With Zola Jesus, Staring Down Fears
A striking vulnerability runs through "Conatus," the icy and introspective new album by Zola Jesus. And because of that, it's a supremely confident collection.
On her earliest releases, Nika Roza Danilova, the 22-year-old singer-composer who helms this intriguing musical project, caked her songs in crackling synthesizer blasts and imposing electronic thumps, shrouding them in mystery and keeping listeners at arm's length. On "Conatus," that veil has been lifted. There are fewer layers. The excess noise is stripped away. The structures become clearer. By making the songs more understated, Danilova has put herself and her voice fully in the spotlight - an especially bold move for someone who is her own harshest critic.
"I feel like whenever I create something, it's never right. It's never what I want it to be," Danilova says from the road with her touring bandmates. "When I sing I only hear the flaws. I only hear the weakness in the voice, the things I've wanted to change my whole life."
Where Danilova hears weakness, however, many hear one of the most striking instruments in independent music today. Her voice is a show-stopping siren call, the result of years of intensive childhood opera training and eventual attraction to the darker sounds of the experimental and noise underground. Fans of the latter styles helped Zola Jesus gain instant attention with debut album "The Spoils" in 2009. A steady stream of releases followed - equal parts mysterious, confrontational and seductive - and by the time "Conatus" was released earlier this month, that attention had funneled into full-fledged hype.
Not only is "Conatus" the least abrasive Zola Jesus album, but it also includes songs that are outright inviting. Danilova no longer forces her pop sensibilities to the side. "Seekir" is as immediately catchy as anything by Florence + the Machine. The racing pitter-patter of the drums on "In Your Nature," combined with Danilova's always-expressive vocals, create a triumphant glow. In two short years, she has transformed Zola Jesus from an act best appreciated in a dank, dark club to one suited for a pristine concert hall. (It should probably still be pretty dark.)
Not that Danilova feels that triumph herself. She went into the making of "Conatus" with the stated goal of de-cluttering her songs and making them less overwhelming. She accomplished that, yet still won't call it an outright success.
"This is a point of progression," she says. "It just needs to be honest, it needs to be real and it needs to be moving somewhere. If I don't publish it I might become stagnant. You need to have those marks and those milestones in order to see the point of growth."
Danilova is a Midwestern girl, having grown up in Madison, Wis. It was only recently that she moved to Los Angeles, where she wrote and recorded "Conatus." Far from giving her a sunny disposition, however, the new locale only served to help her further explore the desolation she had cultivated in her earlier work.
"Living in a densely populated neighborhood in the Hollywood-ish area, I felt an overwhelming isolation that at the same time was similar to the feeling of being in, say, Wisconsin," Danilova says. "Isolation among a giant population of people versus isolation among no one is very different."
Given her bleak self-assessment and her oft-chilling tunes, one might think that Danilova imagines herself as some Queen of Darkness. But if anything, she fights to dispel that notion. She's an easy conversationalist - thoughtful, polite, funny, opinionated. Starting Zola Jesus, she says, was an effort to confront her personal fears. By emptying herself into her music, it helps to liberate her.
"I'm not going to play out a stereotype of what people think I am based on their reduction of my music," Danilova says defiantly. "I feel like I have to do all this extra work to make people realize this isn't a cartoon. This is my entire life."
--David Malitz, Oct. 21, 2011