The Weekly interview: Indie singer-songwriter Zola Jesus

Zola Jesus performs at the Bunkhouse on Saturday, February 7.

Living in the stillness of Washington’s remote Vashon Island, singer-songwriter Nika Roza Danilova (known as Zola Jesus) says leaving LA was imperative to writing her latest album, Taiga. “I lost myself for a second in civilization,” she says. It’s those discordant realities—existing in a world overwhelmed by technology versus the completeness of living off the grid—that bring her new album to life. On what's arguably Zola Jesus’ poppiest record yet, Danilova juxtaposes atmospheric arrangements and swelling brass sections against electronic, four-on-the-floor beats, awakening lyrical cues about time and place while creating a dialogue on the complexities of modern living. Calling from Boston, Danilova spoke with the Weekly about her creative influences, the dangers of being too quick to judge and the incredible power we give to today's pop stars. Zola Jesus performs at the Bunkhouse on February 7.

You moved to Vashon Island [Washington] to write Taiga. What was that experience like? Moving to Vashon Island kind of eliminated all my anxiety. Any sort of self-doubt, insecurity or any sort of reservation I had about myself as an artist completely went away once I severed myself from society … taking myself out of culture, where I was living in LA at the time, and putting myself into a very rural area. We have encumbered ourselves with our technology and our infrastructure to make our lives more efficient, but at the same time they make our life so much more complex, and that was really weighing me down. Moving to Vashon Island was an opportunity to rediscover who I was. I lost myself for a second in civilization.

Your single “Dangerous Days” sounds very hopeful, but the lyrics hint at something different. What is that song about? “Dangerous Days” is actually about the danger in taking media at face value—taking the news at face value or what you read in the paper or what you read online, because there’s just so much opportunity for misinformation in this day and age. I wanted to make a kind of call-to-arms song, but in a way that felt uplifting and productive. Like, “Hey guys, make sure you read all the facts before you make a judgment.” Make sure you know both sides.

The music video for “Hunger” just came out, and it’s very different from your other videos. What was the vision for it? I really wanted to do something that felt stoic and very minimal, because so many of my videos have many different locations and costumes and are very big in scope. I liked the idea of doing something that was just performance-based, very straightforward. The song, “Hunger,” is about the feeling of wanting to experience everything that you can in life before your time runs out and the feeling of anxiety [that] just kind of fills up inside of you. It manifests itself, and [there’s] so much tension. So I wanted to communicate that tension through a specific dichotomy of being very stoic and just letting the feeling take over.

How did growing up in Wisconsin influence you as an artist? Being so removed from culture, it forces you to create your own influences and create your own path, and to discover curiosities completely uninspired by anything else around you. You don’t really have any judgments, like, “I shouldn’t like this because this isn’t cool.” There was none of that. There was just, “I like this, this is interesting, I’m gonna explore this idea.”

How does the concept of “living your art” influence your work? In life, when you make a decision to commit yourself to living an artistic or creative life, that becomes your reality. Music is my reality; the music videos are my reality; this tour is my reality. I mean, I devote every waking minute of my life to Zola Jesus, and it is me. The energy it takes to do this, to create art for a living or even just to create art in this world, it’s so all-consuming that there really is no other way that you can create art and still have another life, at least not for me. My life is my art, and my art is my life.

You were quoted saying it would be really nice if you could turn the radio on and have it be “nutritious.” Do you think you could be someone that makes pop radio more nutritious? I don’t know. Sometimes, yeah. When I was really young I loved pop radio. I loved Christina and Britney and Spice Girls, ’cause I was a child. I was the perfect demographic for those artists, so I grew up loving them and they’re still kind of a part of me. The impact that a pop star has on young children is so vast and incredible and massive. I feel like these pop stars have such power, and they’re just abusing it. I’m glad we have people like Sia and Lorde, even parts of Miley Cyrus. I think she’s empowering young girls more than, say, Rihanna.

Are you mostly referring to the sexualization of women in pop music? Yeah, and also they’re just not really saying anything. Katy Perry isn’t really saying anything with her music. She has this incredible mouthpiece to say something very powerful to these young kids, and she’s not saying anything. She’s saying something about, like, dancing in her birthday suit, you know? What does that even mean? I just think that, especially young girls, they need more role models. They need to know that it’s okay to be into weird stuff; it’s okay to think about different things and to have different opinions about how you treat your body. And if I can be that person then I would love to, but at the same time, I’m not cut from the pop-star cloth, really,.

Did you achieve what you wanted on Taiga? I think so. Even though I’ve always been doing this, I didn’t have the resources to fulfill my vision as an artist. I didn’t have the time to cultivate the perfect record, or to make sure the record was everything I wanted it to be. I had to make a lot of compromises, because of time and resources. And now I finally have both of those things, and I feel like I’m ready to give everything. It feels really good and I’m really proud of the record.

Do you have any advice for artists who feel like they don’t have the right resources? Keep pushing yourself, keep touring. Anything that feels like it would be a challenge, like, “Oh I know I should do that, but I can’t”—you should do that. It’s the challenge that’s going to get you to grow as a musician. My record wasn’t expensive to make, but I was very resourceful. I made friends with brass players. You find creative ways to make your vision fulfilled. But also, never question yourself. Never question if what you’re doing is right, just question if you’re doing everything you can for your vision.

ZOLA JESUS with Deradoorian. February 7, 9 p.m., $15-$20. Bunkhouse Saloon, 702-854-1414.

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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