Music: The woman in black


Rising indie queen Zola Jesus tells Paul Fennessy about her prodigious work rate, why pop music is the highest musical form and how she realised her ultimate fantasy

2010 was a busy year for 21-year-old Nika Danilova, aka Zola Jesus. In addition to touring extensively and playing a total of 97 shows, she released an incredible four EPs, continually refining her incoherent-yowling-cum-pop music and simultaneously endearing herself to indie bloggers everywhere.

So what prompted this Philip K Dick obsessive to release four EPs in such a short space of time? Was it a subtle commentary on the increasingly fragmented and fleeting manner in which we listen to music? Was it her way of contemplating the value of art in these brutal, recessionary times? Much to o-two’s disappointment, it apparently “just happened” that way, on account of the record label’s demand for bonus tracks and different European and US releases. Meanwhile, she attributes the impressive rate at which she can churn out songs to being “constantly on a deadline”.

Of Danilova’s four records, the general consensus in the indie community decrees that the Stridulum EP is her most impressive effort to date, while also being the singer’s personal favourite of the quartet. Not only does it manage to effortlessly amalgamate all of her compelling musical characteristics – her technical adeptness, her woozy, brooding vocals and her penchant for theatricality – but the album also includes what is arguably the most distinctive piece of cover art out of all the records released this year. It depicts Danilova’s face and part of her body completely covered in an alluring chocolate sauce.

“It was my idea,” Danilova explains.I’ve always had a fantasy of having chocolate poured on me and bathing in it. This was the only way of getting away with it.”

o-two gets the sense, however, that Danilova is not always willing to act so playfully. Her foreboding all-black attire is one indication of a darker persona lurking within, as is the fact that she has carried the pseudonym of Zola Jesus with her since high school. Yet she refutes the idea that she bears an extraordinary countenance.

“The appearance is inspired by what I like,” she says. “Usually I create things that are like a shadow that I can hide under. The way I look when I’m playing live or having my picture taken is just what I’m wearing that day. It’s just the clothes that I have in my closet and so there’s really no special look that I put on, but I think it’s important as a person to really know who you are.

“I don’t call the music under my name because it’s like a formal gallery space for things I’m working on. But I know it’s a little confusing for people, because I am Zola Jesus and Zola Jesus is me.”

Yet despite her slightly austere, goth-like appearance, Danilova clearly possesses a sense of humour and seems thoroughly unaffected by the significant fuss which is currently surrounding her. She laughs, for instance, when I explain how some critics have noticed a more pop-oriented tinge to her sound lately. It is as if she feels perplexed that anyone would bother analysing her music in such intricate detail.

“I’m sure I’m going in a more poppy direction,” she says. “It’s kind of for selfish reasons. As a writer and as a programmer, because I make electronic music and I programme everything myself, it’s a lot more of a challenge to make pop music, because so much is required of the production compared with other types of music. So I see it as a fun challenge.

“I think the indie world is starting to move in a poppier direction, because I see everything as a reaction that came before it and we’re just coming out of this lo-fi environment of everything being homemade and having a kind of shoddy production. So a lot of people are reacting against that and trying to do something that’s crisp and pure and well produced.”

Danilova cites Times New Viking, purveyors of skuzzy guitars and distorted vocals, as one of the bands that indie rockers are currently rebelling against. She soon clarifies this assertion though, stating her belief that such bands are not necessarily the antithesis of pop music, but that they merely “approach it in different ways”.

Danilova also adheres to the Frank Black school of songwriting, explaining that when it comes the words versus music debate, there is only one winner.

“Sometimes I feel like the voice is so expressive and really I write everything just to sing over it,” she says. “I like the sound of the voice to take precedence over what I’m saying because I think I’m saying enough already as it is with how I’m saying it. The lyrics are important, because everything is important in coming together, but really the lyrics I always feel are redundant.”

With her hectic schedule set to recommence once more and her foot placed firmly within life’s fast lane, it is little surprise Danilova downplays the importance of reflection.

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