MUSIC: ZOLA JESUS INTERVIEW (SUPERSUPER! MAGAZINE VOL 1 #23)
Philosophy prophet Zola Jesus (born Nika Rosa Danilova) has gracefully captured the world’s attention of late with her siren sound and darkly ardent aesthetic. We tracked her down in Notting Hill for some transcendental musings…
SS: What inspired the stage name ‘Zola Jesus’? Are you the next musical messiah…?
ZJ: I came up with it when I was a teenager. I liked Emile Zola as a revolutionary, and I wanted to give a new meaning to the word ‘Jesus’, which has such a singular reference in our culture.
SS: So would you say that Zola Jesus is a creative persona, rather than just a name (like Ziggy Stardust is for Bowie)?
ZJ: Zola Jesus is a showplace for my art – a space to formally present things I’ve been working on. My music starts as Nika and ends as Zola Jesus.
SS: How important is experimentation to you, as an artist?
ZJ: Very important. For me, experimentation is simply using the mind to bend expectation. Even pop music can be experimental – it’s about introducing new ideas, but never all at once. In fact, it’s more effective to do it subtly, with clear purpose.
SS: What sort of pop music do you consider to be experimental then?
ZJ: Turn on the radio… you’ll be able to hear it. In between all of the manufactured, manicured pop there are songs that are trying to play with the conventions of what is accessible by the mainstream, while remaining within its parameters. Kid Cudi’s ‘Pursuit of Happiness’, Jeremiah’s ‘I’m A Star’, N.E.R.D and Kanye West are all using elements and structures that aren’t necessarily experimental, but feel far more fresh than what a lot of ‘real’ experimental musicians are doing.
SS: You’re originally from Wisconsin, right? What was it like to foster your sound in a country environment?
ZJ: Living in the country, you are raised to feel comfortable in isolation, and in isolation you really learn about who you are as a person. When I create music I pull from that, from who I am.
SS: And who is that?
ZJ: It’s in the music.
SS: And now you’re based in LA – has the move affected you in any way?
ZJ: Being around such an onslaught of pop culture, in the underbelly of America’s fascination with the superficial… it’s a bit of a shock. To live in Los Angeles is to wake up everyday and feel as if you’re in Disneyland – it’s hyperreal. But the parts that are real, the layers that lie under that false skin are really interesting, because it’s a reflection of a certain anxiety that is deep within all of us.
SS: Your lyrics seem to indicate a preoccupation with relationships and connections – but for me, there’s also a sense of sadness that reverberates in a lot of the verses. Would you say this is true?
ZJ: I find myself obsessed with human relationships because I don’t understand them, and that is what brings me a sense of sadness or anxiety.
SS: So what kind of things do you expect people to feel when they hear your songs?
ZJ: I want them to feel heavy, because that’s how I feel when I am writing them.
SS: Heavy in what sense?
ZJ: Feeling something that is bigger than their body.
SS: What’s more important to your music – establishing meaning, or cultivating atmosphere?
ZJ: Meaning, but there is meaning in the atmosphere.
SS: Would you say that, as an artist, you operate outside of America’s pop culture bubble?
ZJ: No, I love pop music, but I don’t understand the culture of it. I can’t wrap my head around the content of the songs… the music can be very good, but I just wish the musicians would use their voice to say something more important. We get it – you’re hot, you’re rich, you love sex… what else?
SS: Could you ever conceive of a time when Zola Jesus is as iconic and popular as say, Gaga or Rihanna?
ZJ: I think to be that big you have to compromise a lot of what you believe in, and I can’t do that.
SS: What’s your most interesting story from being on tour?
ZJ: Once, in Switzerland, we checked out an ‘Erotic Fashion’ store and found a fetish ‘zine dedicated to ‘baby diaper’ porn. It was pretty far out, with lots of pictures of men wearing diapers and bags over their heads being paddled. Suddenly, the shop owner came over, slapped my hand and told us to get out. We left… and then I felt something being sprayed in my hair – the shop owner had run out and sprayed me with poisonous insect killer. It was pretty much the most insane encounter with another human being I’ve ever experienced.
SS: You have a degree in philosophy – have your studies left any impact on your music?
ZJ: Yes, I’m very interested in humans – how they treat themselves, and others. Sometimes I don’t feel like a human, I feel very distant… there’s a lot of corruption in the human mind, and there’s a lot that we choose not to see, feel or understand. Philosophy is the moment you open yourself up to the world.
SS: What other acts are you really rating at the moment?
ZJ: I hate current music, especially indie-rock. I really admire America’s underground noise scene – Hive Mind, Taint, the Wolf Eyes crew etc.
SS: Why do you hate current music?
ZJ: I can’t tell half the bands apart. Some groups are fresh and interesting, but most are just adding to the noise.
SS: What lies in the future for Zola Jesus?
ZJ: Record, tour, record, tour, infinity…
Words: Charlotte McManus
Photography (top images): David Richardson