On the occasion of her performance today at the FIB, we spoke with Zola Jesus about her operatic training, light and darkness, the role of women in mainstream music, her next steps, and her dislike of remixes.
De todas las almas neogóticas que han surgido en los últimos tres o cuatro años, Nika Roza Danilova ( Zola Jesus), nacida en Phoenix pero de ascendencia rusa, es la que más piropos se ha llevado por todos los lados. Las razones de su éxito son diversas. Para empezar, es una figura fascinante. La chica lleva una melena rubia oxigenada, mide metro y medio y se pasea por el escenario con una presencia asombrosa, imponente, de andares sonámbulos y poseídos. Luego está la cuestión de su voz. A los siete años empezó a estudiar ópera por su cuenta, lo que ahora le ha deparado unos resultados óptimos, pues el suyo es un chorro de voz de los que cautivan de primeras (aunque haya a quien le repela tanta potencia y épica). Ya por último sorprende que a sus 23 años le haya dado tiempo a editar dos álbumes y medio (ella cuenta “Stridulum II”, pero es más bien una versión extendida de un EP), un buen puñado de maxis y splits, colaboraciones y proyectos paralelos por doquier.
Her career took a giant leap in popularity after Anthony Gonzalez (M83) asked her to collaborate on one of the songs on his last album, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”. The clash of the Titans that is “Intro” allowed her to reach a greater public, and simultaneously provided an excellent introduction for her new album, “Conatus”, released last September. It’s a more accessible work than its predecessors, but it didn’t change the discourse that she began with in 2008 one bit. Today, in light of her performance at FIB 2012, we spoke with her to find out everything we need to know about one of the most fascinating figures in current music. Her operatic training, light and darkness, the role of women in mainstream culture, her next steps and her rejection of remixes are some of the subjects we touched upon.
"Everything has been baby steps to something bigger and better. Maybe I will neve r get there. But I will die trying!"
There seems to be a lot of catharsis taking place in this record. Were you exhausted once you finished it?
Pretty much, yes. It was a tough one.
You hired session musicians for the first time with “Conatus”. Seeing you as an ambitious artist, are you interested in learning to play new instruments?
Very much so. Especially in this day where it is so easy to get by making music with absolutely no knowledge of music. It’s very important to me to make sure that the musicianship of what I do is constantly challenged.
You said you first wanted “Conatus” to be instrumental. Are you proud of the results?
In a sense, yes. But I do feel like my vocals were kind of strained on this record. I was trying to access parts of my voice that I wasn’t yet confident in. I have this huge range but I’m so afraid to use it, I still have a lot of anxieties held over from my classical vocal past. I figure if I don’t use that part of my voice, I don’t need to confront it. But now I am starting to miss it.
Do you see yourself producing a completely instrumental record in the future?
Yes. It might not be called Zola Jesus, but I do think I will do it in the future. It would be like cooking a meal with no hands—it would force me to think about music in such a different way, since I’m so dependent on my voice to communicate my musical ideas.
You’ve said you have dozens of new songs recorded after the “Conatus” sessions. Will we hear them anytime soon? What musical direction are you going to go in?
Some may be absorbed into the new record; others will be burned and never heard again! As far as the musical direction of the new record, I can’t say yet where it will go as I’m not in any sort of committed environment yet. But I’m very excited.
Does having released three great albums and plenty of other recordings in such a short time and being only 23 put extra pressure on you when you find yourself in the studio again?
Not at all. In fact I feel like I have yet to make my great record. Everything has been baby steps to something bigger and better. Maybe I will never get there. But I will die trying!
"I grew up on punk and classical, so electronic came a little bit later, in high school"
Dark and light elements tend to play together in your music. What do dark and light mean to you?
I am drawn to extremes. I can never exist in the middle. I don’t understand life in the middle. Dark and light are technically the same thing, just polar mirrors. I bounce back and forth like a little tennis ball.
Are you tired of people comparing you with the likes of Siouxsie or Kate Bush or is this something you feel proud of?
