“I need to strip everything down, because it’s a challenge” – DiS meets Zola Jesus
Four years on and the harsh metallic coating of Zola Jesus’ debut, The Spoils, has become a remote aftertaste as the release of her fourth album, Versions, vanquished the amour of her previous releases to reveal the naked body of her work. Comprised of tracks carefully selected from Stridulum II and Conatus,the record places a defiant fork in the road of Nika Danilova’s career so far.
Versions was initially conceived last year when Nika received an invitation to play the renowned Guggenheim Museum in New York. Rather than simply churning out her back catalogue in its original form she gave herself the challenge of reworking the tracks to better suit the cylindrical, white-washed interior. With the help of legendary avant-garde composer JG Thirlwell (Foetus) and the Mivos Quartet the songs were carefully rearranged to cater to the space, and inadvertently showcase the carefully constructed compositions at their heart. Following the show’s positive reception and the seeds of a fruitful relationship with JG sewn, Nika took the unusual step of releasing the reworked songs along with new track, ‘Fall Back’, as a record in their own right.
On a suitably drizzly autumnal afternoon in west London we met with Nika to discuss the creation of Versions and her show that night at The Tabernacle. Weaving decisively through the streets as we search for her favourite organic café in the area, Nika is as determined about her rebirth with Versions as navigating W2’s bustling streets.
Once seated under the protection of the awnings outside the cafe, Nika, with a black coffee in hand, adds flesh to the journey she’s already outlined on her way here. She speaks at pace about working with JG, her decision to let go of reverb to unearth the pop hooks buried in the body of her songs, and fulfilling her desire to play outside the confines of traditional venues.
Most tellingly though, just before we head off into the puddled strewn streets, we chat about Nika’s not so disguised love of pop as she confesses her dream to work with the GZA, how Britney’s new ‘Work Bitch’ video is "disappointing" and how pop right now well, blows. When we suggest she could be pop’s saviour, she quickly fires back, ‘girl, you don’t even know!’ Later that evening as she holds the audience of the Tabernacle effortlessly in her hand it's clear, for Nika, anything is possible.
Versions first came into being when you played the Guggenheim Museum last year with JG Thirlwell and the Mivos Quartet. How were you approached to do that show?
Well, I was invited to play the Guggenheim and I was so excited, but I wanted to approach the space differently because it’s a cavern – just this giant room - and it’s really hard to do anything properly electronic there. So, I decided I wanted to work with a string-quartet and I needed to find a string arranger because I was on tour so I didn’t have time to work out the arrangements myself – and through a mutual friend I found JG Thirlwell. When I was given his contact information, I was like, “of course! Of course!” He’s brilliant and I’ve been a fans of his...I got in touch with JG and he started working on the arrangements and they were amazing. When we performed them at the Guggenheim it was a really intense moment and I wanted to continue to pull that thread, I wanted to follow it.
How did you feel about playing it? Were you nervous?
It was the most nervous I’ve ever been, because there’s nothing to hide behind – it’s just strings and voice and beats – it’s so stark. Because there’s not so much of a visual element it’s so fully relying on my performance.
Your stage costume was plain white and you had a large cylindrical light as a neck-piece. Where did that come from?
It mirrored the Guggenheim, the sterility of the Guggenheim and the lack of right-angles - the very cyclical, conical nature of the space. I’m a huge Frank Lloyd Wright fan – he’s who designed the building – so it was an ode to him as well.
Who designed the outfit?
Is it important for you to play non-traditional venues?
Definitely. Because I’m such a big fan of architecture I’m so affected by the energy of the space. So many different spaces say different things and some character and rock clubs have a very specific character! For this tour I rely on the space because of the nature of the music - it relies on the energy of the space - so it needs to feel right.
What would be your ideal space to play?
I’m a huge fan of Zaha Hadid - a British Iranian architect - she made this opera house in China and it’s the most exclusive thing that I’ve ever seen and it’d be my dream to perform... spaces that are really unique.
When you were putting together Versions how did you choose the songs?
It’s basically the set we performed and a couple of songs.
How did you decide on the songs you performed at the Guggenheim?
I don’t know, I think I told him [Thirlwell] the songs that I wanted to adapt, the songs I felt needed a second life.
There’s no tracks on the record from your debut, The Spoils, with the tracklisting made up of songs from your other two records. Why did you decide to not use those songs?
