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GMG 41: Zola Jesus: Escape From LA

By Mike Hilleary; photos by Angel Ceballos on October 17, 2012


GMG 41: Zola Jesus: Escape From LA

After calling it home for the past two years, Nika Danilova is uprooting herself from Los Angeles. Sitting in her West Hollywood apartment, the blonde-haired musician otherwise known as Zola Jesus says the West Coast metropolis feels a bit stifling. “I feel like I’m living with the whole city sometimes,” she says with a laugh. “[The quarters] are a little too tight for me.”

It was here within her apartment’s permeable walls that that Danilova wrote and recorded her third full-length album, Conatus. Featuring raw, anguished vocals, icy synths, classical strings and fire-forged industrial beats, the LP saw release in the fall of 2011 to a round of positive reviews. A year later, with a transition looming, Danilova looks back at the record as a “kind of bridge in between the past and the future.”

Not looking to replicate the circumstances of an album strained by the paranoia of constantly being overheard, relocating somewhere with a bit more space and privacy is key. Born in rural Wisconsin, Danilova says she initially moved to Los Angeles because it was so drastically different from where she grew up. “Now that I’m here, I miss that [old] environment so much. I miss what it fed me.” Setting her sights on the Pacific Northwest, Danilova says her exodus may end somewhere in the state of Washington, maybe even an island in the Puget Sound. “It’s going to be like revisiting where I come from,” she says, adding, “I work better when I’m alone and when I know that I’m alone. Things just come easier and more naturally to me—because no one else is listening.”

As if out of sheer anticipation, Danilova has already begun exhibiting changes in her writing process. With a handful of demos already under her belt, she says her approach has turned a bit “old-fashioned,” choosing to establish the core parts of a given song before adding on more complex layers of production. “I’m sitting down at a piano,” Danilova says, “as opposed to sitting at a drum machine and picking a beat and finding some interesting sounds and working on it that way—which I think is a very modern way of making music. And it’s fun, but I’m trying it the other way.”

Regardless of how she’s writing her songs, perhaps the most significant change for Danilova is simply her attitude towards the output. While working on Conatus, she would place an exorbitant amount of expectations on herself, becoming burdened by the idea that if she had anything worth saying, it had to be held in a single album’s worth of songs.

“I feel a lot of the time I was getting in the way of making a song as good as it could be,” says Danilova. “With everything I do, I’m the only thing stopping me, stopping it from being great. It was a huge battle to get myself out of that equation so it could just be a great song and not have all my neuroses involved in it. I have a tendency to over-think everything. And not even just the song—it’s everything behind the song, and everything it stands for and everything that it means… On [Conatus], it was a lot about understanding who you are and what you’re trying to say and what your purpose is. I feel like the only way I can justify being alive is if I’m going to contribute something to society that necessitates a growth in the overall population, which is a terribly bold thing for a 23-year-old. The need to want to contribute that and to make that impact is very overwhelming. I don’t know why I keep doing that to myself because it’s not healthy. And it’s not worth it. I don’t know enough about the world to say something that’s going to change people’s lives, but I want to try.”

Going forward, Danilova says she wants to learn to distance herself from the heavier implications of what a song can be. “It doesn’t have to represent an entire stance or an entire culmination of who I am,” she says. “It can be just a song… I think I would like to try to make a song just for the song’s sake; to not come in with some extremely lofty goal of communicating a perspective of the universe. Just to make a song because it sounds good. Just to make a song because it feels good.” F