draws from such a wide pool of sources — from operatic classical music to rock music to electronic music to really spooky, gothy music. I wonder if you notice that reflected in your audience. You have a really fascinating fanbase.
NIKA: Yeah, I know what you are saying.
STEREOGUM: The crowd at a show can often be a really interesting — and sometimes hilarious — indicator for what a band is like.
NIKA: Yeah, like who?
STEREOGUM: I remember going to see Nitzer Ebb on a reunion tour not too long ago and the crowd at that show was just unbelievable. I kept wondering where they had all been hiding out.
NIKA: Where they kind of stuck?
STEREOGUM: It was like cyber-goth, circa 1994. It reminded me of seeing shows in Tulsa, Oklahoma when I was growing up. It was fascinating. I’m not comparing that crowd to the audiences at your shows, but I think its really interesting that your fanbase seems to span from people who are older who are really into, like, the Cocteau Twins or Siouxsie, to lots of super intense girls, to a more generalized indie-rock kind of crowd. It’s really diverse and kind of awesomely weird.
NIKA: Yes. It has been really rewarding to see my audience and to see them grow and to also see how diverse they are. I get everyone, from young girls to older men, which is kind of a serious thing. But that’s all I ever really wanted. I just want to make music for everyone and if I’m alienating someone then I’m doing something wrong.
STEREOGUM: Have people finally started to move on from the goth thing? You were really characterized as a gothy artist for a long time.
NIKA: Yeah, I hope that I can move on from that because I’m really … I do like a lot of gothy things but I also like a lot of other things too. If you just say that the person is making goth music, then you are alienating everybody else that doesn’t like “goth” or somehow offending people that consider themselves goth, whatever that may be. And then you’re removing that experience, that other people can have. It’s not that I resent being called goth because I think being a goth is fine, but I resent being called or classified as anything.
STEREOGUM: So what will the rest of this year be like for you? Aggressive touring?
NIKA: Yes, I’m going to push it to the limit aggressively. I’m going to put the record out and then go to Europe like four times and through the U.S a couple of times and then go to Australia, so I’m just going to be traveling and touring for the rest of the year.
STEREOGUM: Are you looking forward to it? Is this sort of the calm before the storm time for you?
NIKA: Yeah, that’s what it feels like right now but it’s exciting because it’s an opportunity to push my music and gain new listeners and move my career even further. It feels like it’s go time. I get really excited about touring, but I’m a bit of a homebody so I miss home quite a bit. But this is what I do so I have to love it.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting talking about recording these songs with a string section because it would be cool to perform them that way too live. Is that something you’re trying to do?
NIKA: Oh yeah. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I played my first show and it’s something that will happen sooner then later definitely.
Conatus is out 10/4 on Sacred Bones.
[Photos by Andrew Youssef]