Q&A: Zola Jesus On Living In The Wilderness, Making Bangers, And Learning To Let Go

There may be better places to see Zola Jesus than a desiccated upstate New York factory full of intense-looking art-goths, but there probably are not many. The bottom of the Mariana Trench, maybe? A deep-space probe? Adrift on an ice floe through inky-black nighttime water while the Northern Lights dance above you? Point is: There are not many better places to see Zola Jesus than a desiccated upstate New York factory full of intense-looking art-goths.

So the conditions were ideal. But when Nika Roza Danilova took the stage at this past weekend’s Basilica Soundscape Festival, she went ahead and transcended her surroundings anyway. Danilova has such visceral, overwhelming presence when she sings live. She can project enormous power and vulnerability simply by standing still and letting loose with that absolutely overwhelming voice. The new Zola Jesus album Okovi is a gutting, immersive piece of work. And when Danilova sings those songs live, you can feel the ions in your body rearranging themselves. Bathed in swirling purple light and draped in black, she looked like some impossible ancient deity, and she sounded like one as well. To witness an actual human being making those sounds is a profoundly moving experience. And then to see that exact same human being relaxing at the dive-bar afterparty a couple of hours later is nearly as striking.

A few hours before Danilova took the stage at Basilica, she sat down with Stereogum to talk about living deep in the woods, bringing intensely personal music to festivals, and the experience of your work go out into the world.

STEREOGUM: How’s your Basilica experience been so far?

NIKA ROZA DANILOVA: Extremely positive. I showed up a little bit late because I had some stuff going on, so I missed Moor Mother, who I really wanted to see. But I saw Jlin and Emel Mathlouthi. I was blown away. Emel was like my highlight. I loved everyone else I saw too, desperately loved them, but she is just kind of spiritual.

STEREOGUM: I saw you a bunch of years ago at Pitchfork, and you were great, but you don’t strike me as a middle-of-the-afternoon-at-an-outdoor-festival type of artist.

DANILOVA: Yeah, I’m not really a festival person — or artist — period. That slot is tricky.

STEREOGUM: Do you still play festivals sometimes?

DANILOVA: Totally. And I like it because it’s kind of a challenge to win people over. But it’s also a losing battle because I feel like with my music, you either like it or you don’t. That really becomes very obvious at festivals because people really don’t have the obligation to stay.

STEREOGUM: So it can be challenging in a bad way?

DANILOVA: Oh, horribly, yeah. It’s sunk me into deep depression sometimes just because what I do is so sober. It’s a very concentrated aspect of my personality. I put everything on the line, and I make myself very vulnerable. So I get hurt a lot, but it’s part of it.

STEREOGUM: But this festival seems different.

DANILOVA: It’s so cool. It’s actually very unique because everyone here is really openminded. They just want to see something interesting, and they’re really ready. They’re just very open and receiving. I can’t say the same about every festival. This is very unique.

STEREOGUM: Correct me if I’m wrong on this, but on the last album you were specifically going for like making bangers.


STEREOGUM: Which you totally did. But Okovi is a really immersive gut-punch of an album.

DANILOVA: I just wanted to create an environment, and that became paramount. It wasn’t about creating singles or creating songs that people could dance to or songs that could be heard on the radio. Like with Taiga, I was really enamored by the idea of being able to prove that I could swim. I felt like people were like, “Oh, you’re good for what you do.” And I was like, “I want to be good, period.” But this record was just a totally different situation.

STEREOGUM: How was that experience for you, of wanting to swim?

DANILOVA: It was exciting because I liked the challenge. It was like a game. I really love the songs and being able to flex my skills as a producer, and as a songwriter, and as a singer. But at the end of the day, it quickly became apparent to me that that’s not my game. I still deeply love Taiga, and I love the songs on it and everything I did for it. I don’t regret a single minute of it, but you kind of take a leap of faith, and that’s how you learn about how you’re going to navigate things in the future.

CREDIT: Andi State/Stereogum

STEREOGUM: How far out in the woods in Wisconsin do you live?

DANILOVA: I live on 200 acres. It’s 15 minutes from any sort of civil town.

STEREOGUM: Where do you buy your groceries?

DANILOVA: There’s a Walmart 15 minutes away. There’s a very small health food store in that same town. Everything is extremely overpriced, more than Whole Foods ever could or would want to be, but I get stuff there sometimes because I want to support the community. But it’s a pretty burned-out town, as much as I don’t want to talk shit about it.

STEREOGUM: Is it the town where you’re from?

DANILOVA: It’s on the land I grew up on, the town I’m from.

STEREOGUM: I’ve seen you saying how living in cities can just be emotionally taxing and stressful. But is it stressful in a different way sometimes to live way out there?

DANILOVA: No, it’s not. I mean, there are things that are sometimes annoying, like you ran out of bread and you have to drive 20 minutes to get a loaf of bread. But I’m so used to that. It’s how I grew up. I grew up running out of water because my family home was built on a rock. We would very often run out of water. Our well would dry up for days. So that sucked, but that hasn’t happened to my house yet, and I know how to deal with it.

STEREOGUM: Do you have culture shock then when you have to go out on tour?

DANILOVA: Yeah, especially if I’ll go to New York for a couple days. I kind of forget how to navigate social life. Speaking with people, communicating. It’s tricky. You walk outside and it’s just like: people. You start to have a panic attack.

STEREOGUM: Every time I have to go to New York for work, I just want to walk around and be like, “You don’t have to do this to yourselves.”

DANILOVA: It’s totally voluntary, but at the same time, some people need to for their jobs and stuff. But life is short.

STEREOGUM: You’re about to spend a few months on tour. How are you feeling about it?

DANILOVA: A little nervous. I want every show to be to the best to my abilities, and if I’m unhealthy, my abilities are more compromised.

STEREOGUM: You must have to work really hard to take care of your voice.

DANILOVA: Yeah. It’s hard.

STEREOGUM: Are there any places in particular you’re really looking forward to going?

DANILOVA: I’m excited to go to, for instance, Omaha. I’ve never played Omaha. I don’t know who’s going to be there. I’m excited to go to those towns that I’ve never been to, and I’m excited to try to win some new people over. I’m going to Macedonia, which I’m very excited about. Never been there.

CREDIT: Andi State/Stereogum

STEREOGUM: When you make an album that’s really personal like this, and dealing with heavy things that happened in your life, does it feel strange to know that people are going to apply it to themselves and come away with interpretations that are way different from yours? Is it a hard thing to wrap your head around?

DANILOVA: Yeah, to an extent. To an extent, I do tend to become vulnerable. Any artist does when they put something out into the world. It’s no longer totally yours, you know? So you need to come to terms with that and find peace that people are going to get different things out of it, whether or not that was your intention, or whether or not that was good or bad. Deep down, I think that I do what I do comes out of a need or desire to communicate with people. I feel like it’s the only way I can very honestly communicate. If that’s getting misinterpreted, then that’s a shame. But at the same time, you only get so much control over anything in life.

STEREOGUM: When you send a record in and it comes out and people are talking about it, is there a sense of letting go that comes with that?

DANILOVA: Yeah, you have to separate, and you have to distance yourself. I’ve read things about my music that just make me like my music less because of how they’re treating it. What I do is sacred to me, so when people… I don’t want to say disrespect it, but it’s hard. It’s hard to give that up.


Okovi is out now on Sacred Bones.