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Zola Jesus

By Peter Cronin

Hearing Voices With Zola Jesus

Nika Roza Danilova is and always has been, first and foremost, a singer. Where most fledgling musicians latch on to an instrument to channel their muse, Danilova found her voice through her voice.

“Everything I do comes from the vocals first and then I find instruments to play it,” she says. “That’s where the song always comes from, through the voice.”

Considering her upbringing, it’s not surprising that Danilova – who writes, records and performs under the cryptic moniker Zola Jesus – is so vocal-centric. Growing up in the wilds of rural Merrill, Wisconsin, she had already started and discarded violin and piano when she began studying opera at the tender age of 8. After 10 years of formal training in that unyielding discipline, she made an abrupt creative about-face and began her transformation into Zola Jesus.

“It started in my bedroom with a keyboard and a 4-track,” Danilova says. “It was very primitive and rudimentary, but since then I’ve learned to make my music on the computer. I produce it and program it myself, so I can have complete control over how the song sounds in the end.”

With the exception of Danilova’s soaring, pleading vocals, the music of Zola Jesus – gothic, emotional, electronic and totally seductive – is about as far away from the operatic as you can get. According to the artist herself, this is absolutely by design.

“Singing in competitions and doing recitals and things like that, it got to a point where I was so stressed out and so self-critical that I would lose my voice before performing,” Danilova says. “Starting Zola Jesus was my way of healing my relationship with music.”

With things all patched up, Zola Jesus has been more than prolific, releasing a slew of critically lauded singles, one full-length album and several EPs, one of which, Stridulum, landed at the top of uber-hip music blog Stereogum’s Top 10 List for 2010. Fueled by considerable fan demand and a strong critical buzz, she’s also toured extensively on both the domestic and internatioanal fronts. Zola Jesus will hit the road again in March, kicking things off with a show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. Although she tends to steer clear of the more seductive hazards of the touring life, Danilova relishes the idea of unleashing her dark, ethereal soundscapes and giving things a good shaking up.

“For me, it’s really important to talk about the idea of change, of being aware of things you usually turn a blind eye to,” she says. “I really want to reach out to people and communicate a message of change and progression, and there’s a bit of rebellion.”

As she prepares to hit the road, the singer is in woodshedding mode, working to complete her second full-length album project, a process she describes as both “unbelievable” and “challenging.”

“A lot of times I have the song inside of me and I have to fight to get it out,” she says. “I’m a very visual person, so I can see the song but I can’t hear it. But I think that if your music becomes a war for it to happen, in the end there’s a certain kind of aggression in the music. And I think that’s a lot more interesting.”

What’s On My iPod?
“Right now I’m loving Wim Mertens, a modern, Belgian composer who does a lot of stuff for film. It’s a lot like Philip Glass, and it’s just breathtaking. I’ve been listening to it non-stop.”

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