Q&A: Zola Jesus On Going Pop And Getting Away From Civilization
There’s a building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, between 66th and 67th, called the Park Avenue Armory. Though anomalies aren’t uncommon in New York, the Armory comes off as a more extreme paradox than most — nestled near Central Park and amongst some of the most expensive real estate in the world, you’re not entirely sure if the thing is illusion when you stumble upon it. An old military structure turned home for the arts, massive in defiance of a Manhattan constantly reshaping itself. The rooms inside are often lined with wood of the sort of density and intricacy that at once identifies it as obviously the product of human hands while also leaving the lingering feeling like the structure you’re standing in somehow predates us entirely. On the most rational level, you’re tempted to lapse into cliché, like “They just don’t build things like this anymore,” because, well, they don’t, and who knows who “they” were to begin with.
In one of those wooden rooms, Nika Danilova — more widely known by the moniker Zola Jesus — is standing with her stylist, Jenni Hensler. This room is a smaller room off of one of those massive wooden rooms, a hidden corner full of costume materials and random artifacts; along one wall, there is a handful of old TVs that seem to date from the ’60s or ’70s. Hensler’s showing Danilova an array of photos on the wall, material she’s collected to draw upon for their inspiration for designs for costumes for Danilova to wear onstage or in music videos. The images are enduringly outlandish. Even if you put them in a sci-context, or an avant-garde fashion spread, or even if someone told you they somehow got their hands on some crisp, vivid photos of a civilization long since lost to dust, a people with a name you’d never heard before, they scan as somehow not entirely recognizable. You can only notice strains of things you know within them.
This, essentially, is the point. The aesthetic Danilova’s interested in, more or less, is some intersection of all of that. The new Zola Jesus album, Taiga, has already been talked up as Danilova’s poppiest release, a fact for which pulsing lead single “Dangerous Days” was the bright, almost-triumphant announcement. You can stream it here and decide for yourself, but yeah, mostly this is true. But, always one for paradoxes and dichotomies, Danilova has used her most streamlined music to date as a vehicle for some of her most abstract concerns, to explore an aesthetic to that marries the ancient and the future, the synthetic and the organic. That’s always been there a bit in the music of Zola Jesus: Danilova’s voice, a pure and exceedingly powerful natural instrument, working within layers of industrial noise and synthesizers. Now it’s more pronounced in the imagery, too — the results of Hensler’s and Danilova’s collaborations can already be seen on the cover of Taiga, with the large wooden collar Danilova’s wearing.
Given all this, I sort of expected Danilova to be a somewhat aloof artist, or for her to fall behind an impenetrable persona of Zola Jesus in conversation. As it turns out, none of this is true. Danilova is actually exceedingly friendly, and often self-effacing, quick to laugh at herself when she seems to decide a comment scanned too heady or abstract. After she and Hensler finish taking a look at the various design ideas, Danilova and I sit down to talk about the new Zola Jesus record in detail, and all the changes she has in store for Zola Jesus.
STEREOGUM: How did you and Jenni start working together?
DANILOVA: She styled the “Seekir” video. I had never worked with a stylist before so I was very apprehensive, but she just totally understood what I wanted. The visuals are very important for me. So her ability to take a concept and make it into a reality is something I really rely on. I’m not a designer, but I have a lot of ideas and she has a lot of inspiration. I’ll say, for example, for the [Taiga] cover — I wanted a wooden collar neckpiece that represented the taiga but in a very modern but also very tribal way. We would exchange information. So then I brought that idea to her and then she designed the collar and built it and created it.
STEREOGUM: The thing you’re saying about the wooden collar, the tribal/modern mix, is that a general, core thing you try to look for with the design?
DANILOVA: Just like with my music and with everything, it’s a duality, it’s a dichotomy, old and new, natural world and synthetic world, man vs. nature. Those are themes that are on Taiga.
STEREOGUM: So in addition to having different versions of costumes for the live show, are you going to play with set design at all?
DANILOVA: Yes, I’m developing that as well, which I’m really excited about. It’s the first time I’m working with a lighting designer. They’re also going to create a stage sculpture.
