Adventurous and Spooky, the Contrasts of Perfection… An Interview With Zola Jesus

Nika Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus is a workaholic – we thank you Joe Pesci. Since 2009 Nika has been releasing album after album – along with some splits, EPs and a collaborative album with JG Thirlwell (Foetus), entitled Versions. There was always an adventurous side on Nika’s personality as an artist. Taiga, her new album, just happens to be another wild adventure. In an interesting conversation we had the pleasure to talk with Nika about the making of this new album, how important is this album for her as an artist that’s growing and her ability of not giving a fuck – we thank you Joe Pesci.

Conatus was the first record you couldn’t return to write in the winter. Do you think you were too comfortable writing during the winter and that was making you uncomfortable?
Yeah, I definitely feel more creative in the winter.

Two years of touring in support of Conatus. Was there a time where you just thought it was too much?
No! [laughs] It was exciting. Of course you get tired but this is… it’s a job but at the same time is what I love to do, so I’m willing to do whatever I have to do to continue to be able to do it.

These new songs were written in Vashon Island in the winter. What was the effect of a place like Vashon Island, and the winter itself, had on you and obviously in your music?
Yeah, I think that moving to Vashon Island and writing the record there instead of Los Angeles, where I used to live and write, was very different and inspired me in new ways. It inspired me because I was able to remove myself from society and create something that felt more full-blooded. I didn’t have contact with what was going on with the world and I was able to create something that was just really honest and pure.

So would you say that you were pushed against the wall by the loneliness and isolation?
I don’t know about pushed against the wall but it felt liberating.You have once said that as a kid, growing up in Wisconsin, it was all about the freedom and experiment. Is it something that can be said about your intentions as an artist?

Yeah, I think that because when I moved to Vashon Island it reminded me so much of home and where I grew up that I felt free to
experiment and try things that I never would have tried and to make music that maybe before I wouldn’t feel comfortable making and yeah, it just made me feel very empowered to just follow my instincts.

How was it the creative process for Taiga? Where you always starting with your voice and these melodies and then the instrumental part?
When I was writing the record a lot of the times it would start with me acapella but also some of the songs were written around some beats.

Dean Hurley, who initially was supposed to only mix the album ended up to do way more than that. For what I’ve heard, Dean’s contribution was really important.
I wasn’t sure when I was working on the record initially if I wanted to work with a producer because I just was afraid that my ideas would get diluted by somebody else’s work and that made me scared. I was very protective of my creative ideas but when I met Dean, he only wanted to make my ideas more realized. He never wanted to bring his own ideas… I mean, he had ideas about how to help me communicate what I was trying to say in a better and clearer way. That [Dean’s work on Taiga] I found invaluable because without it I feel that the record would be compromised in some way.

Didn’t he help you choose the songs, in a way? I heard that you had dozens and dozens of songs.
Yeah, I had something like one hundred tracks. I didn’t know what was good and what was bad anymore because I was writing music every single day and at that point you’re like… you just lose perspective so quickly and so I would play songs for him and he would encourage me to go on or tell me to stop because the song was bad. But most of the songs I just really strongly wanted them to be on the record.

Do you wish/You could go back to it all?” Is it a thought that has been haunting you for a while now?
Yeah, in general I feel that in terms of where we are as a culture that we’re progressing and moving forward, but not in a way that feels productive and in some ways I feel that we’re moving backwards. And yeah, sometimes I wonder what would happen if we just stopped evolving and we just content where we were… but we are not like that. Humans want constantly to move things forward and I’m the same way as an artist, I always want to get better. Find more efficient ways to do things.

How much of a hard trip was for you to write the lyrics to “Nail”? I mean, there are some heavy subjects mentioned on that song.
I think a lot of the questions that I asked myself are questions very broad but at the same time is very hard to find the answers for them. Like, the lyrics “How am I supposed to survive/If I don’t know what’s wrong and what’s right/How am I supposed to know freedom?/If I don’t know, I’m living inside”… I mean, you never really know what freedom is; you never really know what a honest way of living is because we only know what we are exposed to. That constant inability of really know the truth or know what’s… right or wrong. [laughs] I’m always asking myself, “What’s the right way to live? Is it worth it? What’s the point?” I guess that’s the big question, “Why am I here and what the point is?” I mean, how do you know how to make your time on Earth valuable in a way that you’re able to feel that there’s a reason to be here? That’s why I make music, it’s because I feel that I need to be doing something extremely profound… well, not necessarily profound but something that puts me to use. It’s kind of a justification to be alive, you know?


