Q&A: Zola Jesus Returns With ‘Versions’

Zola Jesus, the industrial electronic solo project of Nika Danilova, returns to San Francisco for a concert at Palace of Fine Arts Theatre this week.

Armed primarily with elegiac vocals and occasional synths, her music influences span classical, dark experimental, and lo-fi rock. With three albums and just as many EPs already under her belt, Zola Jesus last month unveiled a fourth studio album, Versions. We recently spoke with Nika about her decision to shift from opera to electronic music, overcoming performance anxiety, and growing up in the Midwest.

Why did you initially decide to pursue opera as a child and what convinced you to switch to electronic?

In the beginning, I loved music and I wanted to try and pursue it in a very formal way like you’re encouraged to do at a young age. I don’t know how or why I settled on opera singing, but it felt like a very formal, finite way to become a singer. I thought the sound of the singer was so formidable and huge, I wanted that.

Later on when I became a teenager, I got into punk, experimental music and more underground stuff. That excited me more than opera at that point. There were more interesting and there were more possibilities, so I flipped over to that world.

Have you been able to overcome your performance anxiety?

I still deal with it quite a bit. I’ve been getting better recently. To have the confidence in yourself as an instrument is always a very daunting thing to come to terms with. It’s very scary to put yourself out there in front of an audience and they’re watching you, they want something from you and you want to give it to them. It can kind of drive you crazy.

How did growing up in rural Wisconsin shape your musical style?

I think the way I approach music, my lyrics, the content and concepts of my music is very much influenced by kind of being a country bumpkin. A lot of themes I discuss have to do with the power of having your own land, having your own place, isolation, alienation. All of that comes from growing up in the middle of nowhere, having a bunch of land, having free reign and not needing society as much as other people. We weren’t that removed, but it’s certainly important.

Has your Russian heritage shaped your songwriting at all as well?

I don’t feel like I belong to Mother Russia, but still I think the way I was raised might be influenced by that culture. It was pretty American. The only things that came out was the food mostly—borsch and the cabbage rolls and things like that. It’s something that’s definitely not a huge part of my identity.

Why did you attend University of Wisconsin-Madison and did you obtain a degree?

When I graduated high school when I was 16, really the only option was college—especially graduating that young. University was definitely what I wanted to do regardless of my career. My parents always told me to have a plan B. I actually studied French and philosophy. I didn’t study music, which I think was a good choice. I did end up getting my degree while I was touring. I majored in French and minored in philosophy.

If you’re ever unhappy or stressed while on tour, what soothes and relaxes your spirit or brings you back center?

Usually just having a day off. That’s really all you can do at that point. Just having alone time on tour is so hard. Whether it’s at night or during the day. That’s all you can ask for.

What adjustments have you had to make moving from an individual artist to forming a band and collaborating with others?

I still don’t collaborate in terms of songwriting. It is still 100 percent me. When I play live, I play with a band. I didn’t used to play with a band. It feels weird to be up on stage and not having the music being played live. It feels very disingenuous. I really enjoy playing with people live, but they definitely know and respect the rules. I’m indebted to them for their lives as musicians.

Are there any female musicians who inspire or influence your style?

No. I’ve been doing this for so long, it didn’t take seeing or hearing another musician and saying I want to do that. It’s always been what I wanted. Of course I listen to other music.

Have you ever visited San Francisco before and if so what is your fondest memory?

I’ve been there plenty of times, the only problem is that I’m usually there on tour and I don’t get to see so much. My favorite part about San Francisco is all the bookstores. There’s really an incredible book collection because of all the universities. There’s a lot of Phillip K. Dick because he was from around there.

Written by Carlos Olin Montalvo

Follow me @carlosolin