~ Written by Jessica Price. This interview originally appeared in Seattle Gay News (September 27, 2013)
If there was a recognition award in music for ‘Artist with the Most Intriguing Moniker’, the 24-year not-quite-classifiable diva Zola Jesus would be a contender. Wisconsin-born Nika Rosa Danilova arrived at the name for her electronic/operatic/art pop project arbitrarily, but it perfectly broadcasts all you need to know: Zola Jesus is ethereal, audacious, and completely one of a kind. From her upbringing in the deep woods of Wisconsin to an unexplained childhood obsession with opera, it was only natural that by her teens Nika would leave the competitive world of opera behind to find her own voice in electronic experimentation, drawing comparisons to a modern-day Kate Bush or the collective female personas of This Mortal Coil. She’s been remixed by none other than filmmaking visionary David Lynch, and in 2012 she performed at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum with composer J.G. Thirlwell and the Mivos Quartet. The show was memorable not only for the avant-garde ensemble Nika wore (a glowing, oversized collar encircled her neck), but for the album it spawned recapturing her soaring vocals and drum machines accompanied by string quartet. Currently on tour for Versions, Nika took time out to talk to Seattle Gay News about Maria Callas, breaking rules, and returning to nature:
Jessica Price: Congratulation on Versions, it’s a beautiful record. The string quartet really adds a new depth to the original renditions. As I’ve been listening to your albums I’ve been thinking about how artists develop over time. When you look back on the work you’ve done so far, how do you view your evolution?
Nika Roza Danilova: I feel that I’ve evolved in so many ways. I went from making modest little pop songs in my bedroom to travelling the world to recording in an actual studio with actual string players. I have grown in so many ways. Not only have my production and songwriting skills improved, but my own confidence and sense of self is constantly being re-enforced.
Price: Being an artist- especially a female one- can be interesting in terms of people’s perception of your work. What female artists do you most admire, and why?
Danilova: I admire women that are strong and dominant. I like the idea of the diva; a woman who is supremely talented, passionate, and sets high standards of quality for what she does. My hero is Maria Callas, a famously difficult woman but [she] could bring a grown man to tears with her voice. The power of the voice is unprecedented, and those who use it well could move planets with it.
Price: How did your performance at the Guggenheim inspire you to make Versions? Had it ever occurred to you to try completely new arrangements for your songs?
Danilova: The opportunity came to play in the Guggenheim, and because this show seemed so special, I wanted to honor it as so. The space seemed like it would be quite challenging in terms of sound, so I wanted to try to make it more acoustic in order to work with the room instead of working against it. Re-arranging my songs has always interested me, as well as working with strings. It was one of those moments where I instantly knew exactly what needed to be done.
Price: Do you think that given the competitive nature of performing arts such as opera, modern music has given you greater freedom to throw out any rules or restrictions?
Danilova: Definitely. In the beginning I would work so hard to undo my training. I tried to scream and sing in ways that completely went against technique. But in disregarding the “rules” of physiology, my voice was starting to deteriorate and I wasn’t able to do what I wanted vocally. Now, I am excited by embracing technique in ways that will allow me better control of my instrument. I take bits and pieces of my opera training and apply it in a way that doesn’t feel restraining, but liberating.
Price: You’ve performed extensively around the world; it must be interesting to compare where you live and travel now, versus your upbringing in the woods of Wisconsin. Does this make for a keener appreciation of both the immediacy of cities, plus the peace and quiet of living in nature?
Danilova: It was very easy to take the backcountry for granted when I lived there. However, upon travelling all over, I feel such a strong sense of home when I am in nature. The natural world is undiscerning. It is simple but mysterious. Cities overwhelm me; I feel like we construct these artificial microcosms in order to pretend we’re not animals. We visit the countryside in tourism as spectators, as if we live outside of it. We’re so intelligent that we are trying to outsmart ourselves. It’s funny, but it will not be so funny when we are forced to return!
Price: Has this tour felt very different than your previous tours with an electronic/band setup?
Danilova: It feels very different. I am travelling with a string quartet instead of my band of outsiders who I’ve been with for the past three years. The tour is split up in weekend trips, so there is not a van tour. The shows are very early, which I love! It feels so much healthier, which my vocal health needs for this tour.
Price: You’re already working on new material- can you give any hints?
Danilova: No real hints so far. Currently working it out! I have about 50 songs written but that means nothing. Still a long way to go.
Zola Jesus performs Saturday, September 28 @ The Triple Door as part of the 10th Annual Decibel Festival.