Whole-Hearted Musical Perfection: ZOLA JESUS

On October 9, 2013 by Joy Shannon



It was cool Friday evening when we walked past desolate and gritty car repair lots, whose corners were occupied by a few homeless souls taking shelter for the night. It was a startling juxtaposition to proceed through the grand gates of the Hollywood Forever cemetery and be directed to a courtyard which was romantically lit, as if for a gatsby-esque 1920s garden party that had never stopped. Climbing the stairs, illuminated by a string of golden lights, we entered a room which was full of a crowd, quietly gathering. There was a certain hushed anticipation to the crowd as they waited to be let into the intimate Masonic Lodge within. One would have thought they were attending a church service, though, in fact, what ensued within for about the next hour and a half, was somehow similar. Like a cathartic musical ritual performed by an ancient priestess, this was a Zola Jesus concert.

Sharing the stage with the Mivos Quartet and composer J.G. Thirlwell, singer and songwriter Nika Roza Danilova, who creates music as Zola Jesus, led the audience through an arrestingly gorgeous set. The six performers on stage created an incredible dynamism, with Danilova using her voice as an emotive instrument amongst the swirling strings. This collaboration between Thirlwell and Danilova for the album Versions and this subsequent tour through gorgeous concerts halls like the Masonic Lodge, seems utterly fitting for where Zola Jesus’ experimental music has been heading over the years.

Danilova explained to me in a recent interview that “for this tour it was very important that I not play in rock clubs. Because we have the luxury of not needing a really strong sound system, we have the ability to play in these venues that are more acoustic. That’s been something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.” The intimacy of the venue seemed to add to the ability of the audience to readily connect to the emotive quality of the music. Danilova described feeling intimate connections with the audience during this tour at particularly emotional parts of the songs, as she did during a performance of the song “Collapse” in New York: “I’ll never forget that moment.”

Danilova and composer J.G. Thirlwell first came together for a performance at the famed Guggenheim Museum in New York during the spring of 2012. Danilova elaborated that when she was invited to play the show at the Guggenheim she “felt the opportunity was a really good time to use strings because the space of the Guggenheim is so cavernous that playing electronics in there just wouldn’t do the space justice.” Through “mutual connections… low and behold” she was referred to composer and experimental industrial musician J.G. Thirlwell, also known as Foetus, who has created music with Nurse With Wound, Coil, Nick Cave and Lydia Lunch. Danilova was a “huge fan of his for years and years” and was very excited to work with him. When they collaborated, the string arrangements Thirlwell created for this one-time-only performance at the Guggenheim were so beautiful that Danilova knew they had to do more with them: “The arrangements were really stunning. He spent so much time on them… He made them a very special, separate entity, that I really knew I had to put them on a record.”

Performing the songs live with the string quartet and conducting presence of Thirlwell, Danilova revealed that she has “never felt more confident in the live show. It must have been the secret recipe that I was missing all along. Performing with the string quartet and the electronics allows for so much space in the music. I’ve been given the opportunity to use dynamics in ways I never have before. It feels very liberating.” The result of this liberation and increased subtlety of dynamism for Zola Jesus’ music is a truly a breath-taking show. Danilova’s voice “adapts and moves in and out of the arrangements” in multidimensional, emotive ways, sending the audience on what feels like a journey through time and the heart during songs including “Avalanche”, “Hikikomori”, “In Your Nature”, “Run Me Out” and “Fall Back”.

What the audience witnessed at the Masonic Lodge that Friday night was a woman truly doing what she was meant to do, with immense passion. When I asked if she ever thought she would get to this point in her career, Danilova replied: “I’ve been doing music my whole life. There was never any question. I always knew it was going to be what I did. Anything I do, I do with such obsessive attack, I knew that if I was going to do it, that it had to be a monster. I don’t know if I have gotten to the point where I can say my music is a monster, but I know it will be one day.”


Zola Jesus live performance. Photo by Brenda Rodriguez.

Danilova, who is Russian American by way of Wisconsin, has already putout an immense body of musical work and doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon: “I don’t know what is Russian or what is mid-western, but the work ethic that my parents have- and that my whole family has- is really unbelievable. They built our house… they are very self sufficient. That is very ingrained in my character.” Since 2009, Danilova has put out a compelling body of work with albums and EPs including The Spoils, New Amsterdam, Stridulum, Valusia, Conatus and Versions. After the tour for Versions Danilova says she is “going to finish working on my next record.” All she would reveal about the new body of work is “there are definitely going to be orchestral elements just because I’m not over that yet.”

Danilova described the challenges of pushing herself to share her art so vulnerably and intensely with audiences being everything from dealing with stage fright to vocal exhaustion: “It’s hard to not be completely aware of the position you’re in as a performer on stage and the power you have where everyone’s looking at you. It was really hard for me to get used to being this vessel that had to give something to these people who are watching you. That’s very intimate.” Yet with the soaring beauty of the album Versions coupled with the success of this tour, Danilova is enjoying every moment of performing this music: “If you have something to give, then (performing is) the best thing in the world. That’s how I feel right now.”

After an encore of a slow version of “Avalanche”, the enrapt audience left the Masonic Lodge elated. Back into the night air on the the dirty city streets, we scattered, taking pieces of that magical experience with us. On my way out of the show, I ran into J.G. Thirlwell and told him that that was one of the best shows I have ever seen in my life. Amongst an immense amount of shows I have seen in my life, this one was one of the most moving and most incredible which I will never forget. I left feeling eternally grateful for what music, when played with the whole heart, can do.



Zola Jesus live performance in LA. Photo by Brenda Rodriguez.

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