“The whole idea was to make music as a person and don’t care how it sounded, just trying to have something that’s honest, passionate, explosive and very personal.”

You have been very open with the fact that you dream of having one of your albums on the 1st place of Billboard 200. It’s all about this huge hunger?
That’s a little bit different. That I said because I feel… [pause] I will never make pop music like that, the kind of stuff Billboard “wants” but it is so weird that as a musician there are always these different segments. It’s like you’re or this musician or that musician. You’re or a commercial musician or an underground artist… or you’re experimental, or classical. I just found these boundaries so bizarre that I like to break them down, you know? But that doesn’t mean that my goal is to be N.º… but at the same time it makes me incredibly unhappy [laughs] because no matter what you do or what you achieve people will say, “Oh, you should be so happy with what you have”, but the truth is that my whole life has been about not being happy because I constantly feel like I’m pushing myself, you know? If I’m not pushing myself then I don’t deserve to be alive. That’s kind of extreme but that’s the whole point. The whole point is to be unsatisfied, and the minute I’m satisfied I feel like I’ve accomplished something so I have no business being here.

Basically you’re the type of person that always see the glass as half empty. Doesn’t makes you go bezerk sometimes?
Oh yeah! Oh my gosh, all the time. [laughs] It’s definitely a problem that I’ve been struggling with that my entire life. Unfortunately! I mean, it’s not a big deal. It’s just like you said, some people are optimists and some people are pessimists. Being a pessimist makes me want to work harder and try harder and keep improving and keep doing this, and that’s positive in a way.

That’s why you have released so much stuff in just five years?
Yeah, I can never stop. [laughs] Must keep going. Must keep trying. Must keep pushing. [laughs]

You decided to push the album’s release because it was a “fall product”. What do you mean by that?
Fall is the greatest season… fall and winter. I feel like I’m so alive in fall and winter so I wanted the album to be out in the fall because I wrote this album in the fall. I guess I just wanted to have the album out in the context of these next months.

Do you think this record represents the first time where you’re really confident and comfortable with your own voice?
[slowly] Yes! [pause] I went through a lot of work the last couple of years to confront all of the fear, doubts and insecurities that I had with my voice and I’m actively working every day to make myself more confident with my voice but I feel that I’m at a place where I’m not hiding, you know? And once you’re not hiding then you have to confront it and that makes you acquire some confidence.

George Carlin, the comedian, once said that the most important thing for him as a performer was when he discovered how important is to not give a fuck. Were you a little afraid of working on songs that could be considered too much poppy sounding? Did you learn to not give a fuck, just like George?
Yeah! That’s kind of why I moved to an island, and I wanted to, like I said before, separate myself from society and even from Zola Jesus. The whole idea was to make music as a person and don’t care how it sounded, just trying to have something that’s honest, passionate, explosive and very personal. I made these songs that you hear now on the record and some people say that it doesn’t sound like Zola Jesus that they know but… it’s ok because I’m confident and I believe in it. This is why… it’s truly not give a fuck about what people think they want from Zola Jesus. As much as I respect and love the people that listen and care about my music, the truth is that I respect and love myself even more. [laughs] I needed to trust my instincts.

They think they know it. Sometimes the artist does not even know himself.
Exactly! You make things and you don’t even know how they came out of you, or how did you make them, or how people will react, but it doesn’t matter because they served the purpose for you.

You’re talking about these boundaries that music has, or that people have built for it. I remember you saying that there’s this punk side on some electronic music, like Aphex Twin. I think Taiga has that element. Would you agree?
Yeah, I guess I would… I don’t know. [laughs] I think it’s always beem there maybe a little bit.

I guess Taiga is not a very comfortable record in a sense that’s always challenging the listener. I mean, every song is different from the other, you know? And people don’t know what to expect because Taiga show us that Zola Jesus is not something that you just know what’s going to happen next.
Yeah, I feel that my greatest fear as a musician is being figured out and then people can just dismiss it because they know exactly what to expect and what will happen, like you were saying. I mean, the thought of being just thrown into a corner and live there for the rest of my life, in this little niche… it’s scary and it would be really, really boring. Are you just going to be that one thing for the rest of your life when there’s so much music in the world? I mean, there’s so many different ways to express all of the ideas that you have.

Words: Tiago Moreira // Pictures: Jeff Elstone
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