Need To Know: Zola Jesus
By Courtney Nichols
Zola Jesus is a walking anomaly: Her vocal range and music videos make her appear massive, but she's only 4'11', and while her sound shifts from Goth to chill wave, she insists she's pop. Hailing from Wisconsin, Zola Jesus (birth name Nika Danilova) adapted the pseudonym to ease stage fright and has since dominated indie music blogs with a ghostlike aesthetic matched with operatic vocals reminiscent of early Kate Bush. All this and she only just graduated from college last summer.
Zola Jesus's most recent EP, Valusia, released earlier this year and she already has another slated to arrive this fall. She wants to dominate the music scene, and if all goes according to plan, she most definitely will. While headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival, Zola Jesus sat down to chat with us about her relationship to visual art, her isolated upbringing and how it affected her work, and how an artist of her age maintains longevity.
Out: How does a Russian family end up in Wisconsin?
Zola Jesus: It wasn't directly through Wisconsin. My grandparents went through there. They started in North Dakota and worked their way to Wisconsin.
Have you ever shot anything on the range? Killed any animals?
I haven't killed any animals but I have shot guns before.
Has your upbringing in a semi-isolated community influenced the way you think about social media?
I love the Internet because even at a young age I used the Internet as a way to communicate with people around the world. You can live in an isolated community and still have a connection to society. It can be abused sometimes -- because people can never be alone -- so they rely on the Internet to keep them company. Using sites such as Facebook or MySpace to connect with people makes them feel like they are never alone. This is not healthy. You need to feel okay being alone.
Do you feel alone onstage?
It's more of a terrifying solitude. I am thankful that I have my band to help me take care of playing the songs. It's better than just being up there, with so many people around you. You feel this sense of responsibility put all on you. It is a fun responsibility.
Do you write alone?
Yes, I write alone. I usually write in an empty room, or empty house, by myself. When I write around other people I get overly critical because I feel like they are judging me. I can't collaborate with people very easily when I am writing for Zola Jesus. It is introspection.
The pseudonym of Zola Jesus that you adopted -- does it take away the anxiety you feel on and off stage?
In the beginning, it gave me an ability to hide from my work. If it didn't work then I could disown it. Also, it lightens the load and it allows me to try different things under that name. It is liberating.
In a lot of interviews you draw parallels between your work and the work of visual artists. Many musicians forget that they are in fact artists. Can you talk briefly about these connections?
Music is such a powerful art form. I think people forget that because it is such a consumerist form as well. A lot of music is made to buy and sell, but it is primarily a form of expression. When you are writing, it is important to consider that more than the consumerist part because then you are making something from a place that challenges popular art. It is very important for me to connect to other artists in different forms and mediums because they can influence my own writing process. When you are informed by musicians, it becomes too much of a direct influence, but when you are influenced by writers, or visual artists, or directors, then it becomes a form of artistic translation.
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