No, I am sick of it. I feel like half of my endless ambition is to be able for someone to say I sound like “Zola Jesus”. I don’t want to be someone else’s shadow. Who would want that?
How did you start listening to electronic music and what bands catch your attention?
I grew up on punk and classical, so electronic came a little bit later, in high school. It started with Autechre and Aphex Twin, then I got heavy into electronic classical, which has been a huge passion of mine ever since.
Having studied opera as a child, do you see yourself doing it? Have you ever pursued this path?
Not right now. Opera is too theatrical for me at this point in my life.
How do you take care of your voice, seeing as it is such a crucial element of your music?
I am not so good at taking care of my voice. On tour I drink a lot of honey water and suck down black liquorice drops and slippery elm. I should start doing vocalises. I haven’t done a vocalise since I studied opera.
Did you accept David Lynch remixing “In Your Nature” solely because of who he is, or do you like the music he’s been doing lately?
I am a huge fan of both his films and his music. Both mediums encapsulate his artistic and philosophical ideals, which is the root of what I respect about his work.
"I am not a very good candidate for a hypersexual pop icon. I don’t think about being a woman very much. I wish gender wasn’t such a variable in music"
Are you protective of your songs or is this because you don’t believe in the idea of remixes?
Both. I think remixes tend to be cheap. Cheap thrills, cheap press. Sometimes if they are done well, I love them. But that’s why I’m protective. If it re-imagines my ideas in a way I could have never expected, then I am proud to have them. But if it just adds a techno beat or a dubstep breakdown so it’s more suitable for a club, I think that is a gross thing to do to your music.
You have collaborated with big-name artists in recent months, such as M83 and Orbital. How did you work in these collaborations? Were you in charge of the whole vocal part?
It is truly a collaboration. When I’m working with other artists I feel more like a conduit than a torch-bearer in the song’s development. I’d rather be a tool for them. So I come up with as much as they let me, but if they have any direction I will take it. It’s ending up on their record so I want them to be proud of it and confident that it will fit with their own idea.
How did you come up with the cover of “Crimson and Clover” with EMA? Was that something that you sort of improvised, or did you plan it?
That was not planned. I can’t believe it ended up on YouTube. EMA took requests for a cover as an encore and then asked for someone to come up on stage to sing it and my friends pushed me up there as a joke. It was a funny way to meet Erika for the first time!
"I do however think it’s a problem when the only women being represented in mainstream music are histrionic, over-sexualized, and hysterical"
There has been sort of a return to the sexual objectification of women in mainstream music like there was in the 80s, rather than the strong roles shown in the 90s. As a woman, how do you feel about this?
I am not a very good candidate for a hypersexual pop icon. I don’t think about being a woman very much. I wish gender wasn’t such a variable in music. It doesn’t make sense. My music isn’t about being a woman. It’s about being a human. I do however think it’s a problem when the only women being represented in mainstream music are histrionic, over-sexualized, and hysterical. It’s like either “you’re a sexy woman” or “you’re a crazy woman”. It’s easy for record labels to make money, though, when they represent their female artists as inherent patriarchal stereotypes. But whatever. I do what I do and they do what they do.
Is the Former Ghosts project over or do you plan to reactivate it in the future?
I am constantly pressuring Freddy to get his act together and release more music. It’s all up to him.
Did you know about the Benicàssim Festival before? Have you played at this type of festival before (you know, where the beach is such an important element)?
I have heard many good things about it! I can’t wait!
You give very intense performances to the audience. Do you have a pre-concert routine?
I just need to have some peace before I go onstage, either alone or just with band and crew. I can’t be around strangers.
I’ve seen you basically play material from “Stridulum II” and “Conatus”. Why don’t you play older stuff?
It feels archaic to me. Like a different time in my life. I’ve thought about playing some older songs. But it’s hard, those songs on The Spoils were written and recorded all at once. It’s hard to go back and pick those songs apart and reverse-engineer them.