Zola Jesus on her new album, channeling Xtina, and how David Lynch helped save her
Through six albums, Nika Roza Danilova, a.k.a. Zola Jesus, has stuck to a sonic palette of darkwave, industrial, and pop with conviction, curiosity, and more than a little theater (she ended one 2011 performance by jumping off the stage, swept up in the folds of her cloak like a bat). Her singing voice is a magisterial thing — epic and portentous, even a little scary. It's as if she has seen beyond the veneer of life and is back to tell the tale. Her most shiver-inducing songs — like 2010's "Night" or "Soak," from 2017's Okovi — vividly dramatize unrest, as if Danilova were singing directly into a gale-force wind.
Away from music, she's just as committed to speaking uncomfortable truths. A 2020 Patreon post titled "MUSIC V DANIEL EK" challenged the Spotify CEO's comments that artists should constantly engage with fans. "He's saying that musicians need to look at themselves less as artists and more as content creators," Danilova wrote. "We have no muse to serve but the marketplace."
"I think constantly having your work reflected back at you through social media is really weird, because then you can't really ever sit with what you're doing," Danilova tells EW in a phone call from her home in Wisconsin. "You're always responding to criticism or feedback. And that really is quite damaging for a lot of young musicians."
On her latest record, Arkhon, Danilova forges deeper relationships with fellow musicians like co-producer Randall Dunn, who's collaborated with metal gods like Pallbearer and Wolves in the Throne Room, and drummer Matt Chamberlain, who's worked with David Bowie, Fiona Apple, and Lorde. Their creative alchemy makes for some of her most memorable music to date. "Dead & Gone," a searching piano ballad that recalls her Grey's Anatomy–famous 2011 song "Skin," features a beautifully understated vocal performance in which she asks, over wavering strings, "Did we lose it all?/Will you still be the one?" On recent single "The Fall," she says f--- it and does pop, albeit in her Z.J. kind of way; you can imagine it coming from the speakers at a goth rave in 1982, its synths pulsing like green strobes.
A week after Arkhon's release, and just before she performs at Summerfest in Milwaukee, the singer chatted openly about the mystic inspirations behind her new music, her touring plans, and how David Lynch helped set her on a new spiritual path.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your album title Arkhon references how power can be corrupt. Has it taken on more meaning in recent weeks than you had foreseen?
ZOLA JESUS: Well, originally I named the record Arkhon after the Gnostic term, which is a mystical sect of Christianity. The Gnostics had this idea that the material world was created as a mistake, and there were these malevolent forces corrupting humanity. I felt like this record was made in very Gnostic times. There's a lot of corrupted leaders, corrupted civilization. We're definitely being led by a flawed God, in a way. That experience of being alive through this time could not really be extricated from the album, because it is just so wholly a part of it.
Do you think the way political or social context comes into your music has changed over the years?
Yeah. I didn't even consider myself a political person, and my music never felt like it was participating in political conversations. But as the world started to change, as the music industry really started to change, I became disillusioned with society — and the musician's role in society with all these very extractive and exploitative systems that are impossible to navigate in good faith. I can't just pretend like nothing's happening. I have a voice and leverage, and I want to use that to build a world I believe in. I think that's important because we're living in very unstable times. To pretend that's not happening is irresponsible in its own way.
You filmed Arkhon's "Lost" video in the 60-million-year-old caves of Cappadocia, Turkey. How did you discover them?
I'm really interested in archeological sites and early history, so I discovered Cappadocia just through my own nerdy studies. The Gnostics actually hid there to avoid facing persecution from other Christians for their beliefs. So I feel like Cappadocia reflects how much purpose and sense of place spirituality brings people, and how, without that, we are completely adrift in the world.
You might think an underground cave city would be creepy, but you make it sound quite reassuring.
[Laughs] Yeah. I mean, caves have given us citadels and refuges for the entire history of our species. Caves gave us shelter in the beginning of time, you know? And so there's something about hiding in the earth, like becoming a part of the earth… it's such a pregnant metaphor.
You recently moved back to Wisconsin, and you've become connected to the Zen Buddhist community there. How did that come about?
