ZOLA JESUS was birthed in a rural Wisconsin bedroom. Dreamed up by a sullen teenaged Nika Roza Danilova, the name was more a pseudonym than anything formal; just an excuse for the reclusive teen to stay out of the spotlight and create music under a name that was not her own. "It was just me with a voice recorder, improvising and almost just making a cappella music because I didn't have any instruments at that point; it started off very crude," explains Danilova.
But as Danilova grew, so did Zola Jesus, although it was years after the alter ego's initial inception before she actually took the stage. "I didn't actually play out until I was in college," says Danilova. "I had one person back me up, and I played keyboard. Which was kind of a disaster. So I haven't done that setup since."
In theory, Zola Jesus might have ended there. But Danilova soldiered on, fleshing out her sound as she went, intertwining her love of noise acts with a dramatic flair that often links her (unfairly) to some sort of nu-goth uprising—a better fit would be Hounds of Love had it been released by California drone imprint Not Not Fun. She also took part in a bevy of loose side projects that ranged from a split with the pulsating "horror electronics" of Burial Hex, to her roll alongside Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart in Former Ghosts.
Currently still a college student with a full dance card, Danilova is preparing for an upcoming Zola Jesus—now a fully functioning band—European tour supporting Fever Ray, and is currently touring domestically for this year's Stridulum EP. Scraping free of the excess static that clung to her early work, Stridulum finds this classically trained singer—opera, to be exact—caught up in the thorns and thickets of a much darker path. "Manifest Destiny," the colossal closing number, is also the EP's loudest moment, a natural arc in volume that plays off the building suspense of the previous songs. While its opening barrage of synths might make you flinch—justifying Danilova's citing of Throbbing Gristle as a major influence—the song's gentle opening refrain of "I don't have a reason to go back home/So what am I supposed to do?" acts in direct contrast to the noise Danilova conjures.
Stridulum is a gorgeous artistic statement, one matched by its striking cover image of Danilova soaked in a thick black substance that appears to have gushed from a wayward BP deepwater well. But in reality, it's just chocolate syrup. Lots of it. "One of my favorite films is Sweet Movie and the last scene of the movie is a model who is bathing in chocolate syrup. When I saw that I was kind of blown away by the visual; it just looks like a fantasy and it looks so amazing—the whole sensation. I wanted to try it and this is the best venue that I could get away with it," she explains. "We just kept pouring chocolate syrup on me until I looked terrified enough." Twenty-four bottles of syrup later, Danilova's indistinguishable face, limp frame, and hunched shoulders were photographed for a visually fascinating cover.
While it seems that Danilova's brand of oddly unique musical expression might fall under the "hypnagogic pop" umbrella (a term created by critic David Keenan in The Wire—file it next to "chillwave," "shit gaze," and "nu rave" in the list of new genre titles you'd be embarrassed to speak of in public), her prolific output of records and shiftless evolution in sound implies that greater things are beyond the horizon for this 21-year-old.
"I definitely want to slow things down in the future. I think quality over quantity. I'm not an opportunist... I'm not going to release anything until I get something that's worth people's time to hear," she says. This release docket includes a new five-song EP slated for September (with syrup-free cover art courtesy of her fashion photographer mother) on the Sacred Bones label. "After that I'm just going to work on my LP, which won't come out until next year."
As for the pesky goth label that still lingers like a specter, Danilova—whose perky demeanor on the phone hardly matches the "I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside" category she is often lumped under—has learned to ignore it. "I don't really like having this put on me, because it's annoying. But at the same time I don't want to alienate any of my fans, because maybe that's what they identify with, and that's great. I want goths to like me, I want punks to like me, I want kids to like me, it doesn't matter. I just want people to respond to it." She continues, "Sometimes when you write music it's not about what it sounds like, it's about what it's saying, and that's what's important to me."