One thing becomes clear if you read enough interviews with Nika Danilova, the woman behind Zola Jesus: She doesn’t have much patience with reviewers who try to define her or her music.
That could be a problem for any self-respecting musician who courts (or endures) attention in the oversaturated world of online music coverage. The 22-year-old Danilova is frustrated by efforts to pin her down when she’s just getting started. What grew especially irksome were those who lumped her in with a neo-goth movement, seemingly as much for her all-black wardrobe as for her music.
“It got a little misunderstood,” she says from her home in Los Angeles, where she moved after graduating from the University of Wisconsin. “Maybe some people took it the wrong way. But I’ve always worn black since I was young. It’s comfortable, and it’s a neutral color.”
Danilova recently traded in her black wardrobe for all-white clothing and bleached-blonde hair, but she resists the notion her recent sartorial choice is in any way a reaction to the goth tag.
“I just want to push myself in all senses—in my music, the way I think, feel, dress, everything,” she explains. “I like to change things. I chose white because I like monochromatic colors. But it’s not like a costume; it’s what I wear hanging around the house.”
As for her music, there are some elements of ’80s-era goth present, but that’s just one detail. Across the three EPs, three albums, and handful of singles and collaborations she’s released in the past three years, you can also hear her affinity for dream pop, dance music, dub, electronica, industrial, noise, ’60s girl groups, and other genres.
Danilova hails from rural Wisconsin, where she began making music as a teenager under the intentionally provocative (for rural Wisconsin) name Zola Jesus. Her 2009 debut EP Tsar Bomba and full-length New Amsterdam are resolutely lo-fi affairs, and reflect Danilova’s fondness for noise and industrial music. The Spoils LP, released later in 2009, was a slight step up, production-wise; the cavernous beats and electronic strings backing Danilova’s multi-tracked vocals gave the album a produced-by-Phil-Spector-in-a-dank-basement feel. Through all the murkiness, though, Danilova’s vocals immediately stood out, and it was no surprise to learn that she had some training as an opera singer. A voice as robust and controlled as hers doesn’t often show up in homemade underground recordings.
For two EPs released in 2010, Stridulum and Valusia, she stripped away the murky haze, letting her vocals sound out clearly. Previously obfuscated lyrics revealed themselves to match the dramatic (to some sensibilities, melodramatic) tone of the music, and a darkly romantic mood pervaded. For last year’s Conatus, she made another stylistic change, for the first time employing a producer and other musicians, resulting in her most poppy, polished sound yet. The album also finds her flirting more than ever with dance music, but don’t look for a full-fledged dance album anytime soon.
“I like making songs with energy, but I don’t identify with the dance world—although I love Mariah Carey,” Danilova says. “I might work with a dance producer for mixing, but I don’t want to cheapen my music and I feel like the dance world does that a lot of the time.”
Speaking of dance music, more than a few writers have compared Zola Jesus to Lady Gaga, casting her as a kind of evil indie twin to the mega-pop star. If you squint you can kind of see it: They are both young, pseudonymous solo artists trafficking in retro-ish electronic music, and both favor dramatic performance and a stylized presentation. It’s a fun idea for to toy with, but ultimately any comparisons end up being fairly superficial. So do the comparisons between Danilova and Kate Bush, Siouxsie Sioux, Björk, and Diamanda Galas.
Danilova herself chuckles at the supposed Gaga parallels. “It’s probably because I have bleached-blonde hair,” she says. Besides, she insists, “This isn’t a persona—it’s just me. Calling it Zola Jesus was just a way to be humble, to have a band name, like Black Flag is a band name. My record is all of me. It’s not just one facet of who I am.”
Though she’s not yet playing Gaga-sized arenas, Zola Jesus’ popularity continues to grow, and with appearances in fashion magazines, a song remixed by David Lynch, and tours with the xx and Fever Ray, she’s only getting bigger. It’s frankly a bit of a surprise she’s playing a venue the size of Pilot Light at this point, and it’s probably a sure bet she won’t be doing so again. She’s conscious of this, and is already comfortable on a larger stage, but still seems to relish what will be her final tour with stops in small venues.
“With this tour I wanted to hit some of the places I didn’t get to last time out,” she says. “It can be hard, because I have a lot of ideas for a larger stage, lots of visual ideas, but a smaller venue is a lot of fun, too. It’s more like a punk show.”