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By James Benge
A lot has changed in the world of Nika Roza Danilova (aka Zola Jesus) since she released her acclaimed second album Stridulum II. For one thing, she has graduated from college (yes, she’s managed to combine a successful music career with her studies, which sort of invalidates all those complaints you have about having to write two essays this week) but she has also struggled with psychological and personal problems. “Conatus is about battling those demons. I had to battle demons just to create something. I have this constant self-criticism that really affects my emotional stability; I found it really self-destructive… Every record represents a different side of me. On this one I’m showing more vulnerabilities.”
Not that any of that destructive tendency was evident when I spoke to her as she geared up for the album’s release. She admitted to coming out of the whole process feeling much better, but it seems the challenges that she sets herself make every part of making music a real struggle. Even a decision like hiring a producer for Conatus, the first time she had fully collaborated with an outsider, seemed like a momentous step, as she explains, “I’m something of a control freak. I wanted to do something better than I could do on my own, but I wanted to do it on my own.” Certainly the new album retains everything that you might expect from a woman who has had to dodge the ‘goth’ tag ever since she first rose to prominence, but with flourishes that suggest an artist who is constantly questioning the nature of the music she makes.
Perhaps the most immediate of these is that Conatus is an album full of anthems. You’re unlikely to hear ‘Shivers’ or ‘Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake’ on Glee any time soon, but they are euphoric in a way that someone so frequently labelled as “dark” should not be. Placing herself outside her comfort zone and experimenting with space seems to be something that really matters to Zola Jesus, as is made clear in the fact that synthesisers seem to have taken the place of the huge drum beats that characterised the likes of ‘Night’, which was a conscious decision aimed at creating a new type of record, “I was trying to invert everything I did. I’m naturally drawn to primal drumming so I’ve been trying to work on things that don’t come as naturally.”
On the subject of all things natural I ask about her life in Wisconsin, a place with “no music scene and a lot of farming” (presumably an exciting new market for The Wurzles then), and how it is that her career has gone from child opera star to M83-collaborating, nu-goth poster-girl. Her desire to perform opera, which began at seven, came before she actually heard any, not entirely surprising as she grew up in a 100 acre forest where temperatures would frequently hit -30 Celsius. One would imagine that there was not much in the way of record stores nearby. There’s certainly evidence of this isolation in her music, which has an icy, cool demeanour even at its most anthemic. Despite its industrial sound she would still say her music is very natural. “The industrial sounds come from the woodwork of my father and his machine tools. So in that way it’s very natural, it’s the sounds I heard every day.”
Although she is yet to announce anymore live dates in the UK she promises to tour “endlessly” and you would have to be mad to miss out on the chance to catch her live. Those who witnessed one of her few UK shows this summer at Field Day were left awestruck by a woman who looked like she was teetering on the edge of sanity, something which she claims is pretty typical of a Zola Jesus concert. “I don’t know why, that’s just what happens.”
“How do you think that would have gone down at the opera?” I ask
“Somehow I doubt they’d let me get away with that.” Well the white tie brigade’s loss is our gain.