My Chicago: Zola Jesus On Songwriting, Chocolate And Architecture (VIDEO)
When synth-goth musician Nika Roza Danilova, better known as Zola Jesus, broke out in 2009 with her debut album, "The Spoils," its darkly romantic contents reflected the environment within which it was crafted: "In the womb of a Wisconsin winter," the Midwest-raised artist explained on the sleeve.
In the two and a half years since the album's release, much has changed for the 22-year-old Danilova. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, moved to Los Angeles and released several EPs, an album and, finally, her greatest creation yet: Last year's "Conatus." The album focuses on her haunting voice, has an improved production quality and, as The A.V. Club explained, represented "another bold step toward fully realizing her cyborg-like, post-goth opera."
She has also honed her live performance chops and, in an appearance at the Pitchfork Music Festival last summer, she "belted out her dark jams with a Cyndi Lauper-meets-Siouxsie effervescence" that was mesmerizing -- even as one of the long, balmy July day's final performers.
Currently Chicago-bound on her latest tour, Danilova spoke with The Huffington Post, reflecting on her songwriting, obsessions and Midwest roots.
You're just about set to get back on the road in the U.S. after playing some shows abroad. What can people expect from you on this tour compared to previous shows?
I feel like I've already gone on a tour for this album, so I feel like I now have the freedom to do some different interpretations of the songs and bring on some different musicians. I'll have a violinist with me. It's going to be a lot more intimate and I feel like much more personal, which I'm really excited about.
Tell me about your songwriting process. Do you have to be in a particular place to start exploring the beginnings of a song? How does it typically work for you?
I really have to be in a place where I feel completely comfortable to be as loud or as daring or experimental as I want to. It's hard because usually I write by singing, because that's the first instrument I was trained on and I'm a very loud singer. So to be writing music in a hotel room or an apartment or van can be very difficult because you know at least three other people will be hearing you. I definitely need to have that privacy and comfort of knowing I can try things out and just explore.
You moved some time ago to Los Angeles after growing up in the Midwest -- specifically in Wisconsin. Is there anything you miss about living in the so-called flyover country?
I definitely miss the space, because I don't have the space I used to have. There was a feeling of more peace. Even if you're living in the densest part of Madison, you still feel this sense of peace and I have never felt that living in LA. There are different opportunities here that make it better, but in the Midwest you have a peace and quietude that's like nowhere else.
With your extensive Wisconsin history, I'd imagine you've spent a lot of time in Chicago. Do you have any particular favorite places you like to go while you're in town?
There are a couple of places. There's this place I always go with my manager from Chicago called the Handlebar a lot. I used to go to Intelligentsia all the time, but now there's one in LA so that's a little less special. But what I really want to do is hook up with Vosges chocolate. They're from Chicago. I'd really like to put my feelers out there. I don't know if there is a boutique or store there, but I would love to go there if there is.
There is! Several actually. Do you have any particular favorite flavors? I always thought the bacon one was interesting.
I like a bunch of them, but the bacon chocolate is a standout for sure.
David Lynch earlier this year released a divine remix of one of your songs -- "In Your Nature." What was your reaction to the news that that was happening? Are you a fan of his?
Yes, it was really great news. The remix came out so stunningly and it's such a gift to have that.
David actually recently helped inaugurate a new feature over on HuffPost Culture called "Obsessed," where various individuals come clean about their obsessions. He wrote about coffee. Do you have any particular obsessions you'd like to come out with?
Well, there's chocolate of course. There's also architecture. I'm actually pretty level-headed, but probably coffee as well! And too much chocolate.
What attracts you to architecture?
I just love the feeling of it. I mean, buildings have always been an incarnation of society and humanity and a reflection of all of that, even non-human things. In the 16th century, architecture was inspired by religion and God and Christianity, like an incarnation of God. I feel like architecture is an integral part of our lives. Everything we do is in buildings and environments and manufactured spaces. It is such a reflection of your own personality and character and your own individuality. I feel so much more at ease in a beautiful space that feels of me or when a space feels so much of someone else.
A building of Frank Lloyd Wright's, for example, has such a distinct idea of what his vision for structure was. I think it is such a stark communication of your individuality, just as music or anything is. Maybe it's also because I'm trying to find a house to one day move into and I have such a clear idea of what I like and don't like in buildings and structures. I'm very sensitive to that.
From the sound of it, I imagine you're pretty particular about how your home is arranged and kept up. How does that mesh with your touring schedule? Is there any particular part of your home you make particularly sure stays tidy?
Everything needs to be neat. I'm very anal retentive like that, but I'm also very messy, because I feel like if there's not time to clean it all, it all has to be messy. But I feel like your bedroom is really important, because it's really a reflection of you. It's where you go to sleep and take repose. If you're not comfortable, then you're not going to rest.
My bedroom right now is a total mess and nothing is where I want it to be, but the ideal is that you know. The minute you hit your head to the pillow, you're giving up control because you're letting your body shut down and you're vulnerable to your environment at that point. You need to make sure that environment is safe and comfortable.
Your most recent album "Conatus" is incredible and has been well received. Your songs have even shown up on "Grey's Anatomy." How does that sort of exposure, mixed with the constant touring, impact your songwriting process?
I guess in a sense, the touring aspect means you're dedicating a lot of time not so much to playing, but really just to traveling. I'm really trying to focus on my musicianship, working on other instruments and practicing my voice, but there's no privacy to do all that. It becomes very difficult to grow really and in these days, as soon as you take a break, people think that you disappeared or died. There's a sense of never being able to stop. There's an immediacy. People want to know that you're still going and it is overwhelming.
I think that's a major problem with the culture of music right now -- of there not being enough patience in the audience. People -- even me -- will be like, "What happened to that person? Did they stop making music or did they die?" No, they stopped for one month. I think all musicians are struggling with that -- trying to make time for themselves and to exercise their craft and refine it.
What lies ahead for you in 2012?
A lot of touring and hopefully going to new territories, new places to appease the people that have been asking for me. And what I really hope is that, by the end of the year, I'll be able to start working on the next record. That's my goal.
Do you have any sort of feeling or thoughts right now about what sort of sound or vibe your next release might have?
I mean, at this point anything can happen so I'm not going to commit to any sort of direction right now. But I just feel like some things I haven't tried before I want to try on this next record. It is going to be probably very overwhelming because there's such a dense amount of ideas and inspiration that I have right now.
Nika, I have one final question for you: This bizarre experience Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu wrote about on his blog for HuffPost -- when a Swiss sex shop owner sprayed you in the eyes with bug spray while you were on tour together in Europe. Did that really go down as he described?
Yes! That was probably one of the weirdest things to ever happen to me. It was definitely really extreme and terrifying and confusing.
WATCH Danilova perform "Shivers" at Amoeba Records in Los Angeles last month: