Zola Jesus: “I feel like I needed music to communicate to specific people, not just communicate to myself or to the world.”

Zola Jesus, or Nika Roza Danilova, has been active for more than a decade (even though her debut album, The Spoils, was only released in 2009). Thrillingly enough it’s now that the Wisconsin-raised is reaching what resembles the zenith (you can never be too sure when someone seemingly reaches a new high at every step taken). It was about the new landmark in her career, the Okovi LP, the return to her roots, and many more that we centered our conversation with one of pop’s brightest stars.

I was reading people’s reactions to the new track, “Exhumed”, and there were some people that seemed to be happy that you were stepping away from the Taiga era. I feel that Taiga was a bit misunderstood and undervalued. How do you feel about it and how do you see people’s reactions to it now that’s been almost three years since it was released?
I’m really proud of Taiga and looking back at it, it’s just like anything that I’ve done. I made it for a particular reason, I made it because I wanted to push myself into a direction I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with, which I’m prompted to do and maybe some people weren’t comfortable with that either, but that’s the whole point, to challenge yourself and to challenge the people around you. I’m proud that I did that. So yeah, even it was maybe misunderstood I don’t… I don’t know. I don’t hold it against it anybody. [laughs]

Even though you were pushing yourself into uncomfortable directions, I remember seeing you live and feeling that you were very comfortable with that material.
Yeah, it’s a part of me. And maybe I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of clarifying everything, but it’s something that you just learn to embrace, and the more you face the difficulty the more it starts to feel comfortable. By the time I came to Porto I was quite comfortable and I felt that any challenges I had to go through, I went through by that point.

Last year at the Melbourne Music Week you did sing alongside a string quartet and you’ve performed, from what I understand, for the first time songs from Taiga. I know you were already familiar with the setting (Guggenheim), but Taiga is a rather different record than Versions. How was the experience of performing Taiga songs in a chamber setting?
It was really interesting because I think when I made Taiga, when I produced it, when I recorded it, and when I wrote those songs, I was going through something that was very high energy and not so much about being able to perform them with a string quartet. So, hearing them in that context gave them a different meaning and it gave the songs a different life that before I wasn’t expecting.

It was also the first time you showcased your opera background. I know you studied opera for three years again before stepping on that Melbourne stage. How was that reencounter with your past and to finally sing operatic pieces in public?
It was very hard emotionally, and I have a lot of remorse about the performance because I was so nervous. The aria was stuck in my throat and I was so scared that I wish I was more relaxed when I did it. But it was a good first step to try to breakthrough all of that anxiety that I have about performing opera publicly and it’s something that I want to continue and again, challenge myself in the future.

You’ve made all these records that are different, but also share similarities. Do you think you’re showcasing Zola Jesus’ musical entity more accurately with each record you release?
I don’t know because the more music I make the more I realize that I don’t even know what the statement is. [laughs] Because I keep trying all these different things. One record is so embowed, insecurity, and self-doubt, that I can’t even make a statement, I feel. And the next record is so overcompensating and confident that it comes out really strong. So, I feel like every record is a different attempt to push things or push myself. I’m excited to get to the point where I don’t feel like I need to push myself and that I can just make stuff that I feel is a reflection of who I am and not so much a reflection about who I want to be.

If I got it right, Taiga is about ambition, confidence, and being powerful in overcoming a certain vulnerability. How would you define Okovi?
This new album is so much about… It’s not even what it stands for in that when I wrote it I was going through a lot of sadness, my own and for the people around me, and a lot of emotional struggle that had nothing to do with music or nothing to with myself. It had more to do with just life and you never really get to decide your path in life as much as you want to, and just coming to terms with that, which is very disillusioning. You kind of realize that life is what it is, and there’s nothing so magical about it. For me it felt very sad, a death of maybe one part of myself that I had hope (like I had with Taiga), but also a rebirth in that I feel that without having hope you feel so empowered and liberated because it’s not like you’re waiting for something, or like you want something. When desire dies, I think everything can flourish, and so that’s kind of where this record is…

There’s no disappointment.
Exactly, yes! [laughs] As a human, it’s very hard to allow yourself to have zero expectations because we always want and know that we can be better and we can do better. It’s like, “Evolution, you can be a better person.” But realizing that it is what it is… it’s very hard. [laughs]

What did you want to convey with the title Okovi? I know it’s a Slavic word for shackles.
I liked the word and I like that it isn’t just Russian or a Slavic word, which means that a lot of different languages happens to okovi, and I like that unites a lot of people that maybe some times are at war with each other and that they can all go, “We have the same word and it means shackles. It means chains.” Just think that so many people have this word in common and when you think about what it means, and it means that we all have shackles and we are all chain to something. That’s how I felt making this record. I just kind of felt so grounded and so beholden to the nature of life. It felt like it was fitting.

zola_Jesus_A_MG_5874 copycolorrt“I’m excited to get to the point where I don’t feel like I need to push myself and that I can just make stuff that I feel is a reflection of who I am and not so much a reflection about who I want to be.”

Which is very different from what you had in Taiga. With Taiga you were isolated the album and with Okovi you are shackled to the rest of the world.
With Taiga, again that was a very hopeful record. I had a lot of hope about myself, about the world around me, I felt like the world could be more as magical as I’d imagined when I was a child, and I had these big dreams, these very ambitious… Not career ambition but creative ambition and imagination. But at the same time it was like too controlled and here I feel like it’s coming down from that high in a weird way. [laughs] Like when you sober up and you realize that everything is kind of grey. [laughs]

With Taiga, “Hunger” was the first song where you were like, “This is the album.” Is there a song on Okovi that represents the album the same way “Hunger” represented Taiga?
That’s why I chose “Exhumed” as the first song people heard. Even though it doesn’t… the album is a lot sadder than “Exhumed”. “Exhumed” is very angry but at the same point I think it encapsulates a lot of what I was going through when making the album. And there’s also an instrumental song [“Half Life”] at the end of the album, which to me is also very indicative of the album because when I wrote it I was going through a very difficult time and it just kind of feels like weightless.

