Zola Jesus

Stepping into the Light

Text by Meg Woof

Photography by Ciarán Wood

Listen to "Vessel"

Outside a decidedly spooky-looking house, a young musician from Wisconsin, Nika Roza Danilova, also known as Zola Jesus, appears from a shadowy basement and we walk into a gloriously sunny Finsbury Park. This is the sort of juxtaposition that can be found on her new album, Conatus. Where exploding drones saturate the emotive melodies. Acoustic instruments accompany programmed beats. And private anxieties are expressed in her tender voice. These are songs of darkness, of social withdrawal - yet no longer withdrawn and brought to light - thriving between this dynamic of light and shade.

Conatus is Latin for endeavour, the will to move forward. Compared to her first record, Stridulum, the new album finds Danilova considering her lack of technology in the writing and recording process more carefully. "Previously, I was making electronic music but no one really identified it as that," Danilova explains. "So I became interested in trying to figure out what electronic music was and why I hadn't been making it when I'd been doing everything electronically. So I started adapting new programs and learning to use more software. I wanted to create something both clearly electronic as well acoustic and organic."

In the past, Danilova has cited noise bands as her main musical influences, groups like The Residents and Throbbing Gristle. Yet certain tracks on Conatus, notably "Seekir," are closer to dance music than the abrasive anti-society feedback-drone of Throbbing Gristle. "I don't know if I have any specific dance influences but it is more the style of music that interests me. When I perform live I can't stand still, but my music isn't really the type to run around to. So "Seekir" is my way of trying to translate that live energy I always have with a song. It is my attempt at making a dance song, one that I would make." To further highlight her idiosyncratic creative breadth, on "Hikikomori" she switches from the extroverted approach of dance music to explore the theme of Hikikomori, a Japanese term that roughly translates as "acute social withdrawal." In interviews, there is a sense that Danilova is cultivating the image of the romantic loner. Yet, paradoxically, her public profile suggests this is a façade. Danilova chooses to perform under a pseudonym, perhaps to establish a clear divide between the private Danilova and the public Zola Jesus.

"I think sometimes my music allows me to be braver than I am, and in a sense that helps me cope with my own anxieties. That song is about the problem I have interacting with people on a normal basis, which should be inherent to everyone. And struggling with having to be out in public when it's something I would really rather not have to do. But with Zola Jesus, I'm forced to be out in public. I have to come to terms with it and in a way, the music allows me to become stronger."

Whilst music increasingly becomes a technological and virtual medium, it is more important for artists to have a tangible presence as authors of their work. So, although introversion is the prominent theme in Conatus, Zola Jesus as a physical being is revealed along with her sound, always appearing on the album covers, albeit often obscured. "It's important that people have a face to what they're hearing. It makes it more human and therefore easier to make a connection. And I think when you can make that sort of connection with music you get a lot more out of it."

Danilova drags herself into the open but it doesn't feel like an unwilling sacrifice. She describes Conatus as being "extremely cathartic to make." And, despite dealing with her new found place in the spotlight, Conatusis a trip into Zola Jesus' intensely personal world. In this space we may be told things we don't like to hear. But the communication is such a powerful aural experience that her catharsis becomes our own.

Conatus is out now on Souterrain Transmissions.

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