It doesn't require much imagination to see why Nika Roza Danilova -- who has been releasing dark, deeply arresting pop music as Zola Jesus for the past four years -- decided to call her newest record Conatus (which, in philosophical terms, means "a striving of natural impulse," and is available this month on Sacred Bones, one of the most forward-thinking labels around). "I was focused on growing artistically and within my capabilities as a producer and as a songwriter. It felt like a culmination of the past couple years," the 22-year-old says over the phone from her home in Los Angeles.
And it should feel like a culmination, seeing as that at 21, she finished her undergraduate degree (French with a philosophy minor) and made some of the most exciting music of last year with her Stridulum and Valusia EPs. They hinted at Zola Jesus' pop potential, and while Conatus does contain some very knotty, challenging pieces, Danilova is learning how to synthesize both of these very different aspects of her musical character. On one hand, you have the murkier motivations (industrial dabblings, noisier textures), and on the other, a more welcoming side (stirring, emotional vocal performances, rhythmic post-punk underpinnings).
Danilova's willingness to blend these two opposing impulses on Conatus will no doubt earn her some more visibility, but it may be even more important in exploring what she isn't about. Standing at only 4'11", perhaps too much has been made of the little girl/big voice thing; while the intensity of her stage performance is striking, too often it is regarded as something of an oddity. And then there's the whole "goth" tag, which Danilova is quick to brush off. Conatus seems ready to set the record straight. As she puts it: "It was really important for me that I did things that were far beyond my means in all areas of being a musician."
Conatus is out now.