Music Meter Monday: Don’t Call Zola Jesus “Goth”

Posted October 17

Nika Roza Danilova may be a lot of things — a singer/songwriter, a highly anxious person, a proud blasphemer — but she is not, we repeat, not “Goth.”

Currently riding high at number seven on MTV’s Music Meter, Nika — a.k.a. Zola Jesus — is the 22-year-old dreamy voiced songstress behind Conatus, her third studio album under that taking-the-lord’s-name-in-vain moniker. She takes said name from both the naturalist Émile François Zola and Jesus Christ — it’s a title she chose at age 14 because she liked the dichotomy between Zola, who’s all about the real, and Jesus, who is “anything but real.”

Danilova took some time out from touring to chat with MTV about living in the woods, anxiety and the term “Witch House.” Check out our Q&A below:

First of all, I asked a few of my Twitter followers what they would want to ask you, and someone wanted to know if you miss philosophy classes or if you’re going to continue studying in that area?

I don’t know, for me I’ve never really needed to take a class in order to study, so I’m still studying independently. But I would like to go back to school.

So you went to University of Madison-Wisconsin and grew up around there. Your music sounds so unworldly and — not to knock the Midwest — non-Midwestern. What has been the impact of your upbringing on your sound?

I’m not completely sure just because it’s been kind of innate, so I guess maybe just growing up in an area that wasn’t a major city that was a little pulled away allowed me to explore things that were inherently really interesting to me. I didn’t really have access to a lot of current culture. Of course culture is everywhere in America, but maybe it liberated me in a way to explore the things that were really intriguing.

So what was intriguing you?

I mean I don’t even know. There’s nothing really specific. I didn’t have much influence because I didn’t really have that many friends and really there weren’t that many record stores. Whenever I liked something I didn’t really have any context for it. So I didn’t know if it was something that other people liked. I didn’t really have a context for what other people have access to and I discovered things on my own. I had to dig a little deeper.

You were really into opera as a kid, I hear. How did you first decide that you wanted to sing like that as well?

It wasn’t even about hearing opera and wanting to have that voice. I just wanted to have a powerful voice and wanted not to feel inhibited by my lack of skill or range. I just wanted to be a singer. I just wanted to sing. And that’s what I wanted to do. Even outside of my opera lessons I just loved to sing and make sounds. It was really natural for me.

And you always wanted to be a singer?

It wasn’t even wanting to be a singer. It’s something where for me the voice is so organic and it’s really the body’s own instrument, so I never really needed anything else. I wanted to play violin, but I couldn’t get a violin. I wanted to play piano, but it’s hard to find a piano. But the voice, you always have a voice. You always have access to that. That was what drew me to it initially.

Did you have any particular places out there in the wilderness where you liked to practice?

Once I started studying opera I was very scared of singing in front of people, because it meant that they were looking for progress. I didn’t like that because I felt like there was a pressure. Beforehand I would sing everywhere. I would spend hours running around, making up songs about things. But once I started singing opera it started to become much more personal and much more anxiety-ridden. So I had to go to isolated places in order to have that release.

How did you go from opera to your current sound?

I already struggle from very bad anxiety disorder — it was much worse when I was younger. My opera study kind of became integrated in that and I just became really frustrated because I’m a perfectionist. It got to a point where I started Zola Jesus as a way to abandon technique and abandon structure and abandon rules and I allowed myself to be able to do anything with my voice and not be so concerned with being correct or being right or being traditional. And that’s how I rediscovered my voice.

Does the anxiety feed into your songwriting? Because I know it permeates everything if you’re an anxious person.

Absolutely. I grew up being a very fearful person and everything in my life has to do with becoming stronger or just becoming strong. Because I think weakness is the worst thing that you can let yourself succumb to. When you’re weak you’re admitting defeat and I never want to admit defeat. Maybe that’s the perfectionist in me. So fear and anxiety and everything, which is such a large part of who I am, is the one thing that I resent about myself and I’m constantly forcing myself to confront face first. So Zola Jesus is basically, for me, an exercise in trying to rid myself of that weakness.

Your most recent album is beautiful, but also dark. Where does that come from?

Definitely I feel like there’s a lot that I need to release — personally to have a release for until I can get through that and make music that isn’t like that. Because it’s for me very cathartic. Every song on that record pertains to a different fear or anxiety that I have that I’m trying to overcome. Some are more obvious than others.

So do you think if you overcame all your fears and anxieties you would come out with, like, a cheerful pop album?

I think so. I never know what it’s going to be like because I’ve never really made a song just for the fun of it on my own. But I don’t know, but that’s what I want to find out. I want to find out what my music would sound like if I didn’t have all these things that I was trying to work through. Maybe once I work through everything maybe my music will become boring. Maybe it will cease to exist. Maybe I won’t need it anymore.

Are you working on any new music right now?

I am. I really love to work on beats. Like in the car I can do that very easily. But I think the next record is going to take much, much longer than anything I’ve ever done, because Conatus liberated me so much toward the end of it that I feel like I deserve to spend longer on the next record. I put myself through so much that I need a lot of time in order to grow.

I know you don’t like being categorized, so I’m wondering how you feel about being called a ‘Witch House’ band?

It’s funny because I’ve been making music for a long time as Zola Jesus, but every year they call it something different associating it with something of that time. Last year it was Witch House and Goth, the year before that it was lo-fi, or, like, ‘Weird Girl music from the Midwest.’ Which strangely became a genre for a while. Every year they’re just going to keep trying to put me in with something that has the lowest common denominator. Which I think is incredibly limiting for everyone involved. I don’t even really still know what that means — especially that particular genre. That means nothing to me. I don’t really listen to new music like that. So I don’t been an affinity at all.

Do you have a name for your music?

I don’t know, but I should make one up so that people will stop calling me ‘Goth.’

By Brenna Ehrlich