Prior to Taiga, you spent every day for a year sitting down at a piano and singing. You would sing for hours and hours. No production, no microphone, nothing. Did you maintain that process this time around?
Yeah. I studied opera and I studied singing and I practiced singing almost every day… Just constantly trying to find the core of my voice and refine it. Just figure out what my real voice is and be comfortable with that, which takes a lot of time and a lot of work. Just to feel comfortable with what you have.

Alex DeGroot (longtime live bandmate), WIFE (producer/musician), Shannon Kennedy (cellist/noise-maker from Pedestrian Deposit), and Ted Byrnes (percussionist) all helped build the textural universe of these new songs. How did that collaboration work and how much it did help shape the entire thing? Or did they just help you fill the gaps?
Yeah, like that. I wrote all the songs and when I was ready to kind of make them into something real I asked my longtime friend Alex if he would help me… and I chose Alex because he’s really talented, but also he knows me extremely well, so I feel like we have a good language and I trust him with these songs. Because these songs are very delicate and they are very personal to me. He did a great job. But then I also wanted to have other textures that I couldn’t do on my own. Ted is a percussionist, Shannon is a cellist and a noise musician, and WIFE… I had written this one song “Siphon” and I didn’t feel like it was hitting as hard as I wanted it to with my own production, so I asked WIFE if he could produce it to basically help me create that world, and so we basically collaborated on that. So yeah, I was so much more open to just asking for help rather than feeling that my ego was trying to protect everything. So, I could say I did everything, but at this point I don’t care. I just want the song to be as good as it can and if it meant asking for help then… that’s great.

Reading your statement about the album I noticed that you were, whilst making the album, surrounded by this heavy social climate in your private life. You talk about having people very close to you trying to die, and others trying desperately not to – perhaps “Siphon” is the most obvious track regarding that subject. Did that reality of life vs. death end up shaping your approach in terms of lyrics?
Yeah, I think because there were so many specific instances that happened while I was writing this record, in my personal life, I needed music to help me reach some people and to help me reach the emotions I was having and feeling. Songs like “Siphon” and “Witness” are almost like open letters to particular people. I feel like I needed music to communicate to specific people, not just communicate to myself or to the world. It’s very clear, the lyrics are very blatant.

On “Doma”, which I think is home in Russian, you say “Please take me home / where I can be one / with the same land I’m from”. Can you explain the meaning of those words? Because I was reading the article that you wrote for the University of Chicago Divinity School and there you say you’re an atheist but those words seem to come from the same place of a religious person.
Well, it’s actually more literal that maybe you think. I quite literally moved home [Wisconsin], I moved to the land where I grew up and I built a house in the landwhere I grew up. I grew up on a lot of land, and so there’s enough for me to build ahouse on. That song is actually really special to me too because it does feel like my return… I don’t know, it kind of feels like a theme for my return, in so many ways, whether is my artistic return or my physical return to where I grew up, and just an emotional return. I do think there are different levels to what I am saying, and certainly are when I’m singing it – it felt metaphorical as well. But not so much religion. [laughs]

In that University of Chicago Divinity School article you talk about your music being a sort of replacement to religion. Do you agree that this album is a spiritual album?
Yeah, I think some of the songs, when I wrote them, I was thinking a lot about transcendence and just kind of this collective communion of people, and not just people, but what’s inside of them. I don’t want to use the word soul but how we are all so deeply connected and I think that is spiritual. I think spirituality is just feeling extremely connected to yourself and to people around you, and to the world. That’s been something I’ve been thinking about a lot and definitely went into the music on this record. So yeah, I could see those lines being made.

Can you pinpoint the starting point or the catalyst for Okovi? What made you move back to the woods in Wisconsin where you were raised?
After Taiga came out, I was touring a lot and I just became very… I fell into a really deep depression and it was worse than anything I had felt for a very long time. I had not felt a depression like that in so long that I almost forgot what it was like. So, I didn’t understand why I was feeling so sad and out of place. I was living across the country at that time and I needed to just come home and I needed to ground myself. It was then that I started to become healthy again, and so I realized that I needed to move back permanently because at the end of the day nothing, to me, really matters… I don’t care where I live. I just want to be happy, and I want to be with my family, and I want to feel peaceful, and I need to be isolated. [laughs] I felt like I could do that where I grew up.

I know you love and admire Sia’s work. I’m really curious to know your opinion regarding her last album, This Is Acting, an album she described the songwriting as “play-acting” since it’s a collection of songs that she wrote thinking about other people performing them.
I think it’s interesting and cool. I think she’s an incredible songwriter, and the cool thing about Sia is that even when she’s writing for other people every song she writes sounds like her. Maybe she has this excuse like writing for other people allows her to indulge in things she normally wouldn’t. I’ve tried writing for other people and I tried writing for particular projects that were not related to my music and it’s hard sometimes for me to separate myself from it. I think there’s a point that when you have a really defined voice as musician is really hard to sever that completely.

Words: Tiago Moreira // Photos: Timothy Saccenti – Okovi is out now via Sacred Bones.
You can also the interview here:

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