Zola Jesus Talks Taiga, Being Married, & Video Games

Photographed by Ben Ritter.
Nika Danilova, a.k.a. Zola Jesus, is an intensely intellectual, reserved singer who happens to possess the pipes of a vocal powerhouse. She's like a modern Siouxsie Sioux — if Siouxsie played video games and had a taste for science fiction. Her latest album, Taiga, is easily her most polished and poppy yet. But, that doesn't mean it isn't ethereal and spooky, a perfect listen for brisk fall nights or burning autumn mornings.
Watching an artist grow can be trying: Listeners don't want the same album, again and again. But, on the other hand, they don't want to feel alienated from the artist they’ve grown to love. This is why Taiga, the fifth album from Zola Jesus, is so exciting. It has the familiar drama-tinged exploration into the dark that we've come to expect, yet comes from a Danilova that's definitely grown up.
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Photographed by Ben Ritter.
So, you're back to being brunette, which is exciting, and also totally different for you!
"Yeah, my hair was very upset. I just needed to bring it back and let it chill out."

That's crazy. Your blonde hair was so much a part of your identity on your last album. Do you feel like your darker hair may be reflecting darker album themes?
"I guess I feel more like me now because I'm brunette naturally."

You recorded the album in a remote locale. Can you tell me about it?
"I wrote and recorded it on Vashon Island, WA. I mixed it and finished producing it in Los Angeles because of my producer, Dean Hurley — who actually worked with David Lynch. I spent three years on it, and it feels like the first time I've ever had time to really think about what I put out in the world. There's a lot of brass on the record."
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Photographed by Ben Ritter.
How do you think your fans are going to react to something so big as brass? “I think some of my fans were kind of surprised by 'Dangerous Days' because it's so... Well, I don't want to say 'poppy,' because I think all my music is pop, but it's kind of an upbeat, up-tempo song. But, once they hear the record, they'll totally understand."

On your last album, Conatus, you had a lot of insects and insect themes because your husband is an entomologist. Does that theme come up on this album, too?
"Yeah, definitely. There is a lot of conversation about man versus nature. I'm interested in how man synthesizes the natural world while simultaneously being alienated from it. I guess, writing it on an island, a very wooded island on the Puget Sound, brought me to that conclusion."

Did you feel secluded?
"Oh, yes, definitely. Yeah, I could only get off the island by a ferry. It was my husband and I. Just two people. We just rented a place. It was amazing, I love it so much."
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Photographed by Ben Ritter.
What is it like being a married, touring musician?
"It's hard. He's going to start coming on tour with me because you need to concede a little bit. I feel like it's very hard for him to be married to someone who's constantly gone. And, I love him very much, and so I'm gonna bring him along! Not going to compromise my goals or my career or life."

He had three years of you...
"Yeah! Totally! And, he's incredibly supportive and just thrilled and proud. And, he's just so wonderful."

Does Taiga have the operatics and the theatrics that have become your trademark? Do you think that your fan base will find it familiar?
"Yeah, definitely. I started studying with my old opera instructor again. I thought that my voice wasn't able to do the things it used to do. I started kind of abusing it on the road, and I needed to touch base with her again and really rediscover my voice. So, this record is all about the voice — no reverb, no echo, no effects, nothing getting in the way. It's definitely a vocal album in that respect."
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Photographed by Ben Ritter.
You once said the hardest song for you to sing was "Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake." There's so much emotion there. Do you have a song on the new album that you're anticipating being difficult to perform live?
"Yeah, there's one called 'Ego,' which I wrote a cappella. It's a very straightforward song, lyrically.”

How did your total isolation affect this album? What did you do differently?
"Well, definitely my surroundings and my environment, they were the biggest inspiration. I totally removed myself from the civilized world. It allowed me to think about things in a more universal way. I wasn't so caught up in pop culture. That was really neat. I was reading some Norwegian authors, like Knut Hamsun. I read a book of his. I got really into this guy named Kōbō Abe, a Japanese sci-fi writer."

What is the one thing you want people to understand about Taiga?
"I think some of my older fans think that since I wanted to make a really clean album, I cleaned everything that's special off my music. But, I feel like this is one of the most special records I've ever made because without having that straight-jacket — the straight-jacket of effects — I was able to communicate something that felt familiar but refreshing.”

Taiga is out October 7. You should buy it. It is really incredible.
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