Q&A: Zola Jesus On Her New Album, Versions
“Is it too early for a drink?” asks Nika Danilova when we first meet. She looks inquisitively around the room (at her manager, her husband, and then me) before answering her own question. “It’s close enough to 5 p.m.; why not?” We settle on a local sports bar, chosen because of it’s location a block away from her label’s warehouse headquarters in Greenpoint, Brooklyn where she has just finished a photo-session for a magazine spread. But Danilova, better known as experimental and industrial singer-songwriter Zola Jesus, is in New York for more pressing matters. That is, she’s in the middle of recording her untitled forthcoming album in a professional studio — her first time doing so in her career as Zola Jesus — while preparing for the release of her latest project Versions. Out on August 20, Versions is a collection of her works rearranged by avant garde composer JG Thirlwell and re-recorded with the backing of Mivos Quartet that’s meant to expose the vocal prowess of the tiny, classically trained belter. The end result is gorgeous and presents an even more intimate side of Danilova, one that hovered beneath the surface of her noisy production and operatic ballads.
Once we’ve ordered a pinot grigio (for her) and a cabernet sauvignon (for me) and drowned out the sports commentary blaring from the TVs above us, we talk about recording Versions, JG Thirlwell and Schopenhauer, self-criticism, and how her constant struggle with humanity is explored in her forthcoming album.
STEREOGUM: You’ve said that Versions was inspired by your Guggenheim performance. Can you tell us about that?
DANILOVA: First of all I was performing in such an institution. The space and what it represented and that it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright – one of my favorite architects – was huge for me. I liked how the space reflected the music and I wanted to do it justice by doing a special show. I always wanted to perform with a string quartet and so I thought that was the perfect place to do; to use the acoustics of the room. It felt like this really huge, defining moment. It felt like I was naked; just presenting my songs in a more intimate way.
STEREOGUM: How did you find the Mivos Quartet you used on the album?
DANILOVA: Well first I had to find an arranger. I didn’t have time to sit down and arrange the songs by myself and I obviously wanted the songs to sound really good. I asked my friend who is a producer and he hooked me up with JG Thirlwell.
STEREOGUM: Which is kind of insane.
DANILOVA: Which is totally insane, right?! He was showing me a couple of string arrangers and he was like, “I think JG Thirlwell would be perfect for this.” I was like, what?! There’s no way! I’m such a big fan, you know?
STEREOGUM: Were you sitting with him as he arranged your songs?
DANILOVA: No, I was on tour so he was arranging and then he would send me things he was working on and I’d send things back.
STEREOGUM: I know you’re pretty controlling about your production. How was the collaborative process there?
DANILOVA: It was good, I definitely experienced some growing pains. I’ve never had a remix of my songs besides the David Lynch remix. So I’m really not used to giving up that kind of control; it makes me very vulnerable. I kind of had to push myself to do it. When you create walls like that for yourself, you’re not allowing yourself to grow. I would have never gotten involved with JG Thirlwell and I would have never been able to arrange for a quartet so this wouldn’t have happened otherwise. And as an artist and a musician I respect him so much. We’ve developed a friendship but I still am in awe of him and how he thinks.
STEREOGUM: I mean, Stinkfist! Lydia Lunch!
DANILOVA: Oh my god, I was such a big fan of him when I was a kid. It was kind of this realization of my past and future to work with someone that I was a fan of when I was young.
STEREOGUM: For someone who has admitted to being very self-critical, is it difficult to be critical of other people’s work or allow them to be critical of yours while in the studio? Even just communicating how people should work with your sound?
DANILOVA: I think that I’m only around people who have a clear understanding of the way I work; people who know how I would react to someone else infiltrating my sound. That’s what I think of it as! An infiltration! So they wouldn’t do a single thing unless I asked them to. That was really great because I knew that no one was going to do anything under the table or behind my back. They just did what I asked them to. It is just such a weird thing because I also produce and so to bring in another producer, I’m still not sure what that means yet.
STEREOGUM: Did you reuse or re-record your vocals for Versions?
DANILOVA: I re-recorded them all. Because the whole spectrum of sound is so different, it’s so minimal. I was able to reinterpret them in a quieter, softer way. Which was actually difficult because my personality is so aggressive usually when I sing.
STEREOGUM: I found that change made some of the songs much more emotional on Versions.
DANILOVA: Yeah, it’s like the opera versus being in a movie, where you can have the camera right in your face. And you can have nuance in your emotions because you get zoom while you’re recording. In opera everything needs to be exaggerated because you’re singing so loud that there’s very little dynamics happening. So that was exciting.
STEREOGUM: In an interview you’ve said that you don’t have a defining work yet. I’m wondering when you’ll know that you’ve done your defining work.
DANILOVA: I think I’ll know. For this next record that I’m writing right now, I feel like it needs to be everything that I want it to be so I don’t have that nagging feeling that it could have been something more. Which happens to me. But since there are other people in the studio with me I can’t say, “I could have had someone better mix it or engineer it,” because I’m not a professional at any of those levels but I wanted to do those things myself. But I had to let go in order move forward. I was recording in Seattle earlier this year and I’m in New York now. Even just location wise, things change drastically with each album and the space you work in also changes your work. The other thing is that I think I’ve already put out so much work. They may have been critically acclaimed in some way but they weren’t to me! I’ve been critical of them! When I can step back and say that something deserves the acclaim or deserves the attention. There is joy too, of course. Being able to perform the songs and resell my vision every night is the best part.
