Home / Music / Music Feature / Zola Jesus’ Nika Roza Danilova Talks Opera, Apocalypse
Friday, March 5, 2010

Zola Jesus’ Nika Roza Danilova Talks Opera, Apocalypse

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With some resentment, Nika Roza Danilova grew up in the wooded outskirts of rural Merrill, Wis., where adopted the alter ego Zola Jesus “and forced people to call me that to further alienate myself.” By age 16, she began recording music under that nom de plume, bedroom gloom-pop built largely from vocal experimentation, since she didn’t have much in the way of instruments to record with.   

Danilova once lived in Milwaukee, albeit briefly. Before transferring to Madison’s flagship school to study French and philosophy, she attended UW-Milwaukee, where she began a business major.

“I was giving up my soul,” she says. “I think I was drawn to business because it’s really insensitive and unemotional, so it was the complete opposite of what I was studying with music.”

Like her flirtation with business, her music as Zola Jesus is also something of a rebellion against her music training. From age 10, Danilova studied opera. It was that training that gave her voice its muscle, but it’s the vocal imperfections that training was unable to cure that give it its color and bite.

“Those imperfections are something that I’ve always struggled with,” says Danilova, now 20. “I’d have to teach myself to get a brighter sound to take those away. It’s very scientific when you’re singing opera—that’s why I had to stop singing it for so long, since I had so much anxiety about getting my voice perfect. So when I started Zola Jesus, I championed those imperfections. Sometimes I get off tone or I strain or I do other things that would be frowned upon in the operatic world, and it’s my way of saying, ‘Fuck you, this is the way my voice sounds.’”

Next week Danilova releases her follow-up to Zola Jesus’ 2009 full-length debut The Spoils, Stridulum, an infinitely grander EP that rumbles in deference to The Cure’s Pornography and suggests Bjrk or a moodier Bat For Lashes in its towering production. With its full sound Stridulum sounds as if it were labored over in the studio, but it was actually self-recorded over two hurried weeks between college semesters in Danilova’s bedroom, rushed so it could be released in time for this year’s South by Southwest festival. “I would sit at my bed with my synths, make a beat and then layer and layer over it, then fall asleep right next to my synth and do it again the next morning,” she says.

Throughout Stridulum, Danilova’s voice stretches and breaks in devastating ways, suggesting behind her staid faade an anguished vulnerability that suits the EP’s macabre subject matter. Though Danilova rejects the goth label, she often sings of death and the apocalypse.

“I just really like that desperation that comes with the end of the world, and the aesthetics of everything being chaos, and everyone just running around in anarchy and crying and throwing up over each other,” she says.

In addition to Zola Jesus, Danilova keeps busy with Former Ghosts, a collaboration with This Song Is a Mess But So Am I’s Freddy Ruppert and Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart, and she has plans, however vague, of returning to opera one day.

“I’ve always talked about writing an opera of my own,” she says. “I actually wrote a plot a couple years ago, and it’s a really far-out sci-fi, Philip K. Dick-styled opera, with a lot of acid baths and some sort of witch trial. It might be a little too out there.”

Zola Jesus plays EP release shows behind
Stridulum on Saturday, March 6 at Madison’s Project Lodge and on Saturday, March 13 at Chicago’s Beat Kitchen.

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