By Safiya Hopfe
VANCOUVER — Zola Jesus’ seemingly effortless sound, an anomalous tapestry of noise and soaring melodies, has always been as inexplicably engaging as her enigmatic stage name. But Nika Roza Danilova’s journey as a songwriter has been anything but linear, and the sugar-coated edge of her newest album is the product of a pursuit that began in her heavily-forested childhood years.
As much as the ominous tone that illuminates the intensity of them, her music videos are more often than not representative of barren nature as a setting. Though leaves awash in darkness may just happen to suit the gothic aesthetic she has created for herself, her work and her roots go hand-in-hand. Whether having a hunter for a father and a familiarity with extreme winters directly inspired her music’s charming severity, “growing up in essentially the middle of nowhere” has distinguished a foundation for everything she’s done. Danilova elaborates: “It forces you to entertain yourself, and it forces you to spend a lot of time alone. Doing that, maybe it fuels a different type of music. But because I didn’t have many friends, I’ve always been into bands, but wasn’t into joining or starting bands… I didn’t know anyone else who liked the kind of music I did. So I made a lot of music by myself- it became a very insular, intimate project. I don’t know if that kind of informs the music in some way, but it’s definitely a big part of how, and why I make music.”
She may have been in the middle of nowhere, but the external influences of pop radio and her father’s Dead Kennedys records helped make her certain of what she wanted out of life – as a musician, that is – before she reached age 10. “You know when you’re a child and you have these grand ideas of what you want for your life? This is what I wanted; it’s always been my life. I started studying classical singing when I was probably eight and did it through high school… and I became so disillusioned with the tradition of classical singing and opera, and just the stringent rules that are put upon you for your voice.” It isn’t outlandish to reason that the vibes of her initial grunge-oriented compositions, such as the howling of voice and guitar alike in tunes like “Soeur Sewer” and “Odessa,” were a revolt against her experience with regimented opera. “By the time I was 17 or 18 I decided not to pursue music because it kinda got spoiled in a way… But I still loved music, and got into punk and experimental music and industrial and noise, and it really helped me find the joy in music again in a different way. Then I decided to start singing again, but in a different way, that didn’t have any rules or regulations…”
The haunting Taiga, her poppiest project to date, sports a refined sound that is pretty new for her. “I wanted to experiment with making a really well-produced song, and not have to rely on those distorted sonics to communicate an idea… You always want to feel a little uncomfortable, and what I needed to do for this new record in order to make myself uncomfortable was to make something that was clean.”
Her growth into a less dramatic skin may come across as underwhelming from a distance. Up close, however, Taiga’s polished layers are orchestrated to be more danceable and accessible than ever, in addition to exemplifying the usual force and perfectly fluid structure that has always made Zola Jesus a voice worth listening for. In stepping out of her comfort zone she has proven that she can make anything work, leaving listeners with only one question: what next?
Zola Jesus performs at Venue on January 10.BC, British Columbia, Venue, Zola Jesus