STEREOGUM: Do you know what the sculpture’s going to look like?
DANILOVA: I’m working on it. As big as I can make it with my budget. A girl’s work is never done. I feel like in the past I overcompensated because I didn’t have the show that I wanted, so I would feel a sense of anxiety onstage. I felt like I could never control the environment. This tour is exactly what I wanted my whole career.
STEREOGUM: Are you planning on incorporating any choreography?
DANILOVA: Choreography…I’m not really warmed to yet. It feels like acting and that’s something that’s really awkward. I like to have control over the aesthetic environment but anything choreographed just feels a little much.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about Taiga itself. Was there a song from the record that was kind of the genesis point of it all?
DANILOVA: “Hunger”…that’s kind of, for me, that’s my track. That’s my album right there. That’s my favorite song. I finished that song, I felt like I knew what the record was going to be about. I knew for a while I wanted to work with brass, because brass replaced an electronic element that I was very used to, synths. I felt like it had this weird analog feeling. So making that song, which in some ways just felt like a…true amalgamation of all the things I wanted to focus on for this record.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, brass has a kind of ancient vibe to it sometimes.
DANILOVA: It does, it feels ancient, but at the same time, I always make a joke about how I want to make an analog EDM band. Instead of trance saws there’s brass, live percussion.
STEREOGUM: It seems like you wanted to go more pop with this one, or that you at least became more comfortable with those forms.
DANILOVA: Yeah, it’s not so much I wanted to go more pop, I just wanted to make a cleaner, more direct record.
STEREOGUM: What was the drive behind that?
DANILOVA: I wanted to challenge myself. I came from a world of making noisy, layered, lo-fi music, and the only place you can go from there is making really clean and well-produced music. If I were to make something that felt really noisy I would’ve felt like I was going backwards. There’s just really no other logical step for me at this point if I want to challenge myself, but to make something clean and well-produced and direct. So that was the challenge.
STEREOGUM: Was there a temptation to go the noisier route because of the themes of the record? All the nature vs. humanity stuff. That seems, on a surface level, like a notion that would want noisier or more untamed music, not more streamlined. Did you go into the record thinking you wanted to write about that, or did that happen after you had already established this template sonically?
DANILOVA: It was a little bit of both. In the beginning, I had no idea what the record was going to be about. It kind of just finds you. I was writing the record on Vashon Island, which is this small island in Washington. Being faced with all of those concepts naturally and organically, I just felt like I wanted to make something that was clean, because that was the challenge at hand, and at the same time trying to channel nature, which is so raw and feral, through that. That seemed like even more of a challenge.
STEREOGUM: I guess a lot of music comes out of your childhood experiences in Wisconsin too, but the places you’ve lived, the places you’ve recorded, does it bring out something when you write? Does it make you want to focus on different things?
DANILOVA: Yeah, environment totally affects the music, a hundred percent.
STEREOGUM: What do you think this would’ve sounded like if you hadn’t gone to the island?
DANILOVA: If I were to stay in Los Angeles it would’ve continued to be angst-ridden music. You know, when someone’s in a situation or a location where they feel they can’t totally be themselves and I just felt like I was in a place where I could make music that wasn’t about that. Removing myself from Los Angeles really helped.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like this record is more yourself than the other ones?
DANILOVA: Not necessarily. Because everything’s yourself, it’s just a different evolution. But I feel like it’s a different side that people probably haven’t seen. They’re probably a little apprehensive.
STEREOGUM: Pretty much everything you’ve released has a one-word title, often strange words or ciphers. I’ve seen you explain the meaning behind Taiga specifically, but I was curious what draws you to titles like that.
DANILOVA: You can create your own meaning, easily. If you look into them, they have their own meaning that very much applies to the concepts, but at the same time, they’re abstract enough where people can, when they see the word, they can create a world that the music lives in. It’s enticing.
STEREOGUM: Given some of the sonic changes with Taiga, if you were to get more mainstream, how do you think the Zola Jesus project would change? How would you react to that?
