Goth, noise and dark pop are appropriate genre labels for Nika Roza Danilova's body of work, but Zola Jesus, Danilova's current project, has a way of dodging musical pigeonholes. It ventures into difficult-to-digest tonal territories, but buried amid the droning industrial atmospherics is something resembling catchy pop hooks. Danilova studied opera in her youth, which adds a heady beauty to the fractured sound. Conatus, released last fall, is Zola Jesus' most recent full-length. The Pitch recently spoke with Danilova in advance of Zola Jesus' show at the Granada.
The Pitch: You've participated in classical vocal competitions. Is it easier on you now that you're performing your own songs, and it's your project?
Danilova: It's definitely easier because I have the control, whereas when you're singing someone else's work, you're held to not only tradition, but you're held to what they intended for you to sing. And so you've got to have the right voice. You've got to have the right tonality. I mean, everything has got to be according to something else. And so it's extremely stressful and anxiety-inducing, and I would lose my voice during singing competitions, and nothing would come out because I was so terrified, you know, honoring Mozart. Still, like, I was just in rehearsal today, and I was singing and I was thinking in the back of my mind, "I hate my voice." I still can't really come to terms with that. But, I mean, it's just because I've spent so many years grinding it and tweaking it and tirelessly trying to make it something that it's not, but now that I hear it for what it is, I feel like it's still a little intimidating. But it's a process.
Do you think you'll ever create an opera that's not traditional or start another kind of musical project?
Oh, definitely. Maybe not opera. I'm still kind of struggling with my opera voice. But just more kinds of experimental vocal pieces are things that I've always kind of been working on. I definitely know, for a fact, that Zola Jesus will continue to change and bend in shape and evolve because I'm never satisfied. There are so many things that you can do and so many ways that you can express yourself. Maybe more long-form pieces will be a part of the future.
Do you want to learn different instruments to bring out different or more emotions in your pieces?
Yeah. I'm learning piano. I've played piano on all my records ever since the beginning, but I'm trying to get better. And there are so many different instruments that I want to play and learn. It's just a lifetime of curiosity and dedication to music, and wanting to know every aspect of music because it can be communicated in just an infinite number of ways. So just trying to wrap your head around that impossibility of knowing it all is kind of daunting. It's a lifetime dedication.
From the sound of your concerts, you've had some mighty fine musicians accompanying you. How did you find them?
Well, it's completely evolved, but I still have kind of held on to a lot of the musicians from the past. I have two that I picked up from living in Madison [Wisconsin] when I went to school there, and a violinist that I met in New York who I poached from the band that was supporting me at my last gigs. She was playing violin, and I was like, "I think she needs to come on tour with me!" I just kind of pick up people as I need them and wherever I need them. And I'm always looking for new string players. I've so many ideas for string players, so whenever I go anywhere and I see a cellist or something, I chase them down. Also, now we practice and rehearse, whereas we didn't really used to, and just reinterpreting the songs and just growing. It's just this kind of journey with these musicians.
Do lyrics come to you like melodies do? Or are those more difficult to create?
They are usually pretty easy, but they're not always, um, that good. Because I kind of feel like it's first-thought, best-thought with everything, including lyrics. And sometimes, what comes out of your mouth the first time around doesn't always make sense, or it's really plain. It's like plain-speak, so much that it sounds kind of conventional. So much that if you sing it every night on tour for a year and a half, you start to go insane. But lyrically, I write things that are very simple because I just feel like, why take the kernel of something and roll it in sugar and put some flowers on it, when you can just say it as you mean it, you know? And the more you say it, the more it's kind of like this affirmation in a way. I like that, as far as staying true to what I'm really trying to say.
When you're done with your tours and you actually go home home, do you still enjoy it? The normalcy? Or is it the upheaval of life that drives you?
Oh, I love being at home. I love being at home. I prefer it to anything else in the world. If I could do everything from my bedroom, I would, and I try. So, yeah, being at home for me, I really feel the most free and liberated and myself and together — and able to create.