I’m obsessed with how Zola Jesus grew up. The child of Russian immigrants, she was raised on 100 acres of virgin forest in the frozen wastes of Wisconsin, a spectrally sparsely populated state in the central-northeastern US where it drops to 30 below freezing in the cold months and people call their villages ‘Winter’. In that amazing film Wisconsin Death Trip about weird stuff that went on in a rural town at the end of the 19th century, a constant figure is the maddening climate. The coldest I’ve ever been was a paltry 15 below, on childhood trips to Germany, and at that temperature, the heat gets sucked out, tingling, from any exposed patch. It’s wild. But minus 30? That’s the difference between the current London heatwave, and a frozen January night, but sent the other way. For Zola Jesus, though, it makes perfect sense, because she makes cold music, frozen music, music that blasts rather than chills, with a vastness a long way from anywhere or anything else.
An absolute perfectionist, icy, to stretch a metaphor, her background in opera is just one of the ways she seeks to set herself apart from the madding crowd. Another way is that name – not just the vaguely blasphemous second, but the boldly high-brow first. Letting the rest of us trip on recentish boho writers like Cooper, Foster Wallace and Burroughs, or fun science fiction like Dick and Gibson, she picks the capital-gee Great Emile Zola as her kindred spirit. Another pointed difference? Her refusal to conform to standard album release plans, making dub albums with Amanda Brown on the LA Vampires project, delicate pop with the sprawling Former Ghosts, the black metal of Burial Hex’s split album, or hard-trance tinged Nika+Rory. Of course, most musicians collaborate, especially in this post-financial music industry. But there’s a sense when listening to Zola’s music under whatever name, that you’re listening to something wider, weirder, bigger than a traditional album or song. They are confusing, odd things, Zola Jesus tracks. They’re jams, every single one, but so, so far from loose.
Unsurprisingly, for a literate musician fond of big-coat weather, her own-name albums sound kind of goth-y on first listen, with huge industrial drums and operatic vocals. But the music it most recalls, to me at least, is the icy, wasteland jams of Wiley’s eski period, beats that sound like they were made from sharpening knives and shards of ice, pitch-bent synths, and that enthralling mix of obsessive, bedroom method and vast, landscaped sonic imagination. Wiley, Zola, Jesus? She’s that important. And as the temperature gauges up beyond balmy, I can’t wait for the ice shower this weekend.