Philosophical Development

L.A. neo-goth singer Zola Jesus is a vocal experiment in progress

October 19, 2011

Nika Roza Danilova started Zola Jesus after losing confidence as an opera singer.

Nika Roza Danilova, the Los Angeles-based neo-goth musician who records as Zola Jesus, is just 22 years old. But she’s been making music since she was 8, when she decided she wanted to sing opera. She and opera didn’t get along, she says, because it didn’t allow room for interpretation. “The expression of the voice is already noted in the sheet music,” she notes. “I would interpret things differently from what was expected.”

The throaty singer’s early tussles with opera teachers, she says, sapped her musical self-assurance. The original purpose of Zola Jesus, which Danilova began as a high schooler, “was to reinstate confidence in my voice, because that’s my main instrument.”

Ultimately, Danilova came to prefer soul belters to opera divas, she says, “because they have so much emotion in their voices. I identify with them more than a lot of other kinds of vocalists.”

Danilova recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin. She majored in French and took a lot of philosophy courses. In one of those, she picked up the Latin word that became the title of her new album, “Conatus.”

The term can be translated as “endeavor” or “inclination,” but to Danilova it means “the effort to continue to exist. And to do that, you must progress.”

Although she performs with a backup quartet, Danilova records by herself, layering every musical element, including the massed voices of songs such as “Ixode,” a track on “Conatus.” The solitary experience of recording led her to write “Hikikomori,” inspired by the phenomenon of young Japanese who become urban hermits.

“When I have the luxury of not having to go anywhere, like when I’m writing a record, I don’t leave the house very much,” Danilova admits. “I prefer it like that. I’m a bit of a misanthrope, and have social anxieties when I’m allowed to.”

When the singer is not allowed to, of course, is when she’s on tour, as she is now. “You just have to get through it,” she says. “I can be around people fine. But I prefer not.”

Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW; Fri., 9 p.m., $15; 202-667-7960. (U St.-Cardozo)
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