I met Nika Roza Danilova outside a decidedly spooky looking house. The young female musician from Wisconsin, known musically as Zola Jesus, appeared from an anonymous, shadowy basement and we proceeded to walk into a gloriously sunny Finsbury Park. Similar juxtapositions can be found in and around Nika’s new album, Conatus. Exploding drones drench emotive melodies, stirring acoustic instruments accompany pounding programmed beats, and hushed, private anxieties are yelled out to an inestimable audience. Songs of social withdrawal are no longer withdrawn but brought to light, whilst their darkness stays stalwart.
Conatus means endeavour and the will to move forward. As musicians endeavour to create, music is constantly moving forward technologically. What can you say about the way you choose to include and exclude technology in your work?
For this record it was a lot of just that. Previously, I was making electronic music but no one really identified it as that, so I became interested in trying to figure out what electronic music was and why I hadn’t been making it when I’d been doing everything electronically. So I started adapting new programs and learning new software, wanting to create something both really forwardly electronic and also acoustic and organic.
Whilst music becomes evermore a virtual medium, how important is it for you to show your face as an artist?
It’s important that people have a face to what they’re hearing because it makes it more human and it’s easier to make a connection. And I think when you can make that sort of human connection with music you get a lot more out of it. It’s something I think about.
You’ve spoken before about art as something you can live. Would you ever consider presenting your music in a gallery context?
Yeah that’s something I’d be really excited by. The thing about a gallery is, when you have an exhibition, it’s all very cohesive and everything bounces off each other and so it’s a really interesting way to present sonic ideas… or a record.
With regard to musical influences, you’ve cited noise bands as inspiration but certain tracks on Conatus, notably Seekir, would fit within a dance genre. Do you have any particular influences from dance music?
I don’t know if I have any specific influences but as a style of music its something that interests me. When I perform live I can’t stand still but my music isn’t really the type to run around to. And so Seekir is my way of trying to translate that live energy I always have with a song I can finally have that sort of unity with. I never used to like dance music much because I always thought it was a form that didn’t really have anything to say, but then I realized I was being kind of ignorant because you have the power to do whatever you want with any style of music. So this is my attempt at making a dance song, one that I would make.
Your work seems somewhat high concept and idiosyncratic. Do you ever worry that the larger design of what you’re doing might overshadow the individual tracks?
I don’t think so. I’m a musician first. The music can be communicated through different forms but if my project ever became about something that’s not the music primarily, I think I would have to re-evaluate what I’m doing. Everything that I make outside of music has to relate, its just another way of explaining the songs.
One of the songs off your record is titled Hikikomori, a Japanese term for ‘acute social withdrawal’. By definition, someone suffering from the syndrome might not have developed a sense of one’s true self and then one’s public façade; something that’s necessary to cope with the paradoxes of adulthood. Do you consider adopting an alias as necessary to cope with the paradoxes of the music industry?
Not necessarily. I think sometimes my music allows me to be braver than I am and in a sense that helps me to cope with my own anxieties. The song Hikikomori is about the problem I have with interacting with people on a normal basis, which should be inherent to everyone, and struggling with having to be out in public when its something I would really rather not have to do. But with Zola Jesus I’m so forced to be out in public that I have to come to terms with it. The music allows me to become stronger.
Under the spotlight, her darkness stays stalwart.
Conatus is out now on Souterrain Transmissions
via Off Modern