Famous People

Zola Jesus On Insecurity, Insomnia & Her Stunning New Album, Versions

by James Rickman
If you want a crash course on Zola Jesus, the alter ego of 24-year-old singer-composer-producer Nika Roza Danilova, skip Wikipedia and check out the three iterations of her song, "Sea Talk." Start with the one on her new album, Versions. Danilova's voice, at once vulnerable and strong enough to shake windows, is supported only by strings and minimal tech, the results of arrangements created by industrial producer JG Thirlwell during the singer's live performance last year at the Guggenheim -- arrangements that form the basis of all the songs on her latest album. Then make your way back to 2010's Valusia and, finally, to 2009's Tsar Bomba. Here, the vocals have lurched to the back of the mix and everything is slathered in lo-fi scuzz that would make Times New Viking blush. It's almost as if she was hiding something back then, something that she's finally ready to reveal on Versions.

Danilova, who grew up in rural Wisconsin, was visiting her in-laws in Burlington, VT, when we spoke. She opened up about the choices -- personal, professional, and artistic -- that led to her breathtakingly intimate new sound.

Where are you living these days?

I was [in Los Angeles] for three years, and then I moved to Washington for about nine months and now I'm just floating around. L.A. was definitely a different pace, but -- hold on, there's a puppy crawling all over me -- at the same time I felt like there was too much focus on the wrong things. The quality of life was very good, but you also had to give into this particular way of life that I didn't really want. So yeah, I like to visit but I don't know if I'd move back.

You've been incredibly prolific, but it's been two years since your last album [2011's Conatus]. Have you been writing that whole time?

I've been writing for the past year, but the year before that I was just supporting Conatus. You put out a record and then you spend a year touring and then people are like, "Where's your next record?" They expect that you bring it on the road or in between interviews or something like that.

So you have a backlog of songs?

Yes. Whether or not the songs are up to my standards is another thing, but I've definitely been writing a lot of music in the last year. I'm antsy to get back into the studio...but at the same time, I want to be ready when this record comes out and I don't want to rush it. I feel like I've rushed everything up to this point, so I'm trying to drag it out a little bit.

All but one of the Versions songs have appeared on previous albums. What was it like revisiting them?

Doing this project and performing, initially at the Guggenheim, I didn't expect it to change that much, but it completely did a 180. Everything that I was doing up until then changed. And so now I feel like when I record the songs I'm just coming at it from a different perspective. There was a lot of evolution that happened through this record.

Did the lyrics change at all?

The lyrics didn't change, but I felt like the way I approached the lyrics -- the way that I felt when I was singing them -- was different. By now, "Sea Talk" has evolved to the point where I can look at it objectively and it has a new meaning for sure.

Have you listened to all three versions of "Sea Talk" back-to-back?

No. Maybe I should. I think that my whole career so far has been trying to get to the point where I feel like I deserve this. So the versions of "Sea Talk" reflect that in a way. In the beginning, I wanted to cover it up because I didn't feel like I'd earned the ability to be clearly heard. It's interesting now to be so upfront in the mix.

Where did that cover up instinct come from?

It's coming from a lot. Coming from an opera background, coming from living in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin, and doing everything on my own. I never really feel like a legitimate musician but I'm getting more and more to the point where I feel like this is my turf. I belong here.

How did the collaboration with JG Thirlwell come about?

I got the offer to play at the Guggenheim [in 2012], and I really wanted to do something different, because I felt like that opportunity was so special. Because of the space, I really wanted to work with strings. I felt like doing my normal stuff there, the way the acoustics work, it just wouldn't be appropriate. So I was looking for a string arranger to put my songs onto sheet music for the string players, and then through asking friends I was directed to JG Thirlwell and kind of was amazed 'cause I'm a huge fan of his work. Every step of the way, he went above and beyond and that's what made this project into something very special.

Tell me more about the Guggenheim show. What was that day like for you?

One of the most nervous ever. Usually I feel like I'm blanketed by the wall of sound that I create with my live show. Through all the tracks and all the beats, everything's mixed very loud, and so I always feel like I have that safety net. But when you just have strings and a very raw voice, everything is out there. It is just nakedness and that was very, very scary to me. And I knew what I was getting myself into, but in doing that, when I was up there onstage, it was just the most powerful moment. It was the first time I allowed myself to just stand there in front of the audience and give myself very purely. I thought I was doing that before, but it wasn't until this show that I was like, "Oh my god, there is just so much more that I could be doing, so much more that I could be giving."

Have you repeated that format?

It's been a one-off, so now I'm so excited to do this tour and I feel like Versions is more about the live show than it is about the record and so I'm really, really looking forward to playing for people live. That's where that magic is going to happen again and again and again.

Sleep and the lack of sleep comes up a lot in your songs. Do you have any recurring dreams?

I have very, very vivid dreams, but none that have recurred throughout my entire life. When I was a teenager, as most teenagers are wont to do, I used to lock myself in my bedroom a lot, and I thought that I preferred to live in my dreams rather than live in my waking life, so I would just constantly try to access this dreamworld that I could always go back to and that would be my reality. But that's like for someone that's just really depressed and doesn't want to be where they are. I feel like every teenager has done that.

Any thoughts on why you have so many lyrics about sleeplessness?

I actually never thought about that. I think that subconsciously I have a preoccupation with night, because there's been a lot of times in my life where I've stayed up all night or I've been walking in the middle of the night, and had the feeling of being very alone. It's an empowering feeling, but also it's kind of scary. It's almost like anyone who's not asleep is, in some way or another, on the fringe. Maybe for me sleep or night is a feeling of isolation and danger. I have a very strong idea of what that feels like -- it's just like the feeling of being very alone, being very much one person in a sea of a million sleeping people. That's very interesting to me -- to feel so isolated, even though everyone's still there, they're just in their homes or in their beds. At night it feels like the whole world is yours.

Photo credit: The Impossible Project

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