Zola Jesus: "I Have This Fantasy . . . of Being a Pop Star."
When she was young, Nika Danilova trained to sing opera but often lost her voice due to performance anxiety. When Danilova began performing as Zola Jesus in Madison, Wisconsin, her harrowing voice slowly grew confident among thickets of tape hiss and ambient synths. On her latest full-length, Conatus, Danilova's voice is granted the high-fidelity expanse it deserves.
While not wholly abandoning the kinetic industrial rhythms and gloomy atmospherics of her past, the album firmly plants Danilova in electronic pop terrain. Now residing in Los Angeles, the 22-year-old has garnered critical praise and widespread acclaim; eccentric film director David Lynch recently remixed one of her singles. Still, she says, pop stardom is hardly the goal.
Zola Jesus is scheduled to perform Wednesday, February 1, at Crescent Ballroom.
Up on the Sun: Even though your older recordings have a lo-fi production quality, you've never drowned your vocals in so much reverb and delay as to become incomprehensible. Has vocal concision been a goal of yours?
Nika Danilova: I learned music basically by singing. It's always been my main instrument and tool. For it to be completely drowned out would be like losing my voice literally and metaphorically.
You're one of the first artists on the Sacred Bones roster. The label has a consistent aesthetic with its record covers, and it's got an in-house music video director. How are the visual components of Zola Jesus worked out between yourself and the label?
I think we have completely different aesthetics. I love the Sacred Bones aesthetic. I love the fact that they pay so much attention to the details with packaging and every iota of their products and music. They're presented so beautifully. I feel the same way about Zola Jesus: It's packaged. People not only listen to your music when they see you live -- they see your music. You need to give them this entire universe. I can see it inside so it's easy for me. But the Sacred Bones aesthetic is so different from mine. I don't have to give in to anyone, we just coexist side-by-side.
Working with their director, what is that relationship in terms of determining the ideas for the videos?
Jacqueline [Castel] and I have been working together for a long time now. It's always really intuitive; she can always listen to the music and understand what the image is. If she doesn't, I tell her exactly what I want it to feel and look like. I always have a clear visual idea of what the song is communicating, and translating that to her is always pretty easy because I have the vocabulary for it and she has a sense for it.
You've appeared in all your music videos and you're usually wearing quite an elaborate wardrobe. How do you feel when you're in front of the camera?
Growing up, I loved photography and film. I never had any friends, so I'd be the subject of everything, putting the timer on the camera. Because the music is so personal and intimate, I feel I need to take responsibility for what the message is. I have to give myself up to that. Is it always the most comfortable thing? No. But it's just what you do.
Is that process ever fun or engrossing?
It's definitely a little intimidating. I never think of myself as a model at all. I don't feel like someone that can harbor these physical ideals. When I'm writing a song, I'm usually writing it from my own perspective, so to be the subject makes sense. It gets a little uncomfortable sometimes.