Zola Jesus

Singer Nika Danilova on her operatic training, and why she gave it up for drum machines

After receiving formal, opera-style vocal training from an early age, Nika Rosa Danilova began recording under the name Zola Jesus in high school. Since 2008, she’s released a small handful of 7-inches and LPs on labels like Sacred Bones and Troubleman Unlimited, toured with The Xx and Fever Ray, and collaborated with Pocahaunted’s Amanda Brown on the LA Vampires Meets Zola Jesus EP. Danilova’s first few albums—the highlight being 2009’s The Spoils—prioritized lo-fi production values, but on last year’s Stridulum II, she aimed to make a more accessible document. With the murk stripped away, Danilova’s powerful singing voice was finally allowed to serve as a complement to her goth-pop aesthetic. Before the show April 29 at the High Noon Saloon, The A.V. Club talked to Danilova about her background in opera and what that has to do with her current work.

The A.V. Club: Many kids are forced to study piano or violin by their parents at an early age, but you actually requested formal opera training when you were 8 years old. Why? 

Nika Roza Danilova: As a child, I was always making sound; it was a compulsion. I loved to scream and yell and sing; it freed me from all the thoughts in my head. I begged for opera lessons because opera singing is the most formidable, most emotional way to use your voice. It just felt very natural to want to harness that.

AVC: Were you also intrigued by opera’s theatrical aspects?

ND: The word “theatrical” makes me cringe, because it suggests a performance is staged, put on, rehearsed. And while all this is true for an opera, I believe the act of singing and performing should always be honest, raw, guttural. That’s what made it hard for me to commit to opera. I can’t play a character; I can only work with what I know.

AVC: Was there a particular movement or national tradition you were drawn to?

ND: Not necessarily. I didn’t gravitate towards movements until much later, when I began rejecting my studies and started listening to the avant-garde operas of Stockhausen and Meredith Monk.

AVC: Is Zola Jesus influenced by your opera background?

ND: I don’t find much influence in opera. It was such a different part of me. After a while, studying opera became very unemotional, uninspiring. The only thing I really took with me after I stopped studying was the voice I developed and the skills I learned to be able to access parts of my voice that I couldn’t before.

AVC: You eventually decided that the opera tradition was stifling your musical creativity. What about it was holding you back?

ND: True expression is hard when performing opera. The problem is that opera relies on the dramatic context of the piece. It can be interpreted and represented, but there are guidelines; there is a vocabulary within the pieces that you must know objectively and reflect. There are arias I want to sing, some I want to scream, and some where I want to roll around muttering syllables. Opera is a tradition, a practice, a technique—and it began to feel cold to me.

In my youth, I developed an anxiety disorder that would cause me to lose my voice before my lessons, a psychosomatic fear of having to be perfect, to do the tradition justice. I just wanted to make noise. I wanted to feel the song in my body and let it speak however it came out. There were too many rules, and they broke me.

AVC: You began recording as Zola Jesus in high school. Did this begin as a way to escape the confines of your previous education and its limitations?

ND: Zola Jesus was my escape. It helped me gain confidence in myself. The idea of writing a song, singing it, and putting it out into the world was a terrifying leap of courage I had to force myself to do if I was ever going to rebuild my only passion. Especially to do it on my own, to prove to myself that I had that ability.

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