Zola Jesus, née Nika Danilova, is one of the most intriguing and capable chanteuses to
recently emerge from the modern underground. From as unlikely a locale as Madison, Wisconsin,
Danilova made a startling splash last year with her debut Die Stasi 7″ single, turning heads
with her capable lungs and blurred keyboards. Her subsequent releases have shifted in all
sorts of directions, from power-electronics to Diamanda-quality dirges, proof that Ms. Jesus
has no plans of settling into a predictable rut anytime soon. Squeeze “Last Day” in-between
Drexciya and Lady Gaga at your next DJ night and it will make perfect sense. Her first official
full-length, The Spoils, is released on Sacred Bones this week, and I am eager to slap it on
my turntable and enter the latest incarnation of her world. While you wait for the post office
to deliver yours, here are her forthcoming and intelligent answers to my questions.

What’s your earliest memory of hearing music, and when did you first play it?
My most distinct childhood memory of music has to be hearing Oingo Boingo and Talking
Heads churning from my father’s playlist of music he’d listen to while working out. My
dad’s words of wisdom growing up were often “there is water in the bottom of the ocean…”
I first started playing music when I was about 7. I started with piano lessons, but it never
really took like voice lessons did. I started studying voice a year later, and from then on I
was absolutely sold on being an opera singer.

What drew you to opera? Was it a circumstance where you were just naturally
capable, or did the inspiration come from somewhere else?

I’m not sure. I think at that time I was so taken by the potential of the human voice, I
wanted to go as far into my studies as possible. The resources I turned to all suggested
that singing opera allowed you to get the closest with your voice. And I loved how it
sounded. You’d see these tiny little women, and they’d open their mouths and create the
most verbose, powerful sounds. Maybe it was just the next step in my Napoleon complex.

When did Zola Jesus officially begin?
Zola Jesus officially began when I was in high school. The name was conceived when I
was 15 or 16, and it was then that I began making music under that name.

How different is the earliest Zola Jesus material from what you are doing today?
Same instrumentation? Has any of it ever been released?

The earlier stuff is very minimal. The majority of the material is purely vocal-driven. I’d
use my voice as an instrument, doing all parts: drums, guitar, bass, etc. I had a guitar
and a piano, but there was something about being able to use your voice as the only, or
the bulk of the instrumentation that seemed really funny/interesting to me. The only song
that that has been released from my earliest recordings is “Little Girl” which is on New Amsterdam.

Do you record all of your music yourself? Has your recording process changed since
your earliest days?

Yes, the recording process has always been just me. It’s very personal, and usually filled
with a lot of self-criticism, so it’s hard to bring other people into that. The syntax of the
process has remained pretty much the same, as I’ve learned what works best for me when
sitting down to write a song. At the seat of the process is the vocal melody, though, which
is what I usually base the rest of the music off of.

I know a few different people who caught you at SXSW, and everyone noted the
same two things: how much they enjoyed your performance, and your size. Do you feel
like people who have never seen you might expect you to be someone different, just
based on the strength of your voice?

Hilarious! Yes, people often become a bit nonplussed when they see me play live and I’m like,
barely breaking five feet. I think these days most people are exposed to others’
misconceptions about their flesh. We’re living in such an era of digital simulacra that it’s an
easy error to make. But all that aside, I’m sure people have expectations of me being a bigger
woman like Odetta or something because I have a voice bigger than my body. Sorry everyone,
I’m a premie!

Are there any pre-conceptions of you or your music that you have had to deal
with, since putting out records and gaining some level of popularity?

I think sometimes people expect my sound to remain static through all my recordings, which
is difficult because I have so many different genre-interests with my music. I love to make
everything from pop songs to power electronics. Trying to find a balance between it all is the
hardest thing, and I think it demands a lot from the listener to really be patient and open
themselves up to the project as an organic, ever-changing form. Like the scramble suits from
PKD’s “A Scanner Darkly”. Constantly changing and composed of so many different parts, but
still representing a semblance of a greater, cohesive body.

Are there any specific styles, or sounds, that you’d like to incorporate into Zola
Jesus that haven’t found their way in yet?

There’s always things I want to try that I either haven’t experimented with or haven’t done so
enough. I like to use Zola Jesus as a science project for exploring my own interests.

Credit: Frankie Teardrop

The WNYU set on New Amsterdam features a full band and sounds significantly
different from the solo Zola Jesus material I’ve heard. Is the full band lineup something
that we can expect more of on recordings, or just a live thing? Was adding band
members a necessity for a live performance, or just something else you wanted to try?

I had the full band for a couple of reasons. After much attempts of finding what worked best
for me in the live-setting, I realized it is best when I let other people play the music so as to
allow me to just focus on singing. I really don’t consider myself an instrumentalist, and when
I play live I’m battling that with having to focus on my voice and doing certain things with
my body that yield distinct sounds. I’m also coming from a history of going to see garage punk
bands play and loving that full, live sound. I wanted that in my own music. I’ve always
wanted a band. Thankfully, with the help of my great friends, we put together a live band
that had the same energy as those garage punk bands, and also let me sing and contort
myself in ways I couldn’t if I was stuck behind a synth. However, I think as the project
evolves, I’m always finding different ways of doing things and recreating the music through
new mediums. But I don’t anticipate having that many people backing me up as of now, or
using them in the recording process.

What will the lineup be like for your upcoming shows this summer?
Chaos. Every show will feature a new and different incarnation of my live project. I’ll be playing
with a mess of different people, and even doing things myself. My friend who makes music as
Biotron will probably be helping me with my European tour next summer.

The Xxperiments compilation was interesting in that it was all female-based
Midwestern groups playing the sort of weird underground noise that has somewhat
been established as a boy’s club in recent times. Do you feel any sort of kinship with
the other Xxperiments artists?

I definitely bonded early on with the Cro Magnon girls. They’re in a different dimension, and
I’ve been way into that ever since the beginning. Putting those two together is heavy. Their
live shows are like a seance for channeling Valerie Solanas. Meghan is also doing some real
great stuff with US Girls that I’ve connected with.
As for the notion of a movement based on women making left-of-center music, I’ve got too
much to say about that. I’m proud to be in a scene so driven by challenging the archetypes
of femininity in music. But at the same time I feel like having a group of women being bound
together by gender is limiting and contradictory of the entire purpose. As a feminist, I identify
with postmodern feminism, which gives insight to the idea that gender is fluid and constantly
changing with cultural and social constructions. So to be grouped into a scene where the only
real constant is our sex is like assuming our sex and gender are static with one another. If I
identified myself as a male would I still be included in this scene? I don’t know. I go in and out
with identifying myself as an overtly feminine being. I can feel feminine on the outside but
when I make my music it’s often very aggressive and comes from a fairly masculine place in
me. I really respect artists like Deborah Jaffe of Master/Slave Relationship, who makes
extremely masculine, aggressive music, but does so from this pornographic, sexually and
burlesquely feminine perspective. But it is definitely not dainty. She challenges and crossbreeds
gender. I respect all of the women in the XXperiments scene for being outstanding musicians,
regardless of whether or not they’re females. And it should be known that I’m not denouncing
the movement at all, but without destruction there can be no progression. So long as we
preserve the movement as a means of allowing us free-range to explore our sex and gender
as disparate players in our art.

How often, if ever, do you encounter an audience with a far more limited and
backwards view on gender than your own? Like, if a guy were to describe Zola Jesus
as “hot”, would you want to punch him in the face, or take it as a compliment, or ignore
it, or what?

I mean, I’m not the kind of feminist that has these obsessively ram-headed principles. I’m
comfortable with myself as a woman on the outside. I choose to do things to augment my
feminine looks and one can only expect that that will yield certain comments from people.
Comments about my physical appearance don’t really affect me, so long as it’s not interfering
with how one responds to my music. But on that same note sometimes I like to play with the
two together, as a feminine body making masculine music. At that point, comments such as
that are only natural. Not really bothered or affected by it.

Who are the male vocalists that have inspired you? I hear a little Danzig in your
voice, especially on the WNYU recording.

I’d have to say, you know, Peter Murphy, Ian Curtis, a lot of the great minimal synth-wave
voices (Martin Dupont, Steven Grandell, Frank Tovey, Dirk Ivens). I like the flatness of those
vocals. So dark and cold and even without that expression there’s still so much they’re saying
with their voice. Danzig definitely, too. I grew up listening to a lot of Danzig around my brother.

What do you want someone to take away from your music, when they listen to it?
What’s the best way to enjoy a Zola Jesus record?

On a very surface level I just want people to enjoy it. I use pop songs as a way to hit the
largest group of people at once. I feel like if you can get them with a hook they’re already
open up to accepting whatever else you can embed in there. I hope that people hear what
they like and still keep patience in allowing themselves to explore along with me all the
different tributaries that seed off from that. There’s too much that hasn’t been done to
continue making the same music over and over.

Have you ever considered collaborating with other people?
Yes! I have many collaborations in the process right now. I love the idea of collaborating
and putting two distinct sounds together. I’m very excited about the projects I have underway.

Anything you care to reveal?
I think it’s all pretty well out there!