Interview: Zola Jesus
We spoke about Beyoncé, sci-fi and Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing' ahead of her Australian shows.
Zola Jesus (aka Nika Roza Danilova) has a background in opera, but don't let her formal training fool you — she's taken her unique voice, huge lung capacity and penchant for dark subject matter and applied them to her three studio albums, all of which blend high-impact synth-pop with an industrial neo-goth aesthetic. Along with New York's Light Asylum and Melbourne band Forces, Zola Jesus is playing at FBi Radio/Penny Drop's Vivid Live event on May 31, before playing Australian shows on her own, and definitely stopping at some zoos along the way. We spoke with her about Beyoncé, Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing', being at one with nature and weird gifts from fans.
Jerico Mandybur: You come from a classical background; what was your initial attraction to opera as a child?
Zola Jesus: Just the fact that I could carry my instrument [my voice] with me everywhere, so it was really convenient... It came installed in my body when I was born. So that was really convenient, I didn't need to bug my parents to get me a guitar or anything — even though I did eventually. I just liked the immediacy of the voice. It's so organic and natural, and so incredibly personal. You're born with one voice and you can train it and make it sound better, but it's never going to sound different, and I like that kind of sound-print it has.
What drew you to break away from that and write your own music?
It just felt innate, or compulsive. I felt that I needed to constantly let it out and music was my only way to do that. It was my conduit for just letting everything out of me.
I read that you like a lot of divas like Tina Turner and Diamanda Galás; can you talk more about whose voices you admire?
Growing up and studying opera, I had a different voice to what I liked, and I needed to teach myself not to look at other vocalists and think 'I want to sound like that'. Everyone's born with such a different and unique voice, that it [comparing yourself to others] will really destroy your mental health, so I never really did that, but I like big, powerful singers like Etta James and Aretha Franklin and people like that, because they're so commanding. I love Odetta. She has this voice that sounds like she really means something. It's not precious.
It's almost primal. Some people have described your music as a bit primal or otherworldly too — especially with the drums and percussive elements; is that your intention?
My aim is to make music that exists in the past and in the future, that's not music of our time but music of all time, even way before civilisation, you know? I'm inspired by what humans can vocalise and create based on that, not necessarily based on society or modern tools.
If you had to choose only one song that you had to listen to for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
You know what? It's 'Sexual Healing' by Marvin Gaye. I could listen to that song every single day.
That's interesting, I was thinking it would be something more 'timeless'.
That is timeless! That song is so beautiful and Marvin Gaye is so emotional — you could tell every word that he sings, he means. Every time I have heard it, I cry [laughs]!
Is there an artist or a pop star that you really can't stand?
Not really. The ones I can't stand are really just the machines of the music business, like really mainstream pop stars. There are some amazing mainstream pop stars too, but there are some that are just make you go 'Why are you doing this?', but I almost feel a sense of sympathy, because they don't know any better.
Who are some of those pop stars that you do appreciate?
The obvious one, of course, is Beyoncé. Especially because her most recent record 4 is not at all what I would have expected her to do. It's so stripped back and she's really pushing herself and pushing what her more mainstream fans would be ready to look into. I like that she does that and I really respect her.
A lot of people are talking about this trend towards the operatic or orchestral in pop, what are your thoughts on that?
I'm all for it, if it means that someday I'll get an orchestra to back me up, then that's okay [laughs]. It could also be a reaction to music becoming so synthetic in the last five or ten years. It's become more and more electronic, and it's a reaction to how some very electronic dance music has taken over pop, so I think it's natural. It's really beautiful music, I'm not complaining.
The next issue of Oyster is all about women. How do you feel about being a woman in the music scene right now?
I don't actually really think about being a woman. I'm not a very good woman [laughs]! I do feel that sometimes there's this phenomenon of people looking at you saying, "You're doing a good job for a woman," and they have different expectations because of that. Maybe somewhere that subconsciously fuelled me to have complete control over my music. People automatically think that because you're a woman, you've got some dude pulling the strings, making the beats for you, producing everything, and you're just a puppet. I have come across that and been in that position.
Why did you choose the name 'Zola Jesus'? I know it's a reference to Emile Zola and Jesus Christ, but why those two guys?
Honestly, it's quite arbitrary. There's definitely a dichotomy between the two characters and that's definitely reflected in my music.
You studied philosophy; what writers and philosophers do you like?
Usually ones that try to look at the world in a different way. That's why I like science fiction a lot, because science fiction writers are always trying to find a new way to look at the world and the future, as well as what we're doing now and how that could effect us. They're always really fun to read and interesting. With philosophers, I like the kinds that are usually very realistic.
What role does fashion play in your life, do you like using it to express yourself?
I don't really like reading fashion magazines or keeping up on trends, but I've always known what I like and what I don't like, with everything in life [laughs]! I've always had a very distinct idea of what I think the physical ideal is in terms of how you get dressed in the morning, and I do my best to inhabit that.
What about nature? How big a role did that play in your upbringing and inspiring you?
Oh, a huge one! It's interesting because since moving to LA, I've craved the nature that I used to resent growing up. Now I miss it so much, I pine for it. I pine for the pines [laughs]! It's had an enormous impact on my life. Nature is us. We try to separate ourselves from it, but we are nature, so why would you fear that or distance yourself from it?
You've never been to Australia, what springs to mind when you think of it? Anything specific that you want to check out?
I don't even know, that's why I'm so excited! There's the image of the Sydney Opera House, the landscape, the desert, but I want to see what real Australia looks like, not the Hollywood version... I would like to go to a zoo, which probably sounds really cliché to an Australian [laughs], but that would be fun. I'd like to go out into the outback and explore, but I know I won't have time for that.
What's the weirdest thing that a fan has done for you?
I've gotten some really strange gifts that I can't even explain, because they're just unexplainable. There are some confusing art projects, I guess... Someone gave me a piece of wood that they'd painted different colours, and wrote on, with a nail on it. They wrote that they'd found it on the street in Liverpool. Like, great [laughs]... It was like 'thank you!' but it was also just really weird.