June 26th, 2014. Twenty-five year-old Nika Roza Danilova likes opera, architecture, and long runs on the beach. Maybe you’ve heard of her musical act, Zola Jesus, the now five-LP- three-EP-strong force with a cult following, of which she is, since 2009, the only constant. Often described with words as uninspired as “Goth” and "Industrial," her music, music videos, and high-production live shows are certainly aware of their New Wave, New Age and yes, Goth-Industrial predecessors, but clearly interested in going bigger than anything with an anti-pop agenda. With lush, sometimes whimsical sounds made with full string sections and brass bands, Zola best performs in a stadium setting, or—as in her tour last year, which promoted the JG Thirlwell-produced Versions—museums and galleries. With her latest album, Taiga (Mute Records, October 7th), Zola says she’s after expansion, specifically of the “diva” variety. But becoming a big-city party-girl pop-singer would be too obvious a move. The Wisconsin-born Seattle, Washington resident prefers to give herself a challenge. “It’s so easy for me to write pop songs, I have to fight even harder to deconstruct," Danilova tells me over coffee, the day the first single from Taiga, the surprisingly catchy "Dangerous Days," is released. "The world needs a lot of different things. This isn’t about a manufactured pop star, this is about a little girl from Wisconsin trying to be her own pop star."
I’ve so far read that Taiga is the most accessible body of work you’ve done.
ZJ: I don’t think it’s accessible—it might be accessible. I think it’s the most cohesive, in a way, and it’s probably easier to get into because the production is very clean. I took away all reverb, all noise, any marginally lo-fi element, because I really wanted the songs to stand on their own.
That last track, “It’s Not Over.” I know I’ll hear that remixed a lot of different ways. It’s almost a dance track.
ZJ: Yeah. [Writing pop music] comes so easy that I question it and I doubt it. But for this record, I felt like I wanted to embrace it. First off, you want to embrace the thing that you’re good at.
Have you written pop songs for other people?
ZJ: No... That would be fun.
The first single, “Dangerous Days” sounds very bright. Everyone describes your music as dark, and I wonder if you pay attention to any of that. Do the reviews affect you much?
ZJ: A human being is very dynamic. And I think that people assume that when you make music, it’s a reflection of who you are, a hundred percent. But people grow and they learn, and maybe my music was dark in the past because I was going through things that were a little bit more... vulnerable, but now I feel very empowered and I feel very ambitious. I don’t want to pander to a crowd that wants me to make dark music for the sake of making dark music.
What’s the feedback like, from fans?
ZJ: They’re very loyal, they’re very emotional. I make music because I want to change the world, y’know? Who doesn’t? I feel like they understand that. So yeah, they’re very rabid, very devoted fans, which I really respect.
Is Dean [Hurley, Taiga's co-producer] coming on tour with you?
ZJ: No, he’s not. He's working, with David Lynch. He’s David Lynch’s engineer.
Have you met David Lynch?
ZJ: I haven’t yet.
I’m sure you will. You could be the next girl singing in a bar in one of his movies .
ZJ: Yeah, the next Julee Cruise.
Would you want that?
ZJ: Of course! Who doesn’t want to be in a David Lynch film?
I heard that you recorded this album on an island off the coast of Washington. How did you find that?
ZJ: It was just a place we randomly found. I wanted to move to an island to write my record so I lived there for about nine months.
Does this album have any inspirations that are not musical?
ZJ: Yeah, definitely, Architecture is a huge one. Tadao Ando, and especially Frank Lloyd Wright. I like the idea of how they create manmade structures in land. It’s like this amazing collaboration of man and nature. It’s really hard to explain, but that’s what the record is about: how humans internalize their place in the natural world. So: How do you write a three-minute pop song about that?
Who are your musical influences right now?
ZJ: Mahler and Wagner, German composers that used a lot of brass. Kanye, for his wherewithal, and his creativity, and his risk-taking. I mean, I definitely set out to make a diva record. I wanted this to be all about vocals.
Do you get asked a lot of questions about being a feminist?
ZJ: Sometimes. My music isn’t about gender.
Do you ever think you have to be part of that conversation, though?
ZJ: If I feel like I need to fight for the ladies, then I will, because, you know, we are living in a patriarchy. That’s not a question. But do I feel like my music is concerned with my gender or my sex? No. Sexuality is barely even present in my music. I don’t really like singing about relationships. And if I do sing about relationships it’s abstract, and not like, falling in love, or falling out of love. Because I’m happily married. That’s not where I find my inspiration.
What do you sing about?
ZJ: Man versus nature. I sing about the things that I think everybody struggles with. Trying to understand why we’re here. And even if we don’t know why we’re here, how we can still get through it. I’m way more concerned with that on a daily basis.
What are you up to when you’re back in Seattle?
ZJ: Living. I run a lot. I’ve been running a really nice path along the waterfront. I run about six miles. I’m at a point where everything I’m doing is planning for what’s going to happen when the record comes out. I spend a lot of time figuring out the lighting, what I’m going to wear, music video ideas...
I always wonder how much the personal styles of performers influence the reviews.
ZJ: I’m gonna bring up Kanye again. If I made Yeezus, people would call it Goth. Well, I guess people called Yeezus Goth, but at the same time, it’s coming from a rapper’s perspective, so they called it Chicago Acid Pop or something too.
Do you ever want to push away from that label? "Goth"?
ZJ: I did for my last record. I wore all white. My whole life was white, everything. Hair, lifestyle… but at this point I’m just embracing the things that I like. I’m more into sci-fi than the Goth stuff. I think maybe there’s some crossover?
Rick Owens is way more sci-fi than Goth, but he gets called Goth.
ZJ: Yeah, he’s way more futuristic. Future-tribal.
Taiga will be available October 7th on Mute Records
image courtesy of the artist photography JEFF ELSTONE