Turntable Interview: Zola Jesus
Nika Danilova, bka Zola Jesus, proved herself to be one of the most remarkable and talented young musicians of the era with her breakthrough release The Spoils. Since then, she has been rapidly evolving and pushing not only her own boundaries, but those of her fans, too. Her most recent album, Versions, is a collection of nine of her songs arranged for a string quartet by legendary experimental composer and symphonic arranger J.G. Thirlwell and re-recorded with the backing of Mivos Quartet. Danilova stopped by Turntable.fm before playing her set with a string quartet at Brooklyn’s Our Lady Of Lebanon Cathedral to spin some songs, talk about the new album, and the creepiest thing she’s ever received from a fan.
Melissa Locker started playing “Kiss Them For Me” by Siouxsie And The Banshees
STEREOGUM: Hello! Welcome to the Turntable Interviews. Where are you today?
ZOLA JESUS: Currently in New York
STEREOGUM: Me too! We could be doing this IRL, as they say on the internet.
ZOLA JESUS: I know right!
STEREOGUM: You’re going to be playing with a full string quartet in Brooklyn, right?
ZOLA JESUS: The music just cut out! Did I do that?
STEREOGUM: I don’t know! Did you?
ZOLA JESUS: I feel like if anything goes wrong during this it will probably be my fault, haha. It’s back.
STEREOGUM: Phew! Siouxsie Sioux deserves to be heard. So you’re going to be playing with a full string quartet in Brooklyn, right?
ZOLA JESUS: Haha. Correct.
STEREOGUM: Is that something you have done before?
ZOLA JESUS started playing “Universal Consciousness” by Alice Coltrane
STEREOGUM: Are they going on tour with you?
ZOLA JESUS: Yeah, we are going to do a bunch of major cities, and then Europe
STEREOGUM: How did you decide that orchestral reinterpretations of your songs was your next step?
ZOLA JESUS: Well, after I had these arrangements worked up for a show, I felt something in me go : this is something you need to do! Performing with a string quartet brought this intimacy and vulnerability to my music I knew I needed to explore that further…
STEREOGUM: What is it like to have other musicians interpret your songs? Hearing your music come from a string quartet?
ZOLA JESUS: It’s very surreal. Having that distant is good for the music, good for me. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what you’re doing, but to hear these disparate organic entities interpreting your work is humbling… and amazing
Melissa Locker started playing “Amnesia” by Swans
ZOLA JESUS started playing “Secret Sister” by o0o Cloudface o0o
ZOLA JESUS: Haha it just cut you off! Sorry about that!
STEREOGUM: We’ve all heard Swans before, and I’ve never heard this, so it’s okay
ZOLA JESUS: I can’t control this little redhaired bopper. Ghost in the machine
STEREOGUM: It’s definitely because your avatar is a redhead
ZOLA JESUS: You can tell he’s wily
STEREOGUM: Definitely! After Versions, will it be hard to go back in the studio on your own?
ZOLA JESUS: No, very easy! Being in the studio recording the strings was so inspiring. That’s partly why I wanted to do it… it fed me!
Melissa Locker started playing “Atmosphere” by Joy Division
STEREOGUM: Do you have a new album in the works already? Even though Versions is barely out?
ZOLA JESUS: Yes, I’ve been writing for the past year. The concept is coming together
STEREOGUM: When you write songs now do you think about how a quartet would interpret them?
ZOLA JESUS: In a way. Now I think when I write a song “how many places can I take this?” whereas before I just did three chords and beat the horse. That’s why writing is taking so long, I really want to explore all the possibilities these songs can inhabit before putting out the record, so I don’t have to do this reverse engineering again!
STEREOGUM: So you’re getting ahead of yourself!
ZOLA JESUS: A bit, yeah, maybe a bit too much
STEREOGUM: Where have you been writing?
ZOLA JESUS started playing “prac-f” by Autechre
ZOLA JESUS: I wrote a lot on this island in Washington
STEREOGUM: Oh which island?
ZOLA JESUS: Now I’m taking all those bits and pieces and letting them gestate Vashon
STEREOGUM: Oh that’s where Michael from Telekinesis wrote his album, too. Although I bet they sound different
ZOLA JESUS: Oh cool! It is very inspiring. Lots of musicians live there.
STEREOGUM: It’s a beautiful place. So you don’t mind having your writing interrupted by tour?
ZOLA JESUS: Yes and no. Right now I need to tour in order to remind myself what that is like. This whole Versions project duals as an exercise in figuring out what I need this next record to serve. But often touring can really drain the creativity from you.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel the drive to create for creation’s sake or to serve a greater purpose?
ZOLA JESUS: It is hard to create if you feel like it is all in vain
STEREOGUM: So what purpose did Versions serve for you? It’s beautiful album, by the way.
Melissa Locker started playing “Female Guitar Players Are the New Black” by Marnie Stern
ZOLA JESUS: Versions was kind of a bit self-centered. I needed the record in order to prove to myself that these songs truly existed.
STEREOGUM: Did you succeed in that?
ZOLA JESUS: Definitely. I’m very proud of it. More than I ever was
STEREOGUM: Orchestral interpretations feel very mature as an art form. Can you tell me a bit about where you are going next musically?
ZOLA JESUS started playing “Ghosts: Ghosts: Variation 1” by Albert Ayler
ZOLA JESUS: I cannot say anything for sure as this is a very delicate period… it changes by the minute! But I’ve got these lofty ideas that I’m trying to make sense of musically. In the beginning I was just writing songs acapella, as I thought if the vocal melody is strong you don’t need anything more.
STEREOGUM: Are there artists that particularly inspire you?
ZOLA JESUS: Certainly. Alice Coltrane, who I played earlier. She is a huge inspiration.
STEREOGUM: So do you no longer think that a strong vocal melody will suffice to make a song?
ZOLA JESUS: No, I still feel that very strongly. I guess what I forgot to mention was that I was perfectly fine with putting out a record with no production, no electronics. Just vocals and minimal instrumentation. But making beats is too much fun!
STEREOGUM: Are you going to be the next Dr. Dre? Selling beats to the masses?
ZOLA JESUS: I think the masses have already bought the beats. If anything needs to be re-sold to the masses it’s opera, haha. That poor industry!
STEREOGUM: Dr. Dre did make more money than anyone in hip hop last year thanks to his Beats. Yes, poor opera! It’s too expensive for the common people. That’s the first thing they need to fix.
ZOLA JESUS: Well, it’s expensive because it is an expensive art form that demands a lot.
STEREOGUM: Do you listen to a lot of opera?
Melissa Locker started playing “Skin” by Grimes
ZOLA JESUS: Not so much. I listen more for the singing than the dramatic elements. So much about the art form of opera is dated and archaic to the modern person.
STEREOGUM: What do you think people list to you for? Both?
ZOLA JESUS: No idea! But I am sure that my drama is different than opera. Opera drama is fictional romanticism. My drama is the heaviness of being an obsessive person, haha.
STEREOGUM: What are you obsessive about?
ZOLA JESUS: Give me a thing!
ZOLA JESUS: Hahaha
STEREOGUM: Do you think your musical output is tied to your obsessiveness, though?
ZOLA JESUS: I’m sure of it.
STEREOGUM: So you make it work for you. Do you think it has hindered you in anyway?
ZOLA JESUS: Because my music is a very personal thing, as it is for most solo musicians, it is hard to look at it objectively, or treat it as an object.
ZOLA JESUS started playing “Perishing” by Basic House
ZOLA JESUS: I tend to have too many principles that probably hinder my music from becoming something that supersedes the ego
STEREOGUM: So is it hard to read criticism then?
ZOLA JESUS: Of course. They’re listening objectively and they don’t know what has gone on underneath the music. It’s hard to stomach.
STEREOGUM: Do you read the comments on the internet?
ZOLA JESUS: I have. But that shit is toxic
STEREOGUM: It is The Worst. Anonymity makes people extremely harsh.
ZOLA JESUS: This is why I feel like people are inherently evil
STEREOGUM: Have you ever received something incredible from a fan, though?
ZOLA JESUS: Without repercussion human beings are malicious. I once received a letter from a prisoner that was very touching.
STEREOGUM: Really? I want to hear more!
ZOLA JESUS: Yeah Haha! About the prisoner or more examples?
STEREOGUM: Both! But first the prisoner. What made it touching and not, say, completely creepy?
ZOLA JESUS: That one really stands out because he said the music was very therapeutic. He was in prison for murder and found out about me through a magazine. It’s interesting to reach fans that have no contact with the outside world really. Oh, I mean it could be considered creepy, for sure.
STEREOGUM: How did the letter get to you?
ZOLA JESUS: He sent it to the label
STEREOGUM: He didn’t enclose anything in the letter, right? Like a lock of his hair?
Melissa Locker started playing “Your Silent Face” by New Order
ZOLA JESUS: Haha, no!
ZOLA JESUS: It was terribly well-written though. Very impressive for a murderer.
STEREOGUM: Hahaha. How long will you be on the road this time?
ZOLA JESUS: A couple months. This tour is quite short in comparison to past ones.
STEREOGUM: And then you will go back to writing your next album?
ZOLA JESUS: Yeah, I’ll go into the studio
STEREOGUM: Where will you record?
ZOLA JESUS: Not sure yet! Figuring that out now.
STEREOGUM: Well I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. But thanks so much for playing DJ with me.
ZOLA JESUS: Yeah, was fun! I’m going to miss that little ginger.
STEREOGUM: Maybe he will send you a lock of his hair
ZOLA JESUS: Aww
Versions is out now via Sacred Bones.
09/22 Saint Paul, MN @ St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
09/26 San Francisco, CA @ Palace of Fine Arts
09/27 Hollywood, CA @ Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever [early]
09/27 Hollywood, CA @ Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever [late]
09/28 Seattle, WA @ The Triple Door
10/03 London @ Tabernacle Buy Tickets
10/04 Paris @ Café de la Danse Buy Tickets
10/05 Berlin @ Hau1 Buy Tickets
10/24 Chicago, IL @ Garfield Park Conservatory
10/25 Washington, DC @ Hirshhorn Museum
10/26 Asheville, NC @ Mountain Oasis