What’s in a name?

Musician Zola Jesus’s sonic world of refined chaos is proving to be even more provocative than her name.

Zola Jesus 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Zola Jesus 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 fall.
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.
“I came 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 Aviv.
Danilova spent her childhood in rural Wisconsin with iconoclast, minimalist parents who lived off the land and didn’t own a television or computer.
“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, especially opera.
“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.
Her 2010 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 reviews.
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 responsibility.”
That ethos rolls over to her band as well, with Danilova explaining that she’s had a challenging journey allowing other people to play her music.
“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.”
From experimental, 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.