Zola Jesus talks "Taiga," self-realization, and why humility is a sham.

Zola Jesus
Zola Jesus

“I’ve always written pop music. I’ve never not made pop music. I think people’s idea of my music just changed when I took away all the noise.” 

So says Nika Danilova, AKA Zola Jesus, about her latest album, Taiga, released in October of last year. Taiga is Danilova’s first output with record label Mute, and marks her first collaboration with new co-producer Dean Hurley, who has also worked with David Lynch, among others.

For an artist who originally broke ground by creating cavernous, atmospheric, categorically “weird” sound, Taiga is a comparatively streamlined effort. Rhythms are consistent and more pronounced overall, and tracks like “Dangerous Days” are borderline hooky.

Danilova’s booming, arresting voice remains a constant, ode and testament to her ten years of operatic training. As a whole, though, the album vacillates between the minimal and the momentous, alternating orchestral “big sound” tracks with ones that are pared-down and, frequently, a capella.

“I wanted it to feel dynamic,” says Danilova. “All the songs were born in different ways, so they all demanded different things.” 

“I think my music is usually pretty big sounding,” she adds. “I tried to scale it back for some songs, but for other songs I wanted to go all out.”

To categorize Taiga as classic or mainstream “pop” is probably a stretch. However, what is a reflected is a sound less obfuscated by smoke-and-mirrors devices of synthesizers, off-pattern drums and reverb (a la Conatus).

“I took away the noise because I wanted to confront myself. And confront the insecurity I had about that noise,” says Danilova. “I feel like that noise – or any sort of lo-fi element – was a crutch that I hid behind in order to feel like what I was doing wasn’t pop. I’m finally owning up to it. I’m embracing the thing that I’ve always done.” 

Danilova recorded Taiga in isolation, spending nine months on the island of Vashon in Washington state. “Being there allowed me a primal sense of being one with the world, with nature,” she says.

The resulting album is one of introspection, one that address an intrinsic, conflicted human nature, as well as the idea of synthesis with the natural world. 

Lyrically, the core of the album is desire, a sense of want. Verses like “Set me free / Pull the nail out with your teeth,” (“Nail”) and “I go downtown/ Where they don’t know my name,” (“Go Blank Sea”) evoke the anonymity and austerity of the album’s namesake.

“My whole life has been about striving, about wanting, about failing,” says Danilova. “I’m an Aries. It’s all about going to war. It’s all about battle. You don’t even know what you’re battling. You’re battling life. You’re battling yourself.”

There’s ambition, too. In “Hunger” Danilova sings “I’m not getting younger/ I use it, abusively,” underlining an essential idea of aspiration that saturates the record and ultimately informs its ethos. 

“It’s not an ambition to get something; it’s the ambition of wanting to fulfill the unknowable. It’s way more abstract than any sort of capitalist ambition. And way more existentialist, in a way. It’s not the ambition of being able to buy a yacht. It’s the ambition of being able to feel that when I die that I died living a full life.”

Danilova has characterized her previous record, Versions, as being about “overcoming.” Taiga – stripped down and vulnerable while remaining sonically sweeping and cinematic - evinces a confidence that comes with the realization of a vision. 

“Coming from the Midwest I was instilled with a very strong work ethic, and a very strong sense of humility. I’ve realized as I’ve grown older that that humility in itself is an egotistical thing. You’ve got to find something in the middle where you believe in yourself but not to the point where you ever feel entitled. It’s taking a little bit of both worlds and trying to find that balance.” 

Zola Jesus plays Republic New Orleans on Sunday, February 1st.