HER VOICE is a cold diamond. Zola Jesus' powerful vocals can cut through a frigid night like a deftly wielded blade, slicing out pitch-black songs of moody pop filled with operatics. Her music is dark and rich and melancholy, a thing of beauty and precision that makes no bones about its lack of warmth. Like a frozen midnight walk, it is invigorating and frosty in equal measure.
Much has been made of Zola Jesus (AKA Nika Roza Danilova) and her witchy, gothic ways. She's released four albums before the ripe old age of 24; now 25, she's currently touring her fifth, Taiga. With it, she's deliberately cast herself away from the hard-edged industrial cauldron of her past. But when Danilova says her new work is more pop-oriented, take that with a chunky grain of salt. In songs like "Dust" and "Go (Blank Sea)," the pop floats around the edges, but the heart of Taiga's woods is still a dark and dangerous place. Even softened, her music remains a chilly popsicle, as if Siouxsie ditched the Banshees in favor of a pack of Arctic wolves.
Last month, we talked on the phone about her inspiration for naming Taiga, a reference to the boreal forest that covers much of the Northern Hemisphere. "It's very harsh there because it's very cold. To me, taiga represents the world before we came and built our civilization on top of it. There's a lot of conceptual themes that I was exploring on this record, like the idea of humans' position in the natural world and how we build these microcosms to live on top of nature," she says. "We want to conquer it in a way."
Danilova wrote most of the new album on Vashon Island, Washington, over nine months. That locale was a lucky happenstance, as it resembles the taiga forests of her childhood in Northern Wisconsin. "Basically I just opened a map and pointed to the island... and so I just moved, before even visiting. If I could move back [to Vashon], I would in a heartbeat. It's absolutely gorgeous and removed enough."
That remove is ingrained in her new songs. "I was really inspired by the purity of the outdoors, of the untouched natural world, especially living in Vashon. I felt a connection to the primal earth," she explains. "I was also listening to a lot of Wagner and Mahler, and their music uses a lot of brass and it's very brazen and it's just so larger-than-life sounding. For me, it felt like they communicated the rawness and crudity of nature and the human spirit."
When we talk, Danilova is making a return to nature. "Right now I'm at my parents' house, and they live on 100 acres of land and I just roam around and I love it." It's a land of snow and trees, where Danilova grew up running free through the forest. "I like the cold," she says.
But expect nothing short of fire from Danilova onstage with her organ-rattling voice and accompanying live band. "The show is so physical and so intense. I'll get off stage and my head will be cut open and I'll have bruises all over my body and I won't even know how they got there." Maybe Zola Jesus brings the woods with her, an entryway into a lost world. "When I'm on stage, it's like I leave my... I don't even know what's going on."