Zola Jesus interview: “I always wanted to create something that felt bigger than just myself.”

06.10.14

There's always been a pop sensibility to Nika Danilova’s music as Zola Jesus. Beneath its lo-fi, bedroom-recorded industrial/gothic veneer, debut album 'The Spoils' demonstrated an immense, ambitious songwriting talent. With each record since, it's felt like Danilova has been moving towards a production aesthetic that's clearer, sharper, and more modern in its scope, and with her latest album, 'Taiga', it feels like she's found a sound to match the scale of her songwriting. Mixed by Dean Hurley, in-house engineer at David Lynch's studio, it's her brightest, boldest, brassiest statement to date.

"Honestly, I used to think that I was writing big pop songs," Danilova says when we meet on a late afternoon in East London to talk about the album, "But in retrospect, you listen and you think, 'Maybe it’s not that…'"

'Taiga' was mostly recorded at the end of 2012, after Danilova left Los Angeles for Vashon Island, Washington. A rural community in the Pacific North West, these surroundings fed into the theme of 'Taiga', which explores humankind's complicated relationship with the natural world. "I became very curious about exploring the philosophical themes of what it means to be a human on planet earth, and how we’re kind of a disease," Danilova says, "We’re kind of like the natural disaster that’s happening to the world."

You called this album your "true debut" when it was first announced. Why?

Zola Jesus: "Every record that I’ve done before this was done on a deadline. I either had two weeks to do it, or two months, but never enough time to feel like I actually did it. I also felt like I was constantly fighting or battling some kind of musical insecurity that I felt the need to cover up, so I gave myself as much time as possible for this album, and I made sure that I was hiding behind nothing."

Do you mean in the sense of sound – how you can hide behind a lo-fi sound? I know a few years ago you talked about being able to use lo-fi to cover up problems and mistakes…

Zola Jesus: "I wanted to make a hi-fi record because I come from a world of noise and lo-fi music and punk, and everything was always DIY and the quality was compromised. And because the quality was compromised, you make it sound even worse to cover up the fact that it’s poorly recorded and poorly executed. So when you do things in a high fidelity, everything has to be very deliberate. So it was very different to me – a huge challenge."

How do you feel listening back to your old records now?

Zola Jesus: "It’s like a scrapbook – they evoke the things that you were going through at that time. As imperfect as they are, for me they instigate memories of the past, and that’s what I use them for."

Do you still see yourself going back to some of the things you explored on those records?

Zola Jesus: "Maybe. [With 'Taiga'] I needed to make a record that was the exact opposite of what I’d done in the past. Now that it’s out of the way, I feel like I can do whatever I want. I needed to prove to myself that that I can do a record that’s very clean, and ambitious on a musical scale beyond anything I’ve ever done before. 

"But I don’t want that phrase, 'This feels like my true debut', to ostracise or alienate Sacred Bones, who are my family. To me, I’m still on Sacred Bones, emotionally. I feel like I finally had the time, the resources, the ideas, and the gumption to do this record. I didn’t have any of that before."

"I needed to make a record that was the exact opposite of what I’d done in the past. Now that it’s out of the way, I feel like I can do whatever I want. I needed to prove to myself that that I can do a record that’s very clean, and ambitious on a musical scale beyond anything I’ve ever done before." – Zola Jesus

Were all of the songs on ‘Taiga’ written with the album in mind, or do some date back to a few years ago?

Zola Jesus: "Dangerous Days was written for 'Conatus', but it didn’t make the album. It’s Not Over was made for 'Conatus'. Everything else was made fresh."

Did you write the record around those two songs?

Zola Jesus: "No, those two songs were the very last ones to be added. I was just writing every day. I’d wake up and I’d write two or three songs a day, and I was doing that for a year and a half, two years. And eventually, the more that I wrote, I would discover things along the way with what I wanted to say with this album. Towards the end of it I had all these songs, and I was like 'Okay, these are the ones that are representing the album.' I just cherry-picked."

Some of it was recorded in LA, right? Was any of it written there?

Zola Jesus: "There were parts of songs that were written in LA, but I don’t think any of the songs were entirely written there."

