Zola Jesus: Interview At Pitchfork Music Festival 2011

    With 2009’s The Spoils, Nika Roza Danilova’s Zola Jesus project took off, mostly due to her incredibly powerful voice, which sang what basically amounted to love songs, but with such ferocity that it conjured up images of natural disasters and silver screen drama. But The Spoils‘ production sometimes blunted Zola Jesus’ most effective tool. In 2010 she dropped two fully realized EPs in Stridulum and Valusia that stripped away much of the lo-fi muck and replaced with towering synths, resulting in epics such as “Sea Talk” and “I Can’t Stand.” Later this year, on Oct. 4, the new Zola Jesus record, Conatus comes out on Sacred Bones. We sat down with Nika the day after her performance at Pitchfork, where she marched around the stage in an enormous silver bow of a dress, and talked with her about the evolution of her live show and the new record.

    One thing that’s apparent when you perform that doesn’t necessarily come across on record is a sense of sensuality. Do you feel there’s a sensual aspect to your music?

    Nika Roza Danilova: Oh, yeah. Maybe it’s not that blatant but in some way, a lot of the songs are love songs. When I sing them live there’s definitely more emotion coming out.

    Seeing the way you moved and sang live was part of that realization, it was natural but also had a sense of theatricality. How important do you think that is in getting your songs across to a live audience?

    Danilova: When I’m listening to music, I experience it with the whole body. I feel like a lot of people when they listen to music have a similar experience. So, when I’m peforming music it’s even more of a cathartic experience. It just feels the most natural to me to move around and express in different ways. When I’m just standing by the mic and singing, that’s when I start to become extremely, extremely anxious, and I start to forget the words or things like that. Because it’s just standing and staring, and you’re not really in the moment.

    “Vessel” is the only song we’ve heard so far from the new record, Conatus. It’s less epic than what you’ve done before. Are you going in a more understated direction on the new record?

    Danilova: I just wanted to try out new ways to produce and different ways to write. And with this new record it’s a lot more stripped down and there are way more acoustic elements as opposed to no acoustic elements, like on Stridulum and Valusia.  I just wanted more breathing room, so people could insert their own experiences into the song, their own feelings into the song, as opposed to me forcing it on them with the densest sound possible.

    Conatus is Latin for, essentially, moving forward. What does that idea mean to you?

    Danilova: Working on the record was really difficult because I knew what I didn’t want to do, and I knew what I _did_ want to do. I wanted it to be different and I wanted it to be a step forward. And in doing that, there was so, so much trial and error and so much quitting music at the end of the day. I’d be like, “I’m done! I’m not making music anymore!” And then I’d get up in the morning and I’d start again. Come out of retirement. It was just the process of trying to push myself into new directions that I’ve never tried before. So, it just completely synopsizes what I was going through during that process.

    Did you decide on the title of the record after recording, then? Or did you have it in mind before and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy?

    Danilova: I had it in mind beforehand because I knew that’s what I was going through even before I sat down to work on the record, I was already going through that emotional process of trying to push myself.

    I noticed there was no mace on stage…

    Danilova: [laughs]

    What are some of the other things you’ve done to bring theatricality to your live show?

    Danilova: I don’t know. I think that whenever I have the opportunity to bring something on stage that is really ferocious or potentially dangerous… [laughing] really, if I can endanger myself in any way on stage it’s very exciting to me. So, I’ll do it. If you’re performing, and you don’t have the threat of dying, you’re doing something wrong. I like the danger.

    Do you think danger is an important element in your music as well?

    Danilova: Definitely. Mostly because I feel like it’s something that’s progressive. To feel danger and just thrill. In a way, once you feel that danger and overcome it, you can do it again and again. And then you can challenge yourself and do more dangerous things or more difficult things. With my music, it’s the same. I’m constantly trying to do things that are out of my comfort zone in order to expand what I’m comfortable doing.

    Do you do any thrill-seeking acitivities?

    Danilova: No, and that’s the funny thing. I actually have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. In a way, my music is a way for me to deal with that. Even flying on planes, I just throw up because I’m so scared. It’s terrifying for me to do anything that a normal person can do. So, even moreso I feel this force, this push to do things that are beyond what I think I’m capable of doing.

    Does that have to do with why each record in your career has shown a marked difference?

    Danilova: Yeah. And I respect artists that change and I respect that there’s a path and a transformation. It’s not always linear and I think that’s really important to do and I would never think of any other way. There are a lot of musicians that don’t make those changes, and that’s a problem.

    Do you think your live show has undergone the same transformation as your music?

    Yeah. And I think once I have the opportunity to play venues that can handle what I have in mind for my live show, you’ll see a marked difference. And I think it’s exciting to try different things in the live venue, because that’s really the realization of your music in a visual way, and that’s really important to me. So, I always try to do different things.

    What differences were there in recording the new album to some of your previous records?

    It was the longest I’ve had to record an album, which was three months, maybe. Three to five months. Which, to me, was way too much time and at the same time not enough. But I added acoustic elements, like live drums and strings which was very new to me. Plus I worked with a producer for the first time, mixing the record and producing it, which I had never done before. That was different. And just the way I wrote it was much different, because with everything I wrote, if it sounded too much like something I’d written before like something I’m used to writing, I’d throw away the song and start over.

    Who produced the record?

    Danilova: Brian Foote.

    How did he push you and help with doing things differently than you’ve done before?

    Danilova: Well he was really, really easy to work with because he understand that I’m a control freak, so he really tried to step away a lot. All of the songs I’m playing everything, and doing it all, but he really had a lot of great suggestions about how to change little things to make them more effective. And I used a bunch of his synths; he has an amazing synth collection. That really helped the songs grow. And his mixing is really amazing. Just his resources were invaluable. He’s just an invaluable guy. [laughing]

    Do you prefer performing all the instruments yourself or would you bring session musicians in?

    Danilova: Well I did [bring in session musicians] for this record. I can’t play violin or cello or stand-up bass, or drums. I can play keyboards, kind of. So all the keyboard parts I wrote and played, and then I would send the string parts that I had wrote on the keyboard to the string players and they would just mimimc that. Same with the drums. I try to do as much as possible, still, but I wish I could play drums.