Back in 2012, I was living in Los Angeles and I was sponsored to learn transcendental meditation from the David Lynch foundation. That was a really incredible experience. It taught me how to meditate, how important it is to meditate. So I'd been practicing transcendental meditation for, like, 10 years. And then I finally decided I wanted to try Zen because I've always loved Zen, but I wanted to really learn and grow. And I think Westerners need Zen more than ever, myself included. It basically teaches you the opposite to what society teaches you, so it's a good antidote to the ailments of our contemporary world. There's so much focus on presence, on mindfulness, and on awareness of doing things very deliberately, taking time, and reveling in the experience of life. And it was a very healing experience for me. I'm so glad there was a community here in Wisconsin. It's kind of crazy, but I lucked out.
Do you wish you'd discovered it earlier in life, given that you grew up nearby?
In some ways, yes. But I mean, if I would've discovered it earlier, I might've just become a monk instead. [Laughs] I could see myself throwing myself into the monastic life. It's something that tempts me from time to time.
Did you get to meet David Lynch himself as part of your work with his foundation?
He was the one that actually offered the invitation to study it. He's really, really kind. I had contacted him and told him I was a little overwhelmed with being able to be creative while having so much pressure put on me. And this is back in 2012 — I was 22 years old. So then he extended that invitation to learn it. But yeah, I've met him.
Do you feel like you've grown more intentional in what you say yes or no to?
Yes. There's a point at which I thought I had to "play the game" in order to have a long-lasting career. And then I realized that in order to have a long-lasting career, I just have to keep going and have a fan base supportive enough to come with me on that journey. Once I realized I had that and that I didn't need to be super popular, then it allowed me to go, "Okay, what do I wanna give to the world?"
In the video for "The Fall" you collaborate with Sigrid Lauren of the performance duo FlucT. I love how they use movement as a language. What drew you to them?
Well, I also am a huge fan of FlucT. I love how they use their bodies and operate in this multidisciplinary space that I think is really special. Working with her was incredible. I wrote "The Fall" as an experiment of just writing a fun pop song, and not really worrying if it makes sense in the context of Zola Jesus. I was really into the idea of doing a '90s pop video with, like, dancers, like Christina Aguilera or NSYNC — my own version of a Hype Williams video.
It's totally that. But then it's also totally Suspiria.
Exactly. I really like the idea of taking these very mainstream elements and then making them my own. It's a fun seed to build off of. I'd never learned choreography before, so I didn't understand how to be instructed to move my body. I was very confused, but it was so cool. It made me want to dance more, for sure.
For one of your livestreamed shows, you gave Patreon followers the chance to vote on which songs they wanted to hear you perform. Did any of the choices surprise you?
Sometimes the deep cuts. I'll get a lot of people interested in hearing "Poor Animal" or "Skin." That's actually something I was planning on doing for these upcoming tours — to crowdsource a set list. I'm always really curious to know what songs people want to hear live.
You're playing festivals this summer as well as touring with the Cult. When you're on the road, how do you take care of your voice?
It's hard. I usually lose my voice on tour. It's happened so many times. And it's the worst because all I have, really, is my voice. Like, no one else can do it! So I don't really drink. I can't party. I have to have really good sleep. I have to take care of my body. I'm about to leave next week for a tour with the Cult, and I'm really focusing on making sure I have good health and good stamina, 'cause I haven't toured in so long.
You've said that when you get to 666 followers on Patreon, you'll cover a satanic song. Do you have anything in mind? I'm not so familiar with the satanic songbook.
Oh, me neither. But I think there are some songs that have illicit feelings of satanic imagery or darkness. I figured it'd be a good, reasonable goal to hit. It's up to Patreon to decide!
Your music often gets called a "cathartic" listening experience, because you sing with such passion and power. Does it also feel cathartic to make and perform?
It's very cathartic. Music for me is a way to let my soul speak. It's a way to channel deep parts of myself. In doing that and externalizing it, it's an attempt to connect with the outside world. Like, I'm quite an introvert. So my work is a way for me to understand myself and the world better, and to communicate with it. So it's very vulnerable. It's not something I take lightly, I guess.
How does it feel after you finish a show?
If it was good, I feel tired but like I did my job. I had that exorcism, and I went through it. And I feel like I deserve at least a piece of cake.
Zola Jesus performs July 9 at Summerfest in Milwaukee. Arkhon is out now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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