Nika Rosa Danilova has lived in L.A. for only a year but already shows the symptoms of a lifer: She loves the city as much as she hates it. "It's oppressive. I feel suffocated, like I am losing my breath," she says. Still, the stimulation is reliable artistic fodder. "It's invigorating. There is so much to constantly take in and filter through."
Danilova, who makes music under the nom de tune Zola Jesus, moved here from Madison, Wis., in 2010, straight out of college. She grew up deep in the dells of Wisconsin and spent much of her life in isolated wilderness, which is all she knew until she went off to college. Danilova moved to California for love, and married her local beau last year. Her previous city experience was as the cool goth farm girl in a Big Ten college town, a burgeoning underground icon in a place where many bands are either "jam" or "cover."
In between European and U.S. tours to support her new album, Conatus, Danilova is still trying to reconcile herself to what home feels like here, in her apartment in West Hollywood. "When I was 14, I resented everything I had, so I really wanted to live in a big city. But I didn't have any concept of what that meant. I have spent the last few years on tour, and I come home and I just want ... that space. That solitude."
The lack of space — and privacy — informs Conatus, which Danilova wrote and recorded by herself at home, as she always has. But L.A. is different. The walls are thin. "You hear everything, everyone. I would be working on something and run into someone in the hall, and they'd say, 'Oh, that sounded really good.' "
The instant feedback and curiosity of her neighbors fed into Conatus' shape and sound. "That changed how I wrote and sang on the record. I was a lot less forceful. It was something I didn't want people to hear."
Zola Jesus started as a bedroom project, but she quickly gained notice after mercurial early performances at SXSW. She performed coiled on the floor, poking her sampler and pedals, her big, dramatic voice silencing rooms of half-drunk bloggers and music industry types.
And her reputation has grown substantially with the release of each of her three albums. She's often compared, lazily, to whatever goth sirens came before — Siouxsie, Kate Bush, Elizabeth Fraser — but her sound and fury draw more from industrial and electronic music than '80s witchypoo.
Writers often point to Danilova's size (she is rather petite), sometimes marveling at how such a big sound can come out of her, as if she is a 4-year-old singing opera on America's Got Talent. "The focus on my physicality," she says, "it just makes me uncomfortable."
The subject of the attention paid to her size — and the way women's work is judged — causes Danilova to raise her voice. "Women are constantly and only compared to other female artists, which is a way of saying we cannot stand on our own. We are all tied together, stuck in each other's mud."
Blog posts marvel at how Danilova finished college in three years (it's in her publicist-issued bio), but much more remarkable is how serious she is about what she is doing. Only 23, she's at an age when many are using bands as a means for getting high, getting laid or gaining attention. Danilova, on the other hand, is consumed by what she's making but doesn't have much interest in accessibility. She feels duty-bound to put what she calls "meaning and content" into her music, to suffuse it with substance. Conatus demands active listening.
On her earlier albums, you can tell that the isolation of Danilova's girlhood and her alienated time in Madison were creatively useful for her. Conatus is unsettled and prickly, grand and expansive, dark and shimmery; an impressionist L.A. done up in synthetic sub-bass. For someone who hasn't been here long, she understands the place well, though it has brought her an unexpected challenge.
"I thought it would be empowering," Danilova says with a laugh. "I live in West Hollywood, and am surrounded by billboards. Every car within a three-mile radius of here is blasting Rihanna and Katy Perry. I don't make music like that. I am not writing music to sell anything, or to reach people, particularly. But still, I became obsessed with the idea of writing a similarly perfect pop song. Britney Spears makes songs that are perfect. But there is no content." And therein was the challenge. "I feel some responsibility around that. That huge hole in music. I want to provide some meaning."
On Conatus, what Danilova is actually saying can be tricky to make out. Her voice, layered with delay, gets smeary and spectral as she stretches her vowels and drops her consonants, howling long oohs and aahs until they dissolve in a pixelated blur behind her programmed, synthetic pulsing. She sounds alternately drowsy, loaded and marked by deep mortal wounding.
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Even for her most pure-pop aspirations, Danilova has a long way to go to chart-glossed diva. She is nothing but her own manufacture, recently ditching her traditional goth outfits (black on black on black) for snow-white locks and bridal whites. At her headlining set at this summer's Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, Danilova's look was Material Girl–gone-Thunderdome. She was enfolded in a voluminous metallic dress that made her appear bigger than she is, and it was unsexy and powerful. She's often called the "new queen of goth," but Danilova is actively shape-shifting into something else.
Conatus, with its stuttering beats and digital tension, is an album she built from the ground up. She dreamed of putting an unbearable iciness in her songs; she told The New York Times the single "Vessel" — where Danilova punctuates the ricocheting beat with a hiccuping sample of her own voice — came from the idea of a stutter trying to "rise from the mud." The visions she had in her head do translate; the album shudders with cold and isolation. But Danilova's songs aren't distant. Rather, they're visceral and primal, ever expanding out into more elaborate, fractured designs.
Regardless of Danilova's love or hate for it, L.A. meets her on reasonable terms, and right-sizes her in its sunshine, smog and freeway sprawl. "For all the traveling and growing up I have done in the last few years, what L.A. has done for me, more than any other place, has made me realize we are all the same. No person I am going to meet is going to change that." She pauses, parsing whether what the city has revealed is something positive. "There is a complete lack of hope in that. You know everything is out there, but you want there to be more. It's just how it is. Living in a big city like this — it's a demystification of the world."
Zola Jesus performs with LA Vampires and Xanopticon on Halloween at Echoplex.