ola Jesus likes to have a lot of space.
Born Nika Danilova in Wisconsin, Jesus recounts a childhood spent running around her slice of the Midwest with ample amounts of freedom and independence. She credits this freewheeling upbringing with helping her find out who she was at a very young age.
“It’s reflected in everything that I do, from being the person that wakes up in the morning to the person that gets on stage every night. It just changes who you are, and I’m very proud of that. I’m very proud of being from that part of the world,” she says via phone from Los Angeles, where she is currently preparing for her upcoming tour in support of her third and latest album release, Conatus.
“The Midwest has informed me to be a lot more humble and a lot more independent, open to follow my own ideas of what’s important for me,” Jesus says.
That includes an early itch to be trained in opera around 8 or 9 years old, first through cassette-by-mail lessons and then classically. Jesus has a butter and sugar mixture of a voice, strong and flexible, and it’s her most powerful — and preferred — instrument. Through Sacred Bones Records out of New York, Jesus has released three EPs and three studio albums, the latest two, Stridulum and Conatus, placing her on the simmering “names to watch” plate of 2011.
Jesus composes and writes all of the songs on her albums, and this dedication to delivering a fully self-aware body of material is something of a theme for the 22-year-old.
“Conatus was about just trying to analyze what it means to be better, to progress,” she says. “You are one person one day, then the next day you could be someone completely different based on (those) experiences … That affects how you see the world.”
Compiling Conatus taught Jesus a lot about herself, she says.
“Everyday I wrote music (for Conatus), I learned a little bit more about myself and a little bit more about how to be a better musician, and by the end of writing the record I felt like a completely different person,” Jesus says. “And I think those things are interesting. Maybe you write a song and maybe it’s not the best song you wrote, but it did the most for you and it challenged you the most. So there’s a lot of those songs on the record where maybe they aren’t the best songs, but they were the best for me at that time.”
Arriving in Cincinnati Monday, Jesus will perform at the Contemporary Arts Center, a special, personal stop along the tour.
“Actually, I requested to play there, so I’m really excited! I emailed my booking agent, and I was like, ‘I really want to play at the Contemporary Arts Center’ because I love architecture and it’s the only building in America designed by my favorite architect (Zaha Hadid),” Jesus says. “I just have heard it’s great and I’m really excited. When I’m in a building that feels like (it) aligns with everything I feel inside, it just makes things so much more utopian in a way. I just think that architecture reflects the personality and character of the world.”
Inward and outward reflection is a key element to understanding Jesus, who chose her stage name at the age of 13 by juxtaposing the exoticism of French novelist Emile Zola’s last name with Jesus Christ, “which is like the least exotic thing, the most ubiquitous character in everyone’s lives.” She chose the name to create “this kind of whole new world for myself.”
This concept translates to her stage performance. Passionate about “spaces that feel very formidable and larger than life and progressive and, in a way, very much of the ‘now,’ ” Jesus elucidates on the quality of creating music that is as tangible and relatable as the spaces in which she performs.
“There are a lot of things that I’m intrigued by, that I’m curious about, and music for me is a way to internalize that and kind of digest it and to try to understand it more. It’s mostly just the spectrum of human emotions,” Jesus says.” I’m constantly looking at myself as a human being and trying to understand myself better, because I just think that there are so many curiosities about ourselves that we just kind of take for what it is, as fact, but really, (we should be) poking and prodding and asking ourselves why we are the way we are, or why we think the way we think, and why we find things scary or joyful or comfortable,” Jesus says, without taking a breath.
“I think my tendency to over-analyze even the most basic human emotion is, in a way, reflected in my music because I get so fixated on things like that.”
The uncovering of emotions and getting at the root of their existence is inherent throughout both Stridulum and Conatus. Jesus is nothing if consistent with her self-exploration. Lyrically straightforward, she sings in that otherworldly voice of that described introspection, a piercing examination of self that she says we shouldn’t shy away from, as listeners and fellow humans. This darker-tinted atmosphere Jesus creates has garnered her the ambiguous tag of “goth,” although that’s not necessarily the case here.
“I know the ‘Goth music’ is also a very big community of people, and I think it’s just kind of putting someone kind of in this corner — ‘Oh, they’re singing about dark things, oh this must be like this goth music’ — and then people think that they understand or get it. The whole point is anything that’s coming from that, that feels dark or whatever, it’s not a choice of style,” Jesus says emphatically.
“What I’m concerned with,” she continues, “and especially when it comes to things that are related to the ‘darkness’ or whatever, like sadness or depression, it’s just about exploring the emotions. There’s a spectrum, and if you ignore an entire expanse of feeling than you’re really closing yourself off from understanding things better. I just think that’s so unproductive as a person, to want to avoid uncomfortable things because you’re scared. So I’m just trying to attack those things from a very open, progressive standpoint, because if you’re not afraid of anything, you’re a force to be reckoned with, you can handle anything that comes your way.”
Jesus would know.©
ZOLA JESUS performs Monday at the Contemporary Arts Center.