BlackBook Interview: Zola Jesus on Fragility, Catharsis and Cleansing the Pain

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Perhaps the most curious thing about Zola Jesus is that her real name, Nika Roza Danilova, would itself seem rife with intrigues – and very much worth keeping. But her nom de guerre‘s references to Christ and iconoclastic 19th Century French author Emile Zola perhaps do reveal much more about her ongoing creative existence.

Indeed, there has been something of the quality of metaphorical public crucifixion in her songs, a sense that she is willing to suffer through her art to wash away the various personal torments of not only herself but her faithful followers as well. And, well, a further kinship between Nika and Zola and Jesus is a willingness to stand athwart the dubious cultural or political establishments of their time.

The new Zola Jesus album Okovi (released this month on Sacred Bones Records) does this perhaps more viscerally and strikingly than any that have come before it. From the haunted, almost threatening atmospherics and thundering drums of “Exhumed,” to the hymn-like catharsis of “Siphon,” to the empowering self-possession and chilling, Siouxsie-esque vocals of “Soak,” this is the emotional and sonic tour de force that you always knew she was capable of.

We were privileged to be granted an audience with Ms. Danilova, who explained the fragile defiance that drove its creation.

 

 

Overall, there’s a more ominous feeling to this album. Was there something going on in your life which influenced that?

Yes, I was going though a really dark period in my life, I was very depressed, and wasn’t able to write or do anything. But even as I got better, people around me were dealing with extremely difficult things; like, a close friend was struggling with terminal cancer. It was just a very heavy time.

Do you find it a form of therapy to attempt to work through those things by putting them into song? Are you able to have a dialogue with yourself within your lyrics?

Totally. Most of the songs are about me talking to myself [about those things]. I’m not a great communicator verbally, so I use my songs.

Let’s get into some of the lyrics. In “Soak,” you confess, “I feel nothing instead / I give nothing instead.”

What I’m trying to say is that I feel like I experience life as an all-or-nothing. I sometimes would rather feel or experience nothing al all if I can’t experience everything.

With “Siphon,” you almost seem to be offering up a prayer: “We’ve got to clean the blood of the living / I won’t let you bleed out.”

That song is extremely literal, even though it seems like it could be metaphorical. A friend of mine attempted suicide, and it’s talking about the physical, literal aftermath of that. Wanting to let that person know you’re going to be there for them as long as they want to stay alive.

 

This is a very atmospheric, esoteric record – not exactly stacked with obvious pop hooks. Are you consciously trying to kick back against the level of success you’ve achieved?

In the past I was often intrigued by the opportunity to push back. But this time I couldn’t really think about that, because it was such a selfish record. These songs are much more precious and personal and fragile to me than some of the music I’ve made in the past. It’s extremely honest.

So this is something of a catharsis record?

Definitely. So much of this album was an attempt to cleanse the pain that I felt and cleanse the pain of the people around me. Because it’s the only way I know how.

The cello strikingly stands out amongst the instrumentation, especially on a track like “Witness.”

I hired a string quartet, and the cellist was this girl Shannon Kennedy…

Were you trying to explore new possibilities sonically?

I was really interested in attempting to find otherworldly textures, sort of a metaphor for the collision between the internal and external worlds. That’s why I enlisted the help of Shannon for electronics, and also Ted Byrnes, a really amazing avant-garde percussionist, to build up that world in a way that I couldn’t on my own.

Have you found that your audience has grown with your musical experimentation and emotional evolution? 

It’s hard for me because it often seems like I’m either not challenging enough for some, or not melodic enough for others. But I want to make music that forces people to make compromises as a listener. I have to believe that along the way, some of my listeners have bent their ears for me.

 

Just as you certainly have done for yourself.

I’m never doing the right thing for everybody, so I can only do the thing that’s natural for me.

Do you experience that Robert Smith sort of thing, where fans write to say your music has helped them deal with suffering or loneliness in their lives?

Yes, I do; and that’s all I can ask for. That I’m affecting someone in a way that they maybe feel less alone. That’s all I ever needed myself, was to feel that kind of connection. So I’m trying to tap into the collective strife. They’re just human experiences, and we all go through them.

How will such complex and texturally layered new songs translate to your stage performance?

It won’t be about translating the record, but translating the songs – keeping the performance, raw, visceral, emotional, and giving the songs space, so they can breathe. Rather than trying to make every sound on the record heard, it’s more about maintaining the emotional impact.

How would you sum up your state of mind right now?

I’m just learning to not have any expectations, and not have any sense of hope. But in that way I feel kind of empowered. Just focusing on being the best I can be at putting something out into the world. Just trying to stay clean, you know?

(Zola Jesus launched an extensive North American tour on September 20; she will be at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade this Wednesday, October 4.)