Talk about adding some unneeded pressure to the mix – choosing a stage name with
a connotation to a famous historical figure is setting one’s self up for a big
Some, like Elvis Costello, have done their namesake proud. But Zola
Jesus wasn’t thinking about any comparisons when she chose the 19th century
French writer Emil Zola and the 2,000-year-old rabbi from the Galilee on which
to base here name – she just thought they sounded nice together.
up with the name in high school when I discovered Emil Zola. I was always coming
up with these strange combinations of names and with these two, it just felt
right to put them together,” explains Nika Roza Danilova, the enigmatic
23-year-old singer/songwriter better known as Zola Jesus. “There’s a strange
duality between those two figures.”
Combining a wispy Goth appearance
with haunting vocals and swirling electronic ambience, Jesus has been compared
favorably to The Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush and punkera favorite Siouxsie and the
Banshees over the course of three EPs and three full-length albums, and is
generally regarded as a rising force on the American indie music scene. She and
her band will be making their Israel debut on April 14 at the Zappa club in Tel
Danilova spent her childhood in rural Wisconsin with iconoclast,
minimalist parents who lived off the land and didn’t own a television or
“I didn’t really realize I didn’t have the upbringing most kids
had until people started asking me about it in interviews,” she told The
Jerusalem Post recently in one of those interviews.
Left to entertain
herself, Danilova recalled that in the country, there was nothing to stimulate
someone aside from what they seek themselves. And she sought out music,
“Growing up, I was kind of bored, and I would make
sounds with my voice. I just loved hearing melodies and when I discovered what
opera was, I felt it was the perfect home for me,” she says, adding that on her
own, she sent away for cassettes that taught voice control. When her parents
realized that she was showing some talent, they got involved and began arranging
formal lessons for her.
Although she gave some opera performances, by her
teens Danilova had latched on to fringe and avant garde rock music, thanks to
the punk rock her father listened to, and the more experimental music her older
brother brought into the house.
“I had always known about punk and new
wave from my father – I loved Ian Curtis and Joy Division and New Order, but my
brother, who is a year older than me, would play this fringe music like Lydia
Lunch and Throbbing Gristle, and my passion for it soon outgrew his,” Danilova
says. “I just became rabid for any music I could find that I thought could push
the boundaries in the sonic realm.”
She started making crude home
recording with keyboards, drum machines and any other household utensil at hand,
and while still in high school, released two singles in 2008. Despite the
musical distractions, the academicallygifted student completed high school in
three years. It was while attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison
(where she also completed her studies of French and philosophy in three years)
that she decided to focus on music full time.
“I loved academia and I
would go back and study more if I had the time,” she says. “But even though I
graduated, my passion was always music, and anything else was what I did when I
wasn’t making music.”
Danilova’s first full-length CD, “The Spoils,” was
released in 2009, followed by a series of EPs and vinyl-only releases that
spread her name around the Midwest indie circuit. She acquired a backup band to
recreate her sound onstage and appeared at two successive South by Southwest
conferences, the annual indie music mecca in Austin, Texas.
album “Stridulum II” was called a “dark masterpiece” by the New Musical Express,
and late last year, her third album, “Conatus,” was released to similar
The common thread running through all her music is that it
provokes the listener and demands full attention. Nobody will be covering a Zola
Jesus song on this season’s American Idol.
“I think that music should
challenge an audience,” she says.
“In all aspects of my life, I don’t
like to do what’s easy, so when I make music, it becomes 10 times as difficult
as it needs to be, because I like to push what I’m capable of doing, feeling and
expressing. And I feel that as a listener, I should have that same
That ethos rolls over to her band as well, with Danilova
explaining that she’s had a challenging journey allowing other people to play
“Each song is built piece by piece by myself, so it’s hard to
communicate sometimes what I want them to play, so it sounds like what I hear in
my head,” she says.
“But it’s also incredibly rewarding to hear my music
being played by different musicians all together.”
teenage noisemaker to rising electronic pop musician, Zola Jesus’s sonic world
of refined chaos is proving to be even more provocative than her name.