I was asking because the whole theme of the album doesn’t seem very LA-ish.

Zola Jesus: "Well, I guess It’s Not Over and Dangerous Days were both written in 2011, when I lived in Los Angeles. But all the new songs that represent 'Taiga', those were written elsewhere."

Whereabouts?

Zola Jesus: "It was all over. I was living on Vashon Island in Washington for nine months, so a lot of them were written there. I wrote some of them in Wisconsin at my parent’s house. I wrote some in Vermont, at my husband’s parent’s house. I wrote some bits and pieces in the studio – I was at David Lynch’s studio for a while, and I wrote some stuff there."

Yeah, because you worked with Dean Hurley on this album, didn’t you? What was the experience like for that?

Zola Jesus: "Wonderful; just incredible. I love that dude so much. He has a loyalty and an openness, and he allowed me to achieve things that I never could have achieved on my own. I really got along with him very well."

Did you reach out to him or vice versa?

Zola Jesus: "He reached out to me. He said that David was away, and he knew that I was working on a new record. I was not really sure what I wanted to do with the record at that point. I knew I needed to work with someone, because I had all of these ideas that I couldn’t do on my own. I tried a couple of people and it didn’t work, so I was like, ‘You know what? I’ll try it.’ So I went to LA and came back with three songs. I brought in three songs and we just finished them, so I was like, 'This is the guy for me.' I told him I wanted him to help me with the whole record."

A lot of the record is about the natural world. How much did writing in 'natural' surroundings inform your songwriting?

Zola Jesus: "I was living on Vashon, which is this island in the Puget Sound. It’s really beautiful. So living there for nine months, after living in Los Angeles for three or four years, I was able to reconnect with what felt natural to me, because I grew up in an area very similar to that. It made me think about not only my own roots and the beginnings of how I grew up, but also man in general, and man’s roots. That’s where we started, and we kind of lost the plot – we went off in a different direction, and started clearing off our own land to create our own version of nature, which is a synthetic version of nature. So that’s the main theme of the record: how man synthesizes nature, and how we feel alien from it."

"I was living on Vashon, which is this island in the Puget Sound. It’s really beautiful. I was able to reconnect with what felt natural to me, because I grew up in an area very similar to that. It made me think about not only my own roots and the beginnings of how I grew up, but also man in general, and man’s roots. That’s where we started, and we kind of lost the plot." – Zola Jesus

How did your work with Jim Thirwell last year feed into the album?

Zola Jesus: "Definitely in the way that performing with strings allowed so much space in the music. There was so much space to let the vocals sit front and centre. That was something I wanted to explore more deeply on this album. There’s just more clarity and ideas, and I liked how the music was written around the vocal, versus how the vocal was written to fit in there. So pretty much all of this album was written a cappella – or at least a large chunk of it. I’ve never written that way before."

I like how a lot of your orchestral arrangements are still contained within short, three-minute pop songs. When artists have access to those sorts of things, it seems there’s sometimes a temptation to really overdo it.

Zola Jesus: "When I was writing this record, I was really into Mahler and Wagner, and I liked the idea of thinking, ‘What would it sound like if they were in a modern pop song?’ [laughs] So that was my intent. But when I write, I write pretty succinctly."

"I always wanted to create something that felt bigger than just myself. I like the idea of making something that sounds like pop music. It usually has six to eight songwriters and four producers and an A&R, and I always thought, 'How cool would it be if one little girl to do that all by herself?'" – Zola Jesus

Did you always have the desire to write songs at this sort of scale?

Zola Jesus: "I definitely always wanted to create something that felt bigger than just myself. That’s the plight of the solo musician – trying to write something that sounds like it was written by a whole team of people. That’s why I like the idea of making something that sounds like pop music. It usually has six to eight songwriters and four producers and an A&R, and I always thought, 'How cool would it be if one little girl to do that all by herself?'

"But even when I’d written my first record, 'The Spoils', I felt like I’d written a big pop record, because the music that I listen to, and the scene that I was in, was punk, garage, lo-fi, outsider music, noise music. I’ve always been the black sheep in that world. I feel like I’ve been the black sheep in every world."

Mute release 'Taiga' on October 6th 2014 (buy).