From her isolated upbringing in rural Wisconsin, combined with a passion for opera, philosophy and industrial music, Nika Rosa Danilova aka Zola Jesus has created a name for herself as being a successor to the great Diamanda Galas and Lisa Gerrard with her haunting, otherworldly vocal style.
Over the past three years Danilova has reached the point in her career where she is no longer an experimental, teenage noise-maker but an internationally celebrated electro-pop artist. Her third album Conatus is her most accomplished work to date, pushing beyond the dark melodrama of Stridulum II toward something that is emotionally breathtaking.
From Conatus alone, it’s clear that Danilova confidence to follow her instincts her paid off, but in conversation she remains tight-lipped, holding her cards close to her chest, as Static’s Chris “Man of 1000 questions” Berkley would quickly find out.
It’s only been 12 months since Stridulum, you’ve put out EPs and toured a lot. Do you sleep?
Um, not much. No. (laughs)
Have you found yourself out on the road these past 12 months especially?
Yes, I’ve been touring a lot this past year.
How do you find time to fit in tours with making records? You seem to cram a lot in.
Well, I just make it work. There are a lot of hours in the day. Not enough, but there are enough (laughs).
Have you always been this way? Were you a prodigious child?
I don’t know. I’ve always felt like there’s so much to do and there’s so much to get done and you gotta do it, you know? Now or never.
How did you discover that you wanted to be a singer?
It was very natural. I just loved to sing and would always be singing. As long as I remember I’ve always wanted to do this.
As a child were you having those ‘Sound of Music’ moments where you’re walking around the hillside singing to yourself?
You seem to be drawn towards opera or classical singing as a kid, rather than rock n’ roll, right? Was that your first love?
Well, just singing was my first love. I just wanted to be a better singer and I wanted to be able to do things with my voice that you needed training for, so that was just the natural course.
What point did you become aware of the power of vocals, or being a singer?
I don’t know. Like I said, ever since I was born I would just be singing. It’s not even something that I remember the impetus. Music has always been something very innate to me, like an impulse.
Were you shy of jumping up on stage and doing Zola Jesus stuff when you first began as well?
Oh yeah, I was terrified at the beginning. I mean, I’m still terrified really. It felt like if I wasn’t going to do it then I’m never going to do it and I need to get over that fear if I ever want to do this. So I just had to do it.
At the same time, your early recordings as Zola Jesus were obscured by murkiness or programmed noise. Was that your way of hiding behind a veil?
In a way, yes.
How much did you learn to program at the same time as learning to sing?
Well, programming and producing came a little later on when I felt like I needed to make songs and do everything myself. I didn’t have anyone around me to make music so I just did it for myself. I just had to learn the skills.
Did you have some bands that were touchstones then, that you were kinda discovering or looking to, to make the sound of Zola Jesus?
No, not really.
So when people have compared you to other bands have you been pleasantly surprised by what they’ve said?
It just confuses me. I don’t think about my music in that way.
Did embarking on some of those big tours last year then impact on how you wanted Conatus to sound? It seems like this album is definitely borne out of live shows?
I actually thought it was going to be a lot more poppier and a lot straighter. When I started making it, it became much more introspective and atmospheric and exploratory in a way. It wasn’t as much of an immediate pop record as I had envisioned it to be in the beginning.
So in the first place this was going to be a feel-good happy-go-lucky Zola Jesus album and something went wrong?
Not necessarily, but I thought it was going to have much more of an immediate impact as far as the songwriting went, but as I started working on music I felt like whatever came out, came out. For some songs it was that, but it wasn’t that completely. It feels a lot more subtle and introspective.
A couple of those big tours that you’ve done were with Fever Ray and The XX. Both of them have powerful female vocals and sparse instrumentation, did you find inspiration touring with a couple of artists who might be kindred spirits?
Not really. I was inspired by their work ethic and their conviction in what they believe in and everything but musically not so much.
You’ve certainly cut back the programming on Conatus. To use a lofty word it sounds more ’earthy’ than anything you’ve done before, there’s strings and pianos, did you find yourself enjoying some of those earthier tones on this record?
Well, actually I feel like this record is much more programmed because the beats are much more intricate and sophisticated in a way, but at the same time I wanted to bring in a lot of acoustic and organic elements and balance it out instead of it being a completely electronic record. But it feels more electronic to me than Stridulum. I don’t know, it’s kind of a strange dichotomy.
Some of the songs seem to have that breathing space where you can just hear piano and strings which might’ve been obscured in previous years on your records.
Yeah, I wanted there to be a lot of space on the record. I tend to write and put everything in the song and then weed it out and bring out the space in the songs just to allow them to be more breathing room, I guess.
A song like “Skin” is a total torch song. Some kid is gonna cover that on American Idol, I’m sure.
Does it feel like that? Does it feel like your power ballad?
It kinda felt like my point of no return in a way.
Why is that? Because it’s such a naked song?
Yeah, so stark and for me, very cathartic. When I wrote it, I felt very low.
Was it one of those five minute songs that came very quickly? It seems like such a great impulsive or spur of the moment song…
Yeah. It came very quickly.
Another way that you’re going to be infiltrating teenage bedrooms this year is the M83 collaboration ‘cos you’ve turned up on Anthony’s record. Was it a thrill to be able to team up with him?
It was wonderful. I’ve always been a fan of his work and I guess he’s been a fan of mine too, so getting to work with him was very exciting.
Was this one of those horrible 21st century things where you weren’t in the same room together, or did you spend time with him to make that song?
We went into the studio together and we worked on the vocals and did it together. It was a lot of fun.
Interview broadcast on Static on 10/11/11. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).