It’s been three years since ZOLA JESUS’ last album, now she’s back with her sixth studio album Taiga. NBHAP sat down with the pixie-sized singer to talk about her own personal development, science fiction and her rejection of transhumanism.
As a result of collaborative project with producer J.G Thirwell and Mivos string quartet, Nika Roza Danilova a.k.a ZOLA JESUS was given a taste of what its like to work with others. It something she enjoyed and learnt from – surprising even herself. She took this newfound ability to open up and embarked on a journey of personal growth and stopped avoiding what she was afraid of. As any great performer should, ZOLA JESUS has been continuously changing and experimenting in her art since she started. Her 2009 debut The Spoils brought her out of the confides of the opera world and into the world of pop, breakthrough Stridulum EP gave her the attention she deserved, and best-selling album to date Conatus is further testament to her strength as an artist and an individual. Her brand new album Taiga is her first release on Mute Records after a difficult but necessary decision to leave long-time label Sacred Bones. The album is inspired by and takes its name from the forests where she grew up in rural Wisconsin. The stark dynamism within the album is a reflection of the dichotomy between humankind and nature as well as the duality within herself. For years, she struggled with anxiety and in recent interviews she’s been open about the fact that she’s gradually come to terms with herself. Musically, it shows – Taiga’s prevailing theme is confidence and it’s her boldest, most ambitious work yet.
Good to meet you. Let’s get straight to the new album, I’ve heard you consider it more your debut than your other ones. Can you expand on that?
In a sense, yeah. I had unlimited time for this album so I took more time for this than any of my other records- combined even. I really allowed myself time to rediscover myself, push myself forward, evolve, all those things that I feel that I wasn’t doing before, because I didn’t have time in the past. I feel like it’s a new version, new chapter.
Talking of versions, you recorded the string quartet album entitled ‘Versions’. How did that change things for you? Is it true you created ten versions of each song before selecting the final one?
Yeah, so I basically wrote the songs and then for a lot of them I tried to figure out the different lives they could take, before setting on the final version.
And how did you go about that? Do you consider yourself a good decision maker?
Yeah, I mean they evolved. They started one way and then I’d tweak things that weren’t working, I’d flipped them around. Some songs started one way and ended totally different. I just kept pushing them to see how I could make them better and better.
Let’s talk about some of the individual tracks then. ‘Dust’ is probably my favourite; can you explain the process behind that?
Yeah! That was originally written a cappella; I didn’t want too many instruments because I really like the whole minimal, R&B, Sam Cooke thing. Yeah, I love that song. The end part, the big climatic end – because, the song is so simple and straightforward I wanted to have a big end to it. That was done by Dean, my co-producer. We had a competition to see who could make the better climax at the end (laughs) And he won, it was so epic and beautiful. I’m very proud of that.
Is that Dean Hurley?
Dean Hurley, yeah.
You recorded the album in L.A., didn’t you? That’s quite the departure from your Russian roots or from Wisconsin. How did that influence the album?
Well, I was living in L.A. for three years and then I moved to Washington to write the record. Because I wanted to work with Dean and he’s based there, I went back to L.A. but just temporarily, to finish the record. So the city wasn’t an influence at all. It was more Washington and Wisconsin.
‘Hunger’, you’ve said, is the defining track on the album; it’s about you wanting to achieve more in your life. D’you feel this album has been the one you’ve been the most ambitious with or put the most of yourself into?
I’m not sure about that but I feel that musically, it’s the most ambitious. I feel that I had a really strong vision for it and I knew what had to be done but it meant having to ask for help. ‘Hunger’ is about the constant search and quest to know more about the world, to always try to push yourself and to never feel like you’re getting there.>p>
Let’s expand on that point of seeking help. All your previous releases before Versions see you working more for yourself and in isolation… So in one way, creativity does come out in isolation but on the other hand, Versions, a musical triumph, is your most collaborative work yet. D’you think Versions showed you a different side of working with others?
Yeah, totally. Seeing what JG (Thirwell) could do to those songs and re-interpreting those songs could open so many new emotions, it just opened up a whole new world and that was very exciting.
So let’s talk about the live set-up for the upcoming tour. How did the Guggenheim show inform what you’ve got planned?
I have a whole new band; a trombonist and in the U.S, I’m going to have a big brass ensemble for the record release shows. I’m also working on the visual element, which I’m really excited about. I want to create a whole other environment.
I read that your wish since childhood is to be number one on the Billboards (laughs) That might’ve been misquoted?
(laughs) Haha, yeah. It’s hard because yes, that was my dream when I was really young but since I’ve grown up and discovered transgressive music, that has not been my goal because of the compromises you have to make. I mean, basically this record is more of an amalgamation of the things that make up who I am as an artist. There’s the part of me that’s the opera part, another part is the pop part and then there’s the experimental part. Those three things are all equally a part of my artistic background.