DANILOVA: That’s kind of the whole point. How do I phrase this….It’s not about, I mean, basically, it’s about that none of those things will ever make me happy, and they’re quantifications of success in the commercial world and I think…I was raised wanting to be this. I grew up wanting to be a musician, and I looked to radio and I looked to TV and those other things I told you, and the pop construct told you, you go to an arena to see a show. You pick up People magazine and you read about celebrity culture. You grow up thinking that’s the way you consume culture, you know? At a very young age there was a part of me that thought that’s what it meant to be an artist. To be on TRL, to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. You realize those things aren’t the things that feed you as an artist, and being an underground musician and being able to see what it’s like to be an actual musician. Those things will never make you feel like you got any further in being successful, whatever that means.
STEREOGUM: How does your writing process work? Do you hear melodies you wind up chasing, or is it more about sitting down at a synthesizer and seeing what you come up with?
DANILOVA: It depends, totally depends. I try everything, whatever can pull the song out. The most exciting thing for this record was I got really into accapella so I would be walking around and singing and coming up with melodies and finding ways to retrofit them to an actual instrument for the song. And so that felt more liberating.
STEREOGUM: Than the way you’d worked in the past?
DANILOVA: Yeah, which is you have a beat, and then you’re stuck to this beat. I’d usually start with a four on the floor kick. That can only yield so many different options.
STEREOGUM: What does your daily routine look like? Do you write every day? Or is it whenever it happens?
DANILOVA: I’ve gotta be kinda ready to write. It’s a muscle. When I was writing this record, I would wake up, write, go to bed. And I’d wake up, write, go to bed.
STEREOGUM: How long did the whole process take?
DANILOVA: Maybe two years.
STEREOGUM: From the very first idea to completed product.
STEREOGUM: And when you were really in the thick of it?
DANILOVA: Nine months of writing on Vashon, and then probably three more months of writing when I was floating around, I was staying in Wisconsin, staying in Vermont. And then recording and mixing for another three months. So yeah, I guess a year, maybe a year.
STEREOGUM: Was that a more in-depth process than the other records?
DANILOVA: Yeah, oh yeah. Everything else was done in two weeks. That’s why, this record, to me, it feel like my life depends on it. When you work so long on something, you feel like you’ve done everything you can for that music, you know? Whereas before I made so many compromises. “This is what I could do in two weeks, it is what it is.”
STEREOGUM: You felt like the other ones were compromises?
DANILOVA: Yeah, yeah.
STEREOGUM: In what sense? Because of time and financial constraints?
DANILOVA: Everything. I mean, I’m not going to throw my old records under the bus and say they’re compromises, because they’re not. They’re dear to me, they all tell a story, and it’s a very linear story. It’s a progression and an evolution. I’m very proud of everything I’ve done from The Spoils to now. It’s just, with this record, I allowed myself as much time as I needed and in the past I didn’t, because maybe I thought I worked better under pressure, or I had, you know, I just had certain time constraints that I needed to make the record within. And of course when you do something like that, in hindsight you look and go, “I wish I could have done this, I wish I could have done that.” Everything happens for a reason. Those records are the way they are because of all the circumstances, and that’s what makes them special and unique, but at the same time…for this new record I wanted to challenge myself by having as much time as I needed, and it definitely yielded a different result because of that.
STEREOGUM: What was the thing you regretted afterwards about the other records? Just arrangement stuff? Or ideas?
DANILOVA: Yeah, just expanding on ideas, being able to rearrange things, take the songs in a new direction. I didn’t have time to…you know, the songs were basically the demos. So maybe a little pulling them apart, trying new things. With this one, I would totally reinvent songs over and over and over and that was something I had never done before, and it was very different. I guess I wish I had that sort of freedom with all my songs in the past, but at the same time, like I said, everything happens for a reason and those songs wouldn’t sound like they do now.
STEREOGUM: Did anything change between Conatus and Taiga that allowed you to work this way now?
DANILOVA: I decided that I needed a place, I needed to register everything that had been going on in the past couple of years, because I just kept going and going and going, and in order to make something that feels unique, something that feels like an evolution and an organic step, you need to get that time. I think a lot of artists get caught in this cycle and they don’t give themselves time, because either they’re not allowed time or they’re afraid of stopping the cycle. I had to take this leap of faith and go, “OK, I need to do it for the art, for the music, I need to give myself time to grow, to experiment, and to live a life maybe without music for a couple of months or even a year, just so you can come back and it can feel fresh again.” That’s just…it’s so important. I feel like every musician needs to do that. It’s hard to do to that now.
STEREOGUM: Was that an anxiety you had in the past? The notion that if you stopped it would be harder to get started back up?
DANILOVA: I love momentum. I love the idea of going and going and going; I could go forever. But yeah, once you take yourself out of the equation for a little bit, you’re afraid of, what if the ideas stop, what if the show stops, what if life stops. Because if your life is your art, then if you stop your art you stop your life. It’s very scary.
STEREOGUM: When you’re going into a record, do you start from a point where you say, “I have a title, I have an idea, I have these things I want to explore,” or do you just start writing and see where you wind up?
DANILOVA: Definitely, sometimes you don’t even realize until it’s over. Sometimes I realize halfway through. Very rarely is it like: “This is what the record will be about! And now I will begin!” It doesn’t happen like that.
STEREOGUM: In a bigger sense, beyond working at Vashon, what drew you to the man vs. nature idea now?
DANILOVA: I just feel like, personally, the more I’m in civilization, the less I feel alive. Removing myself from that, I just felt more and more alive. I was just wondering why being alone, this single human, in this forested area: why am I more a part of the world [here] than being in a busy city or being in a place where you feel like everything’s happening, like New York City? I started thinking about that and why we do that to ourselves. We remove ourselves from this world that was ready for us, and we had to create something else on top of it and it just seems like something…it just seems alien. It seems like something we shouldn’t be doing if we actually felt like a part of this world, you know? I guess that was the root of it. And thinking about how we consider nature. Not in an environmentalist way, but just why do we feel like we’re at odds with it? So many people feel intimidated by being in nature, they feel like they’re out of their element. To me, that paradox is so bizarre. I kept exploring that more and more, and all the different tributaries of that concept.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever really pinpoint why you yourself feel less alive when you’re in civilization?
DANILOVA: It was a couple of things. Definitely feeling less alive in the city. I just felt more disabled in a way, creatively and physically. In a city, there’s so many voices, there’s so many people, there’s so many stacked up on top of each other, and it’s just so hard to feel like your voice is worth exploring because there’s so many that it just becomes a little…you start to feel a little cynical, or a little “What’s the point?” [laughs] Like, what does it matter, there’s so much noise in this world, how can you cut through that, how can you make a meaningful statement in a world that’s filled with so much clutter? And so yeah, removing myself from that, it gave me a voice, really.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever have an argument with yourself about that, though? Something like, “OK, Vashon was cool but I couldn’t live this way all the time,” or “Yeah, there’s all this noise and all this clutter but that’s also the way human life is right now and I just have to engage with that.”
DANILOVA: You mean talking about my potentially being able to move back to Los Angeles?
STEREOGUM: Well, not necessarily Los Angeles, but in general the whole “back to nature” thing. I think that’s a relatable impulse for a lot of people who live in cities. For example: yeah, I could go live in a cabin for a bit, get a book done, that’d be awesome, but then I still feel like I have to come back here to the city, or to civilization at least. These are the rules of the game I was born into, I can’t totally disassociate myself from it. Do you know what I mean?
DANILOVA: Yeah, yeah, I feel you. Well, first of all — you can go to the cabin and write the book and you can come back and you can do interviews and sell the book and do all these things, you know, that you need from civilization and that you need from society, but creating in that [removed] world…it’s a very personal, subjective thing, but I don’t think that I can continue to create in that [city] world. I couldn’t even live in New York. It just becomes…it makes me a nihilist. [laughs] How can you feel like…there’s just so many people trying to do so many different things, the same thing as you even, and it’s just so hard to wake up and feel like what you’re doing matters in this world. But once you remove yourself and you’re the only one in that world where you make, everything is important because it’s your world. That’s the thing about Taiga, you know? When you’re in your taiga, it’s just you in the world and you feel like you can do anything. You have this newborn confidence because there’s no one else telling you you can’t do anything, like your ideas are silly or they’ve been done before. I just think it’s so important for an artist to have that frontier.
