Storming, Thundering, Lightning: The Elemental Properties Of Zola Jesus

"Everything around it feels pretty finite. But then again, who knows?"

Earlier in the year, Nika Roza Danilova was working on a new piece of music while a thunderstorm raged outside. The artist, who has just released her fifth album as Zola Jesus, has often been described in terms more befitting a mage or sorcerer: critics talk of her exorcising demons, casting spells, illuminating the nighttime that her songs invariably arrive cloaked in. On that night, it appears she channelled the elements in a more literal fashion.

“I don’t know, maybe you know more about physics and electricity than me,” she offers, incorrectly. “But I was in my house, and it was storming, thundering, lightning outside, and I was working on this piece. So I leaned over and I touched my desk, and all of a sudden my whole body got this jolt of electricity. It didn’t even just course through me, it was like my brain got shocked.” After the year she’s had, and the fulminating qualities of new record ‘Okovi’, it feels like a prescient moment.

To say that Danilova’s had a tough time would be an understatement. Within her personal sphere, she saw friends fighting through terminal cancer, depression and, in one case, two failed suicide attempts. Having struggled with depression herself, the artist upped sticks and began a series of homecomings, starting with a return to Sacred Bones Records and a move back to rural Wisconsin, where she’s already laid down more than just metaphorical foundations. “I built a house in Wisconsin, so that’s definitely a permanent decision. And going back to Sacred Bones feels like a permanent decision too. Being able to explore different shades and atmospheres on this album, which I feel like I did in the past, is a similar experience.”

That’s not to say that she couldn’t move again, whether by restless feet or the restless ground beneath them. “Everything around it feels pretty finite. But then again, who knows?”

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‘Okovi’ also represents a return to the Slavic roots of Danilova’s family tree, which has a lengthy history of life in Ukraine, though there are Slovenian, Russian, and German elements intertwined. The album’s title is a pan-Slavic word for ‘shackles’, while opening track ‘Doma’ translates as ‘home’ in Russian. Living closer to nature, she notices the cyclical nature of the world around her, and takes some small solace from it. “I love reminding myself that, when things feel like they’re ending, it just means that they’re beginning in a different way. And that’s comforting in the respect that nothing ever really dies. It just changes.”

For all the gothic qualities associated with Zola Jesus’ music – she recently tweeted about a recurrent desire to climb into open cellars, which seems at once an amusing image and irresistible symbolism – her songs often feels like a black canvas upon which light is introduced by increments. Throughout, the element of hope never dims below a flickering ember. “In any difficult moment, all you can do is find your way through it. And even though it feels like darkness, or it feels like a challenging time or experience to do that work to go through it, in the end it’s a positive, productive thing. You can either not accept what’s happening and live in denial, or you can do the work and come out stronger, wiser, maybe even happier than you were before.”

For Danilova, the artistic duality between light and dark shades is a false one: struggle is inherent in life’s overcoming, as twilight requires both the gloaming and the glow. “In that way I think any sort of difficulty in life is just a challenge, and I find challenges to be really exciting – because I know that there’s no progression without destruction. Some parts have to be destroyed to grow stronger, you know, just like building muscle: you overwork the muscle until it’s broken down, and then it rebuilds stronger. That’s what I like to do with my emotions too.”

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In any difficult moment, all you can do is find your way through it.

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In physical terms, the musician has been keen to rebuild her operatic voice, too. Having originally trained as an opera singer, Danilova has often looked back on it as a time when music was more of a chore, an academic pursuit to be mastered at an academic level. “It’s something I didn’t know if I would ever return to,” she admits, “because studying opera was kind of an embroiling process. I struggled with it, on a masochistic level, just because it felt like something technical that I would never get right. But as I’ve felt more comfortable as a musician, I’ve began studying opera again, I’ve been taking lessons once or twice a week.”

After singing an aria at Melbourne Music Week last year, it seems like she’s still got it. For a singer who holds herself to such high standards, it’s another victory. “I like it as a challenge. It doesn’t define me like it used to. Being a correct singer doesn’t define me as it did when I wanted to be an opera singer. It’s kind of like a hobby now, and I’ve enjoyed bringing it back into my music – on my own terms.” Her voice, like the world around her, has changed while remaining fundamentally the same. It’s a recurrent theme.

It’s also another step out in the carefully curated world of Zola Jesus, the artist who never commissions remixes because she doesn’t like the idea of handing her own finished creation over to someone else. Not that she doesn’t like dance music – in fact, it appears Danilova carries some rather unexpected career goals. “I always liked the idea of being that girl who sings the hook on techno songs, like Robin S or something,” she tells me, when I ask about working with Brian Black for the recent Black Asteroid album. “I like the idea of just being able to rip on a techno song. But he was super sweet, it was a pleasure working with him.”

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I’ve failed a lot. But I’m proud of that failure.

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By now, you get the impression that Zola Jesus could really do anything or be anything that she puts her mind to. Her debut album ‘The Spoils’ is eight years old, and the artist remains as dynamic and enthusiastic as ever. Listening to Danilova talk about her creative philosophy, it’s hard not to get swept away.

“Just do it,” she says, in her element now. “Everything in my life that has happened over the last eight years just happened because I did it. And there were so many times when I thought, ‘I wish I would have just done that, I wish I would have just said yes to that opportunity.’ It’s so easy to want to do something but feel like you don’t know where to get started, or feel overwhelmed by it.”

“But really the only thing getting in between you and the thing is doing the thing. You know? Tour, put yourself out there, be vulnerable. Otherwise, if you’re constantly trying to protect yourself from failure, you’re never going to get anywhere. And I’ve failed a lot. But I’m proud of that failure.”

If we learn anything from Zola Jesus, it should be to cherish those failures as we wear the hail and rain that life throws at us, soaking wet but mercilessly alive, still doing the thing we were meant to do all along. After all, you never know when lightning could strike.

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'Okovi' is out now.

Words: Matthew Neale

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