STEREOGUM: There’s been three versions of “Sea Talk” put out over the last few years. Can you describe your growth through that song in particular?
DANILOVA: In the beginning I wrote that song and it was a very melancholic time in my life. That was around 2009. It being noisy kind of reflected the static in my life then. And then when I was asked to re-record it I was feeling much better, much more hopeful, and I was in a better place in my life. And it felt that way! The second recording felt triumphant. The “Sea Talk” that appears on Versions: I feel that I’m so removed from how I felt when I made the song that I can reinterpret it in so many different ways. It’s gone from meaning something very personal to overcoming that personal struggle to moving past it and treating it like an old journal entry of a song. One that I can go back to and say, “that sucked,” but am not consumed by it.
STEREOGUM: Does your husband have something to do with that?
DANILOVA: [Laughs.] Yeah! I met him during the second version of the song; the triumphant one. He is my sanctuary, he’s sacred to me. I met him in Wisconsin at my college radio station. I had a show and he had a show.
STEREOGUM: A classic indie love story.
DANILOVA: I know, right? We bonded over power electronics and noise and stuff.
STEREOGUM: Would you say that the forthcoming album is more motivated by your physical surroundings or the romantic and emotional place you’re in? So many of your songs can be interpreted as love songs.
DANILOVA: In 2010, when I wrote Stridulum, was the most passionate and crazy and hysterical that I’ve felt in a long time. It was actually in that crazy moment is actually when I met my husband Adam. That was a few years ago and since then we’ve been married and so on. So now love isn’t something that I think about; it’s something that is just there and I don’t need to search for it. I’m not afraid to lose it, so it’s not a factor. So these songs that I’m working on right now is much more about humanity. Humanity and my relationship with humanity is my constant struggle.
STEREOGUM: Would you say that’s the theme for your next album?
DANILOVA: Yeah, it’s very paranoid. It’s about my relationship with humanity and also nature. It’s kind of hard to explain but I have this obsession with land and how humans think that they can claim land. Here in New York people don’t have any land to claim, so when shit goes down, where are they gonna go? So that’s something I think of a lot; the value of having earth?
STEREOGUM: In terms of ownership or how people use it?
DANILOVA: Both, I think. I come from Wisconsin and wide open land and that’s always been a comfort to me. I’ve always needed to know that I had a place to go that was just earth. I think people should have a zone like that and that’s my zone. It’s so surreal here in New York. I love it here but people are so tense because it’s so unnatural; how they built this concrete world for themselves that they think makes sense in terms of being more productive for the roads and cars. But in a sense it’s far worse.
STEREOGUM: When we talked a few years ago you mentioned having to acknowledge that there are apocalyptic things going on around us; not literally but just in terms of where the world was headed. How are you feeling now?
DANILOVA: I don’t think that any sort of real apocalypse is going to rain down on us or anything. But I am concerned, yeah. You know, there is no Wild West anymore. There’s no uncharted land. The more that we spread the human seed, the less we’re able to have things to discover. When we’re done discovering things, what are we going to do? I feel like things are starting to collapse on themselves very slowly.
STEREOGUM: Will you be exploring the idea of hope or faith in humanity on the new album?
DANILOVA: Oh, definitely. There are many layers to the album. It’s weird because sometimes I feel like humans are inherently evil and we need religion to give us morality. And, so, do I have faith in humans? Sometimes. Not really. But I also think that we’re so confused because we’re so advanced as a species. We know so much but we also know that we don’t know so many other things and it drives us crazy. Our pursuit for knowing everything is going to ruin us in the end, I think.
STEREOGUM: You’ve hat-tipped Schopenhauer in the past. I know he’s big on the idea that humans are forever dissatisfied. And that they will keep on going in an effort to seek satisfaction but never will.
DANILOVA: Yeah, exactly. I’m definitely a disciple of Schopenhauer. Or of that one thought of Schopenhauer.
STEREOGUM: He also thought women were meant to serve and obey.
DANILOVA: Oh, totally, I can’t stand by a lot of what he believed. He was a total racist. And a total misogynist. And anti-Semitic. They all were.
STEREOGUM: So I guess my question is, when do you think you will you be satisfied?
DANILOVA: I don’t think it’s in the stars for me. Once I get one thing I want the next. I’m an Aries, I’m very much looking forward at all times.
STEREOGUM: Tell us about what the tour for Versions will look like.
DANILOVA: It’ll just be a string quartet and me so that’ll be easy. As far as a stage show, it’s going to be very stripped down and very elemental. It’s all about the music. It’s very exciting for me but also means I’m going to be standing still which will be hard for me because I’m always all over the stage. I picked the venues as well. I wanted to play in a lot of spaces like the Guggenheim or spaces that were outdoors. I wrote a very ambitious list of places I wanted to play at and some of them worked out and some of them didn’t. I think that my voice is my instrument and I definitely want it to show that this is just another facet of the way that I communicate through the songs. I’m not giving them the one thing I’m used to; my alarm call. This is my way to peel back the layers a bit and show myself more. It’s going to feel different to me because I usually have this wall of sound behind me. Without that it’s going to be tough but also really amazing for me and I hope them too.
Versions is out 8/20 via Sacred Bones. Check out “Fall Back,” which will appear on the album: