Zola Jesus

by Britt Julious

Nothing’s Sacred Here
Nothing truly ends for Zola Jesus, née Nika Roza Danilova. Her songs are written infinitely; they exist long after the singer-songwriter has finished an early recording. “[My music] can have so many different lives—and so many different versions—that it’s just about exploring which one is the right one.”

In the past, Danilova created her music with instruments and methods of recording that were available to her at the time. She “didn’t feel confident [in her] abilities as a songwriter, and as a musician, to have the spotlight on the arrangements.” Then, in 2012, Danilova performed with JG Thirlwell and a string quartet at New York’s Guggenheim. The experience changed her understanding of her relationship to her voice and transformed how she creates songs.

Her latest album, Versions, is evidence of the shift. Each song on the album is a reworking of an earlier tune, and demonstrates the artist’s willingness to succumb to the force of traditional instrumentation. The result is a lightness in the tracks. The songs are just songs, clear with intention, lacking any tricks of production.  “I’m almost allowing myself to exist formally.”

Her voice changed, too. Missing from the new album is her signature “shout,” the bombastic, epic force of her vocals that quickly garnered fans in and out of the music industry. In the past, she traveled with steroids and a nebulizer to alleviate the damage shouting wreaked on her vocal chords. Versions is a turning point both in how she treats her voice and also in how she wields it for her songs. “I feel that it is important to teach myself the dynamics of singing softly and how I can communicate that sense of urgency, without having to raise my voice.”

Her fourth album, now in development, is coming slow because, as she notes, “I have such a zoomed-in eye to the quality of the music.” The tracks are more sophisticated and the effect is intentional. “I feel like I want to write songs that will be songs forever, you know? I would love nothing more than to contribute a song or two to that arsenal [of pop music history]. But that takes finesse, and that takes prioritizing the integrity of the song.” She points to Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” “People will be listening to that song in 50 years and it will have the same impact. It’s got this timeless relevancy and that’s the kind of stuff that I want to be making.”

Danilova creates melodic tracks first and foremost, and the new album will feature a song she says is “very r&b, not Zola Jesus.” It is unlikely that the entirety of the album will follow suit, but much like on Versions, she continues to explore and progress in her sound, never relying on one element (her voice, her love of synths, her favorite genres of music, even home recordings) to solely inform her work. “I want this record to really reflect something bigger than myself. I’ve gotta give up the ego if I want to fulfill that destiny.”

Photographer: Joachim Johnson at JoachimJohnson.com. Stylist: Haley Loewenthal at HaleyLoewenthal.com. Hair & Makeup: Colby Smith for Eamgmt.com.