Russian-American musician Nika Roza Danilova performs as Zola Jesus. Soon to be 23 years old, Nika has already released three full-length albums (in addition to three EPs), played South by Southwest (more than once), toured internationally and collaborated with the legendary filmmaker David Lynch.
“It sounds kind of stupid, but I’ve never not wanted to be a musician. It’s been inside me since I was little so I don’t know what else I would do.”
Danilova began studying opera and receiving formal voice training at an early age. While she’s thankful for how opera singing has strengthened her voice, she does feel liberated enough to be writing and performing her own music. With opera, Nika believed ”everything had to be completely technically accurate … and the expression was lost. … I just felt this disconnect.” Zola Jesus is about more than just the mechanics of music – it’s about expression, atmosphere and bringing art to life.
Zola Jesus’ latest album, “Conatus,” was released by Sacred Bones Records on Oct. 4, 2011. While many words have been tossed around to try to define the sound – gothic, industrial, electronic, experimental – Danilova laughs off the genre-pigeon-holing. “I would just describe it as music. Anything else just seems too … fatalistic.”
Drawing from Nika’s interest in philosophy, literature and the influential potential of religion – the name Zola Jesus is a combination of “Zola” from French writer Emile Zola and “Jesus” from, well, Jesus Christ.
Nika Roza Danilova grew up in rural Wisconsin but now resides in Los Angeles. After living amid acres of forest and months of bitter winter cold, Danilova senses a lack of space and peace in the heart of Hollywood. “Conatus” was written entirely in L.A., and Nika does believe that the relocation has had an impact on her music. “The tone has kind of changed. It feels a lot more claustrophobic, maybe because I felt so claustrophobic. And my music is always such a release of what I feel inside, an impulse. I definitely feel like it’s rubbed off on it.”
Claustrophobic or not – the hypnotic tracks on “Conatus” are powerfully atmospheric and cathartic. The vigorous talent of this young artist has attracted attention the attention of French musician Anthony Gonzalez (M83), as well as American filmmaker David Lynch.
Zola Jesus is featured on “Intro,” the opening track of M83‘s newest album, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.” Danilova explained of their collaboration, “Anthony contacted me around the same time I contacted him. It was weird because we both kind of had this mutual admiration, and we wanted to work together at the same exact time. He asked me to sing on one of his songs, and I was happy to.” If you’re lucky enough to catch an M83 show while Zola Jesus is also in town – you just might get to see this awesome pairing perform “Intro” live. (For more on M83, check out AudioFile’s interview with Anthony Gonzalez.)
Listen to “Intro” by M83 (featuring Zola Jesus):
Similarly, cinematic mastermind David Lynch reached out to Zola Jesus as a fan. Lynch, known for surreal and mystifying films such as “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive,” also records his own music. He expressed interest in remixing one of Zola Jesus’ songs – something that Nika rarely allows. Danilova recalled, “I got a phone call from my label, and they said we need stems (tracks for your songs) for a remix. I said, ‘No Way,’ I’ve never authorized a remix before. And then they said, ‘Oh, well it’s for David Lynch. … And then I was like ‘OK, OK, I will.’” Lynch selected “In Your Nature” to remix, and as Nika puts it, the result is “just gorgeous.”
Listen to David Lynch’s remix of “In Your Nature” here:
Fresh off performing at South by Southwest, in Austin, Texas, Zola Jesus is currently on tour in Europe, with more dates set for Australia in June. When asked about her “five-year plan,” Nika Roza Danilova said she hopes to “have recorded at least one more record, if not two. And to have checked off a couple of more things on the list of what I want to do and what I want to create, because there are a lot of things yet that I have to get to.”