Nika Roza Danilova’s sixth album as Zola Jesus is a joy to hear and a complete trip. Arkhon is a record that successfully connects with you and with a profoundly visceral component to experiencie the album’s dramatic soundscapes. A masterpiece for this peculiar era.
We talked with Zola Jesus about her brilliant new album, recording during the pandemic, working with Randall Dunn and Matt Chamberlain, dreams, life and more… Don’t miss Zola Jesus playing live this Friday at Extramuralhas 2022.
How was it during the pandemic in your isolated Wisconsin area?
I was really fortunate to be living in the woods by the time all of that went down. It was hermetic for sure, which suits me. The instability of my career was a constant burden of stress, but I could weather the storm. It was an intense time though.
Tell me about the recording process — where it took place, how long it took, what it felt like singing and tracking each of these songs.
I was supposed to go to Los Angeles in March 2020 to get in the studio with Randall Dunn and drummer Matt Chamberlain. We had anticipated a much more collaborative process of re-working my demos and writing some new songs together. But due to the pandemic, that plan couldn’t happen. So I waited a year, and then took my demos to New York to work with Randall at Circular Ruin in 2021. Together we pulled them all apart, sent them to musicians for their contributions, and rebuilt them. Tracking “Desire” was really memorable. We went to Strange Weather to record the song in a single take. I was playing on a 1921 Steinway and singing into an M49 tube mic. The sound was phenomenal. I’ve honestly never heard my entire voice as completely until then. The recording was so expressive. I felt like I could finally hear myself for the first time! That song holds a lot of meaning for me, so to be recording it in that environment was really cathartic and emotional.
Arkhon, the album’s title means “power” or “ruler” in ancient Greek, but it also has a specific valence within Gnosticism. How did you come up with the title Arkhon?
Throughout the past several years I took an interest in Gnosticism. I was especially moved by the concept of humanity being a mistake made by the gods. The archons are these malevolent rulers that keep us from reconnecting with our pure source. I feel as though we are living in really archonic times. We are starved of a spiritual, cosmic relationship to existence, stuck in the material realm. This record is so much a reflection of these times that it felt like a fitting title.
Collaboration played a larger role on Arkhon. With that in mind, how was it like to work with the always great Randall Dunn and with Matt Chamberlain this time around?
Liberating and empowering. I was so used to having this egoic control over my work. I was afraid of relinquishing any part of it to someone else, in fear that it would no longer reflect me and my efforts alone. It’s a common problem in this modern age of the Individual, the lone genius. We’re all being told we can (and should) do everything ourselves. It’s empowering up until the point that it’s suffocating. I was forced into a really unfulfilling and fear-driven creative dynamic. Even if I had ‘total control,’ I could never really let go. I started to resent myself which made it hard to make anything. At some point I went through a profound ego death. It became clear to me then that nothing matters. To propel humanity forward we must widen the net of experience and imagination, not constrict it. Working with Randall and Matt taught me that the joy of creating is so much deeper when it’s shared with others.
One of my favourite tracks is the ominous “Sewn”, what’s the story behind it?
That was the most collaborative track on the album. It started as a beat and synth line from Matt, then Randall added synths, and I added vocals. We built that from the ground up together. The lyrics are about the power of waking up from samsara and divining your own personal relationship with the comos.
What are some central themes that continue to inspire your writing?
There is a core desire in my life to find balance between the extremes. That will always be a part of my writing – the will of fighting against the fundamental polarities. But lately I have felt inspired by the task of advocating for the spirit – like, carrying the torch for the mystics and the ancestors of gnosis. I fear we are losing deep, deep wisdom. There’s an imbalance of mind and spirit in our world. I strongly believe it’s up to those who see what’s missing to impart it.
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I have felt a strong cathartic element all over the album and even the songwriting looks more personal and fully connected with cathartic element that I’ve mentioned. Is that a fair assumption?
This record was cathartic for me to make more than anything. Leading up to making Arkhon, I had experienced a cataclysm in my life. I barely knew who I was anymore. I made Arkhon with the intention of using the process to heal myself. Whether anyone heard it was secondary. The music was medicinal for me, and that’s what was most important.
I would like to know if you consider yourself an optimist, generally speaking?
I believe that humanity is more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. I’m a pessimist inasmuch as I see the negative in everything. But a negative cannot exist without a positive. I prefer nondualistic thinking – which means there will never be a problem without a solution. So I guess I’m an optimist too.
Where do you find beauty the most?
I find it in the slivers of Earth that have not yet been sacrificed to the artificial will of man. The woods, the mountains, looking really close at a very tiny rock. There is beauty everywhere!
Do you have recurring dreams that you remember?
So many. I have a recurring life in my dreams where I’m perpetually stuck in an ever-stretching airport mall. I am always telekenitic in my dreams, too, which makes waking up a constant disappointment. Since I was a kid I defined my primary life as the one I’m in when I’m asleep. Waking life is what we endure in order to dream.
Any predictions about this year US midterms?
No. Don’t care anymore. The US government is dead to me. It’s all kayfabe.
What books and music have you been into lately?
I’ve been really into Adorno lately, and books on Egyptian magic. I’m currently obsessed with the new Hatis Noit record. It’s the kind of album that hurts to listen to because I wish I made it. I love her. Also love the new Tanya Tagaq. Lots of wild women out there doing the Good Work!