Can I ask what you think of the female vocalists that are topping the charts such as LANA DEL REY and LORDE?
Yeah, I guess… I mean those are very different to KATY PERRY and RIHANNA, of who I have a different option. LANA DEL REY is complicated; I’m just starting to appreciate her. I think she had to definitely… change herself. But at the same time I think she’s creating a whole… it’s almost like performance art. With LORDE, I think she’s one very rare case of someone who broke through saying something meaningful and you can tell its coming from a really good place. She’s a smart girl.
What d’you think about the importance and relevance of what LORDE is presenting in current social media?
Yeah, the cool thing about her is that she has a voice for a lot of people her age, who are growing up in a new world. She has a very precarious perspective on the world. It’s cool that she can represent this whole new wave of young kids that have to cope with… selfies and whatever (laughs)
The interesting thing about SIA is that she’s taking her own image and body out of the limelight. She’s written huge hits for Rihanna but at the same time blacked out her face on 1000 Forms of Fear…
Yes. I mean she’s been going on for a really long time and she’s always made really beautiful music. It’s just cool that someone can fight their way in that world that seems so impenetrable and not play by the rules. That’s important. When I made those comments about wanting to be No.1 on Billboards, it’s kind of this joke but at the same time, it’s almost like a… I don’t want to say it’s a prophecy… Anything can happen. With SIA, she probably didn’t even think that would happen. She’s been making music since she was very young and she’s in her forties now. It’s an interesting time.
You just said, ‘Anything can happen’, which I’ve heard you say on a number of different occasions. What would you say is your life philosophy, if you have one?
(laughs) What is this for? (looks at press day plan) Nothing But Hope and Passion. ‘Fuck it.’ That to me is… I have a lot of anxiety and whenever I have… I’m just like ‘fuck it.’ It makes you realise how meaningless everything is.
‘Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Yeah, don’t sweat anything. Because this is all just a manifestation, all just an illusion. Society is an illusion; all the rules we make are an illusion. Sometimes you get wrapped up in it, because it’s easy to…
Is that something you’ve had to learn and accept for yourself? You’re a classically trained opera singer and you had to breakaway from that and the rules…
Yes, there’s so much self-criticism in that industry and so much criticism from others. It’s very hard to feel confident in yourself.
I interviewed AUSTRA at the end of last year. She’s obviously a former opera singer. Are you friends?
Aww, that’s cool. Yeah, yeah. In the early days, whenever I played in Toronto, she’d come and play in the band, she’d back me up. She’s cool (laughs)
You studied Philosophy and French, does that influence any of you work? Did you draw inspiration for the new album from the field?
My study with Philosophy was very practical just because I like to think a lot (laughs) I like to think about things and understand them and I hypothesise about why we do the things we do and Philosophy was helpful with that. It’s not that studying Philosophy influenced that but that’s always been a part of my intrigue.
The theme of the album is the forest, Taiga. Nature and humankind are the two forces in the world that co-exist with each other, but are doing a terrible job of it. Is that something that’s made its way into the album?
Yeah, definitely. It’s about holding a lens up to how humans recognise their position in nature and how we feel inherently alien in the natural world and why. I got really into that, and trying to figure that out. It feels like we do think we’re aliens because we don’t really exist in the natural world.
I read a quote of yours, which I thought was really interesting about science fiction and that it’s ‘the exploration of the very unnatural in a very natural environment.’ Can you expand on that?
Yeah, I feel like we’ve progressively let technology inhibit the way we interact with the world. It’s becoming our world, and our skin. We are living in sci-fi times, that’s for sure (laughs) Things are only going to get more and more extreme.
How d’you personally stay away from that?
Well, that’s the thing – I’m conflicted. I really love science fiction, because I love the idea of but I really reject transhumanism, which is the idea of man adapting technology in a way to live longer, live better, be healthier – which, I think is making the world overpopulated and that’s causing a huge problem in our ecosystem. Our self-preservation is almost too good. So, how do I avoid that? I try to avoid transhumanist technology like Google Glass (laughs)
What does the rest of this year hold for you?
Well, the tour’s going to be a long time. I start in October and it goes for the rest of the year.
And you’re based in…?
Isn’t your husband an entomologist? Does that influence your work at all?
Not really, but it is interesting. The thing that I really like about why he studies Entomology is because he feels that insects are the most alien things to exist in the world. They basically run the world, we think we do but actually they truly do. There’s just so many more insects than there are people (laughs) When you really look at an insect, just how incredible they are. Their shells and their whole exterior.