The fear and the intensity of having to confront The Spoils - that which is very intimidating. But, actually we are going to do a song from The Spoils in tonight’s show.
In comparison to The Spoils your sound has become dramatically clearer as time has gone on. Do you think you were hiding behind sound before?
I think that The Spoils is such a cohesive piece and to try to perform it live I always felt would not do service to the sonics, and that’s what that record is really about it’s about the sound and about working with the sound. Now, I’m more interested in songwriting and having really strong songs...the sound can also be interesting, but the songs have to have legs.
I was reading about how you like listening to En Vogue and Mariah Carey and you also did a track with El-P. What is it about pop that appeals to you? Do you want to go in a more pop direction?
I grew up with pop and I think I’ve always been allured by it because it seems so far away. The pop world is this construction that just seems very alienated and very different from the person – you have to be like picked from God to be a pop singer. I like the idea of taking the pop world and making myself a part of it and being like: “whether you like it or not I’m going to be a part of your world.” But, doing it on my own terms where I can still be a weirdo for the creeps and the dorks!
Versions, as it’s clearer, you can tell where the pop elements compared to the original recordings where it’s hidden – you can tell a lot of songs are essentially quite commercial in their composition.
That was kind of scary as I like the idea of making really strong pop songs, but I also like making them work against something and what JG does really well he works with dissonance in his arrangements. He’s going: “yes, they’re pop songs but let’s make them weird and make them challenging.” I really respect that.
What was your working relationship like?
It was really good. At first it was really awkward, because I’ve never worked with anyone that closely before in a writing process. Sometimes I would try - just for the sake of having control - I’d try to get in the middle of his work – I had kind of an ego about it. But the more that I worked with him, the more that I realised that his ideas are...it’s just like he’s trying to embellish what I’ve already done - he’s not trying to change it or put his finger-print on it. His ideas were just so good that I just stood back. Anything string-related I stood to the side and anything that’s production, beats or vocal, that’s mine.
You and JG seem to have a lot of cross-over in your careers as artists as his work explores more darker and challenging themes similar to the trajectory of your work. How do you identify with him?
He’s very unafraid to say things or to poke and prod people and I find that very respectable and find that very important. I think that I’m maybe more willing to go poppier than he is, but I like pushing him in that direction as he can do amazing things with those sorts of structures.
In the past he worked with Lydia Lunch who you’re a fan of. Were you ever like ‘tell me everything you know!’
Well, it was first ‘tell me everything about yourself’ as I’m also a huge Foetus fan. The another thing is that he’s a legend in a scene that was so influential to me and so inspiring, and then to just sit alongside him and have conversations with him to hear just his process and everything it was surreal.
Do you think it’s helped you as an artist to grow and figure out where you’re going?
He has different priorities than I have sometimes - which is totally fine - but I’ve definitely learnt a lot from him.
The Mivos Quartet played with you on the record and also accompanying you live. How did you choose them to perform with?
That’s JG, he sourced them. He’s worked with them and he vouched for them and they were just unbelievable - so talented. He’s the one who sources all of the string players.
On the record your vocal delivery seems... not 'softer' but a lot clearer than the previous records. Was that part of you wanting to reinterpret the tracks and give them new life by changing the way you sing them?
A lot of it was wanting to record an album with no reverb. I wanted it completely dry, which is the complete opposite of everything I’ve done before. In order to do that though I sing very differently, because reverb is an instrument in itself. To sing without reverb I sing very differently, so that’s the nature of it.
Were you ever concerned that the songs would lose impact without the reverb?
Reverb just makes everything sound ten times more grandiose and intense, so to not have that, to flip a switch and everything sound good. Yeah, it takes a lot of well, “you need to be good.” It takes a lot of reliance on your own instrument.
Kinda like being out there naked
Totally naked, it’s very scary. It’s a huge thing I had to work on.
‘Fall Back’ - the one new track the record - you said is about ‘those moments in life when you know exactly what you want’. Do you think that’s indicative of where you are now?
The best thing in life and especially in regards to my music is that feeling when you know exactly what you need to be doing and the story just writes itself. I know I need do this, I know I need to tour with these strings, I know I need to put myself out there, I know I need to strip everything down, because it’s a challenge. The ‘Fall Back’ is that I don’t know if it’s going to go well, but I know that I need to do it and I need to trust in the intuition - so definitely that’s what I’m feeling currently.
The video has you transposed in different landscapes: a forest, a stream, an urban area. What was the concept behind the video?
