[MUSIC: Interview] Zola Jesus
By Alasdair Duncan
The music that Nika Danilova makes as Zola Jesus is compelling to say the least. A classically-trained vocalist, she took a detour into the world of synths and now makes sweeping, strange electronic records. Her most recent release, Conatus, was one of the finest of last year, combining an affinity for avant-garde music with an ongoing love of pop – and it’s certainly the most gripping mash-up of Stockhausen and Britney Spears that you could ever hope to hear.
Sydney will get to experience the strange and beautiful world of Zola Jesus for the first time this month when she arrives in town to perform at Vivid LIVE. Danilova admits she was a little intimidated when she heard about the venue for her show. “Well, they invited me, and I was so excited because it seemed like an amazing festival – and the Sydney Opera House is such an amazing institution, there was just no way I could refuse,” she says with a laugh.
Danilova reveals that the iconic setting will definitely influence what happens in the show – although at the time of our interview, she’s still not quite sure as to how. “I really don’t know how it’s all going to go yet,” she says. “I always put a lot of pressure on myself when it comes to the show. I want to do something extra special, but at the same time it’s incredibly expensive and difficult to travel to Australia. I had to really tear down my set quite a bit, so I’m going to try and push through that – but it’s going to be difficult.” A big characteristic of Danilova’s style is her individualism – she’s a bit of an loner, and with her music, she produces and plays all the instruments herself, as well as manning the vocals. This is fine in the studio, but when it comes to a live show it becomes necessary to open the songs up to other musicians. But she found this process easier than she expected. “I actually really enjoy playing with a band,” she says. “I’m such a control freak that when I’m making the songs, I feel complete autonomy over that work. When it comes to playing live though, I feel like I need other people to interpret it.”
This means giving up control, but Danilova finds that to be a weird sort of rush as well. “I know that on stage the songs are going to sound so much better if I put them in the hands of other musicians,” she says. “It’s always fun, because they bring their own style and their own personality – it’s just a whole new incarnation for the music.” Playing the songs with a band has also allowed Danilova to find all sorts of new dimensions and nuances in them. “I’ve had the new songs in the show for a couple of months now,” she says, “and they’ve matured so much since they were recorded that every time I actually hear the recordings, they sound so much different from what they are now.”
I ask Danilova if this new-found openness with her music might have any future implications – if, say, she might be more inclined to work with other musicians in the studio as well. “I think that I’d like to bring in other players in future,” she answers. “I have such a vision for having so many different instruments that I can’t play, that I’m going to need to bring other players in… As for the writing process though, I’m still very protective of that – and think I will be for a very long time.”
Our discussion turns back to Vivid LIVE, which, as well as Zola Jesus, has an incredibly amazing array of artists on the bill for this year. British pop belters Florence & The Machine will be there, as will Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, performing what she’s described as a ‘psycho opera’; bizarre RnB singer Janelle Monae will also be in town, as will the ethereal pop machine Imogen Heap. “It seems like it’s definitely a women’s club, and I’m really excited to be a part of it,” Danilova says. “There are going to be a lot of really cool, strong women playing the festival.”
I ask Danilova if there are any new artists inspiring her at the moment, but she says that she’s been listening mostly to older music lately – as in, a full century old. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Finnish classical music,” she tells me. “I realised there were a lot of great Finnish composers that I’d never really listened to before, so I decided that I wanted to try and get to know them.” I admit that I know absolutely nothing about Finnish classical music, and Danilova laughs: “Me either – that’s why it’s so interesting!
“It’s not really different from a lot of what I’ve heard before,” she continues. “It’s more that I just haven’t been exposed to it… It’s not really different, but it’s new – it’s a whole new world. I really like art from that early 20th century period as well,” she says. “I find it really interesting because it’s the beginning of industrialisation and the new world as we know it. It’s the birth of what we’ve become.”
With: Light Asylum, Forces
What: FBI Radio / Penny Drop party @ The Studio, Sydney Opera House
When: Thursday May 31
Posted: May 15th, 2012 under Brag 462 (May 14), Feature Music, Music, Music - Interview, Vivid LIVE 2012.
Tags: Alasdair Duncan, FBI Radio, Forces, Light Asylum, Nika Danilove, Sydney Opera House, Vivid Live, Zola Jesus