STEREOGUM: When you say the phrase “your taiga,” are you talking about some sort of abstract artistic solitude?
DANILOVA: There were times when I was writing the songs [for Taiga] and you know, the vocals were very clear, very confessional, some of the songs were quite poppy, and I’m not an inherently confident person. So I had to find that confidence to be able to continue that, and not to shy away from it, and uncover everything. And so I always had to think about: “This is my world, this is my taiga, I can do this, I can do whatever I want. No one’s telling me ‘You can’t do this.'” So yeah, you invent that freedom.
STEREOGUM: The notion that the taiga became this symbol for this process for you, but that it’s also a sort of icon and word from your ancestral roots — was that a conscious thing, to look back to where you came from to get to this place, or did it just hit you?
DANILOVA: It was a little bit of both. I like the idea that there’s taiga forests in Wisconsin, and that they’re in Russia. I just feel like there’s this lineage and there’s a feeling of home and following the roots and realizing that my family, as they’ve moved around, they’ve felt at home in nature. I just wanted to always keep in mind, like I was following my lineage in a way.
STEREOGUM: Digging into that lineage, finding that confidence, finding that place, does that make you feel like this record’s a culmination of a particular version of Zola Jesus?
DANILOVA: I think it’s the beginning of an evolution, of learning to embrace strength. Where before I think I was embracing the tension and wanting strength. It’s a new chapter and it’s exciting. To me, it feels like this fertile land I’m about to explore. It felt a little new.
STEREOGUM: Having had that experience, where do you see yourself taking Zola Jesus next?
DANILOVA: I have some ideas, but I think it’s always going to be a pendulum. Let’s say I make something….I’ll never be able to make very poppy music and I’ll never, probably, be able to make very noisy, experimental music. It’s always going to be somewhere in the middle. But it’s going to swing back and forth. Just because of…you know, everyone reacts to the thing they did before, they react to the thing they were just obsessed about, so…it’s a pendulum. Whatever Taiga is, I’ll probably just want to do the opposite after that.
STEREOGUM: Whether it’s Vashon again or whether it’s elsewhere, do you think you’ll always go out into the wilderness, to some extent, to work now?
DANILOVA: My dream is to build a house in the woods and have a home studio there, to be able to just be there perpetually and make music forever. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: In your mind, is there any continuing narrative arc or connective tissue to your records?
DANILOVA: I think bigger philosophical questions have always been the thing that I’ve been interested in exploring through my music. Those are things that I think, since day one, have been digested, metabolized. Music is my outlet for asking those questions and trying to understand them. That’s probably what runs through the music.
STEREOGUM: Do you consider catharsis to be a major part of Zola Jesus?
DANILOVA: Yeah, definitely. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Did you grow up seeking that in art?
DANILOVA: I like music that’s sort of like an exorcism in a way. When you listen to music and you feel like the person needs it in order to get through the day? That’s the beauty in music. It’s a tool. It’s its own tool.
STEREOGUM: Do you think Taiga is the most cathartic Zola Jesus record? Or, at least, in comparison to the tension of Conatus, do you feel like there’s more resolve?
DANILOVA: There is more resolve than ever before. Because I had time to get to the next process, and this is the product of that. Which feels more….empowering. It’s empowering for me to make and hopefully empowering to listen to. Instead of witnessing someone’s breakdown, you’re witnessing them getting through it. I wouldn’t say it’s a positive record, but I would say it’s a productive one. It’s really important, right now in the world, that there’s…you have the methods to deal with things, and that you can deal with them, and that’s kind of, yeah, that’s what this record is about. It’s the aftermath. In a good way.
[Photo by Ryan Muir.]
Taiga is out 10/7 via Mute, but you can stream it here.