Nika Roza Danilova aka Zola Jesus’ rise to fame has been a quick one, though it seems to have always been in the cards. The mystical electro artist grew up in rural Wisconsin, where she started studying and performing opera at the age of 10. Realizing that wasn’t her particular calling, she enrolled at University of Wisconsin-Madison to study philosophy and French. It was there, in winter ’09, that she formed her alter ego Zola Jesus (inspired by Jesus Christ and French writer Émile Zola), and began recording her debut album The Spoils.
Since then Jesus has recorded three EPs and three albums and has toured with bands like Fever Ray and The xx. We were taken with her booming, honest voice, crystal clear with gothic undertones, and asked her to perform last month at The Creators Project: San Francisco 2012. We captured her singing “Hikikomori” off 2011’s Conatus against installations like Minha Yang’s Meditation, Chris Milk‘s The Treachery of Sanctuary, and UVA and Scanner’s Origin.
Currently on tour through Europe, she answered a few questions for us over email about her process, her most essential artistic tools, and her favorite artists and designers of the moment.
The Creators Project: You have such a strong aesthetic that seems to permeate every aspect of Zola Jesus, from the lyrics to the imagery to your on-stage performance. How would you describe this aesthetic in your own words? What kind of influences are you drawing on?
Zola Jesus: It’s hard to describe. I am curious about so many things. Trying to figure out how they all interconnect is the big puzzle. I feel like it may all boil down to a single entity—maybe there is a great final answer there or something. So I poke and prod like an explorer in a dark cave. I like to use the space surrounding the music as a means of materializing all these elements I’m really fascinated with, for my own sake.
Do you think it’s imperative for today’s artists to have a strong artistic vision? Why? How did yours develop?
Not necessarily. If the music calls for it then I think it’s appropriate, but it’s up the individual artist or band’s intent. I’ve always been a completist, so if I do something I need it to be comprehensive. I have to exhaust every possible interpretation or permutation of what I’m approaching.
Do you think having a strong, identifiable artistic vision/aesthetic helps artists build audiences and get noticed/rise up from the mass of content online and find a loyal audience?
I couldn’t say. Sometimes I think it distracts, and in that case it could get in the way a little bit. But I do feel it’s important that, if you choose to do something, you completely commit your aim.
Do you feel pressure to constantly create something new, something that’s never been seen or heard before? How do you approach that challenge? What do you do to help push yourself into uncharted territory?
Sometimes I get caught up in this idea of only creating things that are totally novel, but I think mentality that can often be hindering. It’s important that when you’re making music, art, film, whatever, that you’re creating with the intent of forging your own path. That’s really all it takes. So long as you have these unadulterated intentions of writing something that is utterly of your own intuition rather than from somewhere else. But it is vital as a whole that we focus on pushing ourselves as an entire culture to break through into new ground. It doesn’t take going into the music studio like it’s a science laboratory necessarily. It just takes a change of thought in each individual.
Opera was an early love for you and there are clear influences in your music. Do you see yourself ever trying to return to that medium? What role does it play in your life now?
Opera is still very hard for me to embrace with open arms. I don’t know, I just can’t handle the inflexible tradition of form. If I were to ever approach opera it would be in an experimental manner.
You’ve done a number of home recordings. What tools do you use to record and write music? Are there any tools that you feel push you creatively or enable you to stretch your creative muscle?
I’ve used just about everything to write music. I used to use pots and pans and a cheap keyboard and now it’s evolved to a small home studio. The best tool though is privacy—a space where you are free to experiment and do crazy things in order to access new ideas.
Does the home recording process help you produce more novel music?
I think so, because it allows the space and time to work whenever it suits me best, and to experiment and try things I couldn’t do in a clocked studio.
Zola Jesus performing at The Creators Project: San Francisco 2012. All photos by Bryan Derballa.