I was spending a lot of time in Seattle – I was living there for around 9 months – and it was like this.
Yeah, shitty! It was rainy and cloudy and grey and everything is concrete and I just found it very beautiful; not only is everything very concrete, but everything is very green and there’s mountains and tonnes of just lush nature. That stark contrast between wet concrete, brutalist architecture and lush nature, it felt very interesting to me and very raw.
Was that something you wanted to emulate in the video?
Yeah, it was like a clash between man and nature and trying to build our own microcosm within this larger cosm.
You’ve cited Hiroshi Teshigahara, the Japanese filmmaker, as an influence on the album and also the video. Why is he important to you?
He’s a filmmaker that makes these kind of sci-fi, magical realism or speculative movies and they’re absolutely beautiful, they’re beautifully shot. He’s been working with the same cinematographer (who’s very surreal), and he works with the same screenwriter who’s also a fiction writer and writes sci-fi. Everything that those movies represent, they all have this very temporal mood and they’re very cerebral in a very specific way, in a very surreal way. When you watch them I’m sure it’ll look very obvious where the inspiration has come from.
Going back to the live dates you’re playing the Tabernacle tonight and then dates in Paris and Germany. How did you pick the venues you’re playing?
These I didn’t have so much input as I didn’t know where to go, so mostly my agent. I said that I wanted to play theatres or unique spaces, spaces that are more equipped for strings as strings can resonate acoustically so we can work with these venues that aren’t just dead rock clubs. I wanted to use spaces that could project the strings more.
Is the live show going to similar to the Guggenheim performance?
I won’t have the Guggenheim outfit because that was special, but it’s just going to be basically strings and me and JG. Not crazy lights because the string players need to see their scores which is unfortunate. I kinda wish they just knew everything and I could just strobe and fog them! It’s going to be very reliant on the performance.
In the past you’ve suffered from stage fright. Now everything’s so bare how has it affected your stage fright?
It actually makes it better, because I’m just embracing the fact that I need to snap into it. I think because before there was so much that I could hide behind that there was an awkwardness, but now I know what needs to happen and I know it’s ok that I can stand there and sing. Before I didn’t think it was ok, I thought I wasn’t being productive onstage.
When you face your fears and realise you can do it – so singing without anything to hide behind or catch you – it makes you more confident?
Yeah, it gets to a point where I know I’m already naked, so I might as well let it be what it is.
You’ve guested on other people’s records, like: M83, Orbital, EL-P. Are there anymore collaborations coming up?
Yeah, there’s some stuff but...
You’re not saying?
Yeah, I’m sorry I don’t like doing that, but I’m still not sure it’s actually going to work.
Do you have any dream collaborations?
I think working with the GZA would be cool. I’ve always though about that and thought it would be really cool, but I don’t know if that’ll happen.
Is there any pop music at the moment that you’re particularly liking?
I’m a little bummed about pop music right now.
Have you seen the new Britney video?
Don’t get me started, I’m so disappointed! That song she’s just talking, it’s not a song, you can’t be a singer and just talk - you’re a rapper.
The video looks like the Spice Girls’ ‘Say You’ll Be There’.
Also, ‘Say You’ll be There’ is just Mad Max. And then their other video 'Spice Up Your Life' is Blade Runner. It’s cool as they were doing all those sci-fi movies. Anyway, the Britney song is a super bummer. All the pop music right now is very... I don’t know what the inspiration is.I kinda miss 2009/10 when there was a wave of minimalist pop, like Drake ‘Successful’ and Kid Cudi was making minimalist stuff and Kanye made his super stripped down record. It was almost like this post-Neptunes world or something or post-Timberland, but since then...
Maybe this is why you should do pop?
Girl, you don’t even know! I’m still trying to figure out, like ‘the world just needs that!”
Are you working on a new album?
It’s there, it’s under my seat. I’m working on it, just after this I’m going to work on it more.
Are you going to go in a similar direction as what you’re doing now of removing the reverb and going back to basics?
Yeah, I’m still figuring out what I want to do production wise, but I wrote a bunch of songs and then I have them all in front of me and I’m like, “well, I’m not Adele”. I don’t want them to just be piano ballads! I’m still figuring out how I want to produce them – that’s the fun part.
When will it be out?
Next year. I want to give it some time now, because I’m trying to milk it. After a while it’ll be like, “oh another Zola Jesus record."
Versions is out now via Sacred Bones.