‘Taiga’ Burning Bright

With her latest album, MidPoint Music Festival performer Zola Jesus confidently expands on her unique voice

click to enlarge Taiga, the latest album by Zola Jesus, is more direct but retains her distinct otherworldliness.
Taiga, the latest album by Zola Jesus, is more direct but retains her distinct otherworldliness.

N

ika Roza Danilova (aka Zola Jesus) grew up in rural Wisconsin as a precocious child known for her interest in all things opera and the otherworldly. By the time she was a teenager, Danilova had immersed herself in the music of myriad Rock & Roll outsiders — from Ian Curtis and Michael Gira to Lydia Lunch and Diamanda Galás — which inspired her to start recording her own art-damaged material.

At 20, she released her debut as Zola Jesus, 2009’s The Spoils, the first in a string of lo-fi Electro Pop records that sounded like the work of someone determined to take the as-yet-nonexistent crown of Gothic Ice Goddess. Then came her fifth record, 2014’s Taiga, a collection of songs that, while still ethereal, is much more straightforward than previous efforts, coming off like Björk by way of Kate Bush.

CityBeat recently connected with Danilova by phone to discuss the influence of her Midwestern upbringing, her distrust of the real world and her need to clarify and evolve her musical ideas.

CityBeat: I was listening to a stream of your music through Spotify recently, and in the midst of several songs there was a brief clip of you explaining your songwriting process. It was a weird, suspension-of-disbelief-busting moment that couldn’t have happened even 10 years ago. It was just one example of how experiencing music has changed. How do you go about navigating this new reality?

Nika Roza Danilova: Yeah, it’s very different. I feel like now artists and musicians are compelled to explain themselves more, which is what I’m doing right now. (Laughs). Also, I really don’t understand what’s going on in terms of the musical climate, because I feel like it has taken so many sharp turns in the past five years, let alone 10 or 20. Even the past five years that I’ve been making music, the entire industry has changed so many times that I feel like that the only thing that is constant is the fact that you can continue to make music.

People will always listen to music, but the way in which they listen to it, I feel like that is out of the artist’s and musician’s control. I’m just starting to realize that you can’t really expect a particular format, you can’t have particular expectations about anything in terms of a career in music. And that’s fine, as long as I can continue to make music. I’m just trying to turn a blind eye to it all because it is very overwhelming.

CB: Speaking of making music, you’ve put out something new every year since you started. But you also talked about slowing down the process when it came time to write and record Taiga. Why did you want to do that?

NRD: How do I explain this? If your listeners expect that they’re going to get something new every year, I think that really sets it up for me to have to rush things, and then the weight of each project becomes lessened by the consistency in which you’re releasing it. I feel like it’s important to start slowing down so when something new does come out, first of all, it’s been given time to gestate and to metabolize within me and allow me to create something I’m truly proud of, but also I want the listener to spend three years with Taiga. I want the listener to spend three years with my other music before they get something new. It’s not like an issue of a magazine. I feel like music should be consumed differently, and so the only way I can control that is by slowing down my release schedule to make listeners really spend time with what they are given.

CB: How did growing up in the upper Midwest impact your approach to music?

NRD: If anything, I think it would be the sentiment. I feel like Midwesterners really wear their heart on their sleeves, at least that’s how I grew up, with a lot of humility. But also people are very upfront. It’s hard for me to approach any artistic idea with romanticism, which is kind of counterintuitive, but because I grew up in that sort of very direct, succinct Midwestern family that gets to the point, I do the same thing with my music and the same thing with my lyrics and ideas. So I do definitely see that reflected in what I create.

Also, just the space in the Midwest — there is so much space that you feel like you could scream and no one would hear you. To me that’s very liberating, just having that opportunity to scream all the time made my music that much more emotionally extreme as well.

CB: Taiga is much more direct, both in terms of the production and the actual songs, than your previous records. Why did you want to move in that direction?

NRD: It was a conscious decision to make a record with more clarity and to communicate my ideas in a way that I felt like wasn’t hindered by lack of production or lack of confidence and to really make sure that this record was very clear and legible. Maybe that threw people off, but I thought that the songs were the same. It’s just that they’re being performed and communicated with more confidence behind every word. I can see how people think it’s different, but I only see it as an improvement.


ZOLA JESUS plays the 2015 MidPoint Music Festival Saturday at Taft Theatre’s Ballroom. Tickets/more info: mpmf.com.


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