Zola Jesus On Her Pop Dreams: “When You’re So Full of Passion, It Can Really Intimidate People”

“I used to think humility was everything,” Nika Roza Danilova pleads atop a cryptic electronic beat on “Ego,” the high point of her fifth album, Taiga. Meeting the 25-year-old singer-songwriter, who’s better known as Zola Jesus, you’d never think she struggles with keeping her hubris in check. Her self-aware vision has surgical precision, and it extends to the way she discusses her art; no rambling allowed. But that doesn’t mean she’s not affable and relatable, which may surprise some who’ve taken to heart the “goth” label that’s often been tacked on to describe Danilova’s experimental pop.

Taiga, out this week on Mute Records, marks a change for Danilova, one in which she finds herself sacrificing some of the industrial sounds that have tempered her operatic vocals, pulsating synthesizers, and hints of emotive piano and strings. Still, unexpected instrumental choices punctuate the expansive electro-pop: abrasive brass, knotty bursts of trip-hop, and hints of drill-style hip-hop in way of beat selection. “’Taiga’ is a very prevalent word for the Boreal forest in Russia, where my family’s from, but not so much here in America,” she says. “It just represented the thing I felt like I was touching on with the album: that uninhabited frontier.”

Flavorwire: You made the bulk of the album on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound. Why there?

Zola Jesus: I kind of just randomly picked a place that seemed really beautiful. I wanted to move to Washington state — every time I went by there on tour, I loved it, and this island specifically spoke to me. The majesty and the epicness of the surroundings — it was so easy to pull from because I felt like everything about it was just so endless.

I found a really nice house that was extremely cheap, and it just all fell into place. I was there for about nine months and then I moved to Seattle proper.

Were you happy to get back to society a little bit when you moved to Seattle?

I wasn’t, actually! But everything’s very convenient, and I do appreciate that. I had to take a ferry to travel anywhere, so to take the ferry at 9 a.m., I’d have to get up at 4 a.m.

Taiga is your first album on Mute Records. Did the label switch from Sacred Bones have anything to do with your past collaborations with M83? 

I talked with Anthony [Gonzalez, of M83] a lot about Mute before I was even looking for a label. I’m a huge fan of Mute. Half my record collection is Mute albums. [Gonzalez’s] experience has been really positive, they were always really supportive of him, and their history is really admirable. I decided I didn’t want to be stagnant, just because I wanted to challenge myself. Sacred Bones, they’re my family. It’s kind of like going off and exploring the world — backpacking through Europe or something. And Mute seemed like a choice for the kind of pop music I’m trying to make — a natural one.

Something I think about often — because came to music in an underground way and eventually found myself as a poptimist — is pop music’s almost fool-proof ability to inspire confidence in its listeners. With your shift towards this genre, is that something you ever think about? 

Yes. I mean, there are definitely a lot of problems with pop music, and that’s not part of the conversation I want to have — it’s about kind of making a variation of pop music that I feel like is addressing those problems, but it’s coming at it from a different angle. But the thing that I like about pop is that it is truly ambitious — everything about pop stars is big, definitive. I like that idea, that they can make this statement, and everything’s been thought out. Not in like a gross, opportunistic way, but every detail. With pop shows, the visual element is hugely important, and the music videos have crazy budgets and are massive, and everything just has this sense of cohesion. I really like that. It’s exciting to watch a pop album come out. Because you see all of the bricks being laid.

Right, especially with someone like Beyoncé, who’s insanely meticulous…

She’s an alien. I mean, she’s a whole other conversation.

Do you have a desire to be on that level?

As every underground artist says, yes — but I want to do it on my own terms. People who come from the underground, they know what they would have to give up. And that’s something that is a luxury. I don’t want to give that up, and I’m sure my contemporaries don’t either. But do you want to be recognized? Everybody wants to be recognized for making something, but that’s not what it’s about.

Your Taiga campaign is striking because you have been so ambitious and not afraid to put your chart-topping aspirations out there. Does that ambition ever feel exhausting to you, like a gaping hole of want?

Yeah, it’s definitely something that I struggle with on a daily basis. What I’ve been trying to learn is what I call “to be Zen.” Just be in the moment, be appreciative and not thinking about the future. Don’t think about what’s going to happen in ten minutes, think about what’s happening now. I’ve never been that way. You’re always thinking about the impact of what you’re doing, and wanting to control that. Basically it’s a control thing, and yes, it’s absolutely exhausting but it’s the only way.

Do you find that you’re restless or anxious while you’re making a record?

Once I latch on to the world [of the album], everything changes. Environment! Furniture! Walls! Clothing! Food! Everything becomes that. It is an entire state of mind.

I’d love to write a song that’s like, “Oh that’s a fun song! That’s just a fun little tune!” And play it live and be like, “This is a fun time we’re all having. But I just… can’t.

There are probably too many people in the world who don’t take things seriously enough. To be a wildly passionate person can feel like a burden, but it is a gift.

My whole life, I feel like I’ve alienated everyone around me. When you’re so full of passion, it can really intimidate people, even overwhelm them.

Is your husband a low-key kind of person?

He’s really chill. And he’s very entertained, you know? He’s extremely supportive, and that’s why I married him. They gotta recognize that nothing’s changing.

I’m hesitant to ask female artists about their fashion, because I understand that it’s such a common thing to ask and it so easily comes off as patronizing to the actual work. But personal aesthetics have always seemed important to you as an artist, in terms of your vision for each record. What you’re wearing now [a burnt sienna-colored wrap dress and loads of sculptural jewelry, like chunky silver arm-bands] feels warrior-esque. 

It’s very important because it’s the flesh of the record, so trying to put that into context is a fun challenge. This record is — on a visual, clothing level — tribal, feral, yet very controlled, very artificial. Not necessarily genderless, but not playing up gender, in a way. It’s just one of those things that’s like a reflex, you know, you make the music and then it already says what it needs to look like.

That’s an interesting way to put it, almost like synesthesia.

Yeah. There’s a kernel, and you start to think, “How can I explore this in every avenue possible?” That’s why I love music videos because it gives you this very multi-sensual realm to explore that more. I’m really into scent, as well — like, what would Taiga smell like?

Well, what would it smell like?

[laughs] It’s firewood, birch-tree forests, salt air, woodstoves. I really like smell because it’s so nostalgic, and it’s linked to memory, just like sound is. The power of your senses to transform your environment and all of a sudden you’re somewhere else for a second.