Nika Roza Danilova talks catharsis, art choosing her, and the new album
For over a decade, Nika Roza Danilova has been recording music as Zola Jesus. During that time she has made six albums, all for Sacred Bones Records, except for her last, 2014’s Taiga. Her new LP, Okovi, finds the artist returning to her original label, and to the sound that first brought her praise.
Similarly, Danilova moved back to Wisconsin, where she was raised, before beginning work on the new record. She built a house near her dilapidated childhood tree fort and sank deep into the womb of the forest.
“Okovi is a Slavic word for shackles. We are all shackled to something — to life, to death, to bodies, to minds, to illness, to people, to birthright, to duty. Each of us born with a unique debt, a price for riding the thresholds of this sensuous existence,” explains Nika. And it is through music that the artist looks to settle her tab.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Danilova to discuss catharsis, the people who encourage her creations, and the moments that remind her to keep moving forward.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re talking because you are about to release your new album Okovi. Just to start how is the mood in camp?
Zola Jesus: I’m excited. I mean there is always anxiety, but there is also kind of a peace with this album that I have that is kind of unique, so I’m not really thinking about it so much in terms of the expectation of response. I’m just excited for it to be out.
CF: I felt like there was a certain amount of catharsis on the album. Did the creation of it allow you to unshackle yourself from the surrounding world, and if so, how?
ZJ: Yes in a sense, but at the same time I think a lot of the content, a lot of what I was working through on the record, was just being content with those shackles, and dealing with them and understanding them, but not necessarily wishing they were not there. It was more rather just letting it be okay.
CF: To go with those themes, death and choice, or the lack there of, both seem to be at the center of Okovi. You said, “Each of us is born with a unique debt.” As an artist, what is yours and how do you choose to repay it?
ZJ: The thing with that is I think I have chosen music because, well I didn’t choose music, but music chose me because I don’t want to propagate the species in a conventional sense. I don’t want to have children. I don’t want to be a mother, but in a sense I still feel this need or duty to give something, and to mean something, and I think quite typically the whole purpose is just to be a part of the circle of life and continue the evolution of our species like I said, but because I don’t do that, I feel like I need to work even harder at carving out my purpose and my meaning, and what I give back.
CF: Okovi means something like shackles. Is that desire to give back the reason you make art or the reason art choose you or is there some other thing that started the process to make music?
ZJ: I think it always started from a catharsis or a way to express, express myself, express things I was confused by or didn’t understand, and also to reach out to people. I feel like I’ve often used music as a way to connect or disconnect, so it’s something I never really consciously thought about.
CF: I understand that you recently moved back to Wisconsin, where you grew up. Does landscape have influence on your creative process?
ZJ: Definitely. It’s woods basically, and not only are the woods kind of like a womb, but at the same time it feels very much like home and I don’t ever feel truly free unless I’m home. There’s that comfort. There’s that feeling of sort of like foundational peace or something.
CF: I’ve talked to artists before who have found that freedom on the stage or the studio. Do you equally find a home when you are on a stage or in the studio, and how does it make you feel?
ZJ: I think performing and writing and anything that involves music in my life is the closest I’ll get to feeling… I mean this sounds a little hyperbolic or histrionic, but it’s the closest I feel to getting complete or fulfilled or realizing some sort of potential within myself. It’s the only time I feel like superhuman or fully human. Otherwise I kind of feel extremely anxious and inadequate [laughs].
CF: Do you feel it’s a choice to create art? I know you said it choose you, but if you are choosing to perform and create…
ZJ: Yeah. Everything is a choice to an extent. I could always get a different job, and I could always not choose to formally make music or release it, but I think that I’m addicted to it in a way. I’m addicted to that. It’s like I’m chasing something every time I make a song or every time I get on stage, and no other job can give me that feeling, or get me feeling closer to that feeling of being beyond human or free.
CF: The sounds on the record are large and lush, can you take us through some of the writing and recording process and tell us how you came upon this set of sounds?
ZJ: When I was writing the record it was pretty stripped down. I tried constantly not to produce even though I do produce as I’m writing. I tried not to think about the production so much because what I was writing about was so precious and delicate and fragile that I couldn’t be concerned with sonic aesthetics.
The songs happened as they did, then towards the end I started to think about how I wanted these songs to be. The language that I wanted to be told in. It needed to feel very real, very raw and organic and almost sparse in some ways, but at the same time very aggressive and harsh, but still feeling, like you said, that lushness, and it’s a journey too. I didn’t just want it to be one sound on the album. I wanted it sonically to feel like a journey, in that it feels like a true album where it ebbs and flows and each song is a different part of that, where “Siphon” is very hard and very aggressive sonically and very electronic, “Witness” is one percent acoustic, organic, all strings. I wanted that dichotomy to exist to create a fuller palette for the album.
CF: You’ve returned to Sacred Bones for this record. What prompted the move, and why is it important to work with a label that feels like family?
ZJ: I left the label initially just because I wanted to see what it was like to work with a different label, and I felt like Mute was the best choice, if I was going to leave a label that essentially was perfect, completely ideal, I thought Mute would be a good lateral alternative because I really respect their ideology. They were really a pleasure to work with, and I have absolutely no qualms, but there is something about feeling supported in what you are doing, and especially when what you are doing is so singular, I don’t want to say singular, but the intent of it is very singular. I know exactly what I want to do, and exactly how it’s going to sound, and I, honestly, it’s not like anyone would make me change my mind or change my music, but I just want to be fully supported. That’s one thing that working with family, family will always support you no matter what. How can you turn that down? How can you turn your back on that? For me the choice is pretty obvious. I just missed them. I missed working with them.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
ZJ: I don’t know if there is just one moment, but generally the moments when I’m performing and, it happens very rarely, but when the audience and I are able to transcend the current moment together. It’s sounds very whatever, high and mighty, but it’s not that at all. There’s this moment when I’m performing, and everything about touring is really physically and emotionally exhausting, but there is that moment when I’m on stage and I can look into people’s eyes and we are physically and emotionally connecting right there and it is so nurturing and so unique, and so important for my own health, and maybe for there’s, but it just feels like a really true grounding connection just between humans, and that’s why I continue to tour, and that’s why I continue to do what I do, because of those sharp few but rare moments.