Nika Roza Danilova spent a good portion of her childhood learning how to be an opera singer, and although her schooling paid off in the form of a deep and powerful contralto voice, you won’t see her singing the title role in La Cenerentola anytime soon. The 22-year-old dropped out of the classical world years ago, after the rigours of training for vocal competitions had taken its toll on her self-esteem.
“It’s just hard to be judged on something that, to me, is so emotional and so expressive,” Danilova says when the Straight reaches her en route to a show in Montreal. “To have an objective judgement, and an objective grade put on that is very destructive, and it was very hard for a young girl.”
Because of that experience, the Madison, Wisconsin-based Danilova, who performs dark electronic dirges under the name Zola Jesus, relishes the artistic freedom she has in creating original music on her own terms. In fact, she chooses to do almost everything alone, from writing the songs and playing all the music to recording it herself.
“I enjoy writing alone because it allows you to dig really deep inside and to make something that’s very insular and very personal,” Danilova says. “And it teaches you a lot about yourself and about how you think melodically and what you think aesthetically sounds good. And with the content—what you’re singing and what you’re writing about—it really makes you understand yourself better. So to write alone, for me, is very cathartic. It’s a very therapeutic experience, and I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
Danilova has been nothing if not prolific. Since 2008, she has put out no fewer than 10 Zola Jesus releases, ranging from 7-inch singles to full-length CDs. Her output has slowed down somewhat recently, although she has an as-yet-untitled album due in September, which will be her first release since last October’s Valusia EP. Working with a producer, Chris Coady, for the first time on the EP, Danilova created her most accomplished selection of songs to date. “Poor Animal” pits Danilova’s emotive crooning against a backdrop of ethereal synths, neo-baroque strings, and a hammering beat. The chillier “Tower”, which follows, gives Joy Division fans something to bookend “The Eternal” on that ever-growing “Songs I Want at My Funeral” playlist.
The music of Zola Jesus is a natural fit, in fact, for anyone following the likes of Esben and the Witch, Austra, and all those other emerging acts who, as their paint-it-black forebears did, refuse to be called goths. Danilova is no exception, and who can blame her? Defining yourself so rigidly is akin to slipping on a creative straitjacket, and she had quite enough of that in her opera days.
She doesn’t rule out revisiting that milieu someday, but, as with everything else, she would only do so if she were the one calling shots.
“I have interest in writing longer pieces and compositions, but singing opera makes me feel very vulnerable because it’s something that I struggled with,” Danilova admits. “It’s not something that I always really enjoy doing. Sometimes it’s something that brings me a lot of anxiety. Right now I’m still trying to continue to rebuild my relationship with my opera past, so to create something like that”¦maybe in the future, yes. But it’s still a work in progress.”
Zola Jesus plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Tuesday (May 3).