When rapper El-P appeared on TBS’ Conan in June 2012 to promote his then-new record Cancer 4 Cure, he arrived with Nika Danilova in tow. The lion’s share of “Works Every Time,” the song they performed, is El’s agitated verses about the obtaining and ingesting of drugs, but the track leaves a hole open for a vocal hook. When it was time for Danilova—clad in white and wearing a hood that often obscured her face—to partially fill that space, the woman known professionally as Zola Jesus strolled toward center stage and belted out a levitating, operatic interpretation of the phrase “I’d do anything.” El-P is extremely good at what he does, but when Danilova pulled off her part, she unequivocally owned that stage, dwarfing her collaborator’s talent in the process. Danilova lives in Los Angeles (the city where Conan is taped) and was invited by El-P to join his performance for the hell of it. She doesn’t appear on Cancer’s actual recording, which, after experiencing that number on Conan, totally deflates the original track. Zola Jesus’ pipes are that good.
Though today she largely creates what amounts to avant-garde- and electronica-tinted post-punk, Danilova’s history in music traces its roots back to traditional, enormous-sounding styles that reflect her weighty “Works Every Time” vocals. At age 8, she started singing opera. “I don’t know why I decided that I wanted to do opera, but I knew that I loved to sing, and I wanted to sing,” the Merrill, Wis. native tells PW. “I was also taking piano lessons—classical piano lessons—and I wanted to have the classical version of singing.”
Her early listening palate included classical music and much more. First, she was into the pop music of Britney Spears and Spice Girls and then, as a 10-year-old, bands her father and brother enjoyed. Specifically, this meant punk pioneers like Talking Heads, Oingo Boingo, Dead Kennedys and Ramones. “For me, [punk] felt like grown-up music,” she says, “but then it got to this point where I [noticed] the difference between Britney Spears and, say, the Dead Boys or Dead Kennedys. It just felt completely different. It felt raw.”
Danilova still engages punk in her own way. As Zola Jesus, she blends several ideas strewn across worlds: the anything-goes artistry of pre-1980s punk and experimental music; the sleek sensibility of post-punk; the instrumental palette of electronic music and the broad scope of opera and classical. Her voice is packed with lovelorn frailty and vulnerability. Shades of 1980s goth rock come through, too, although that just might be the power of suggestion from her press photos circa 2009, when The Spoils, her debut full-length, hit. At varying points, light and dark have both mingled and stayed separate to color her aesthetic.
In keeping with the sense of scale that comes with her music, Danilova performed her Zola Jesus originals at the Guggenheim Museum in May 2012 alongside longtime experimental/industrial music composer JG Thirlwell and a string quartet. Last month’s Versions now adapts that performance into a recorded environment, adding only one new song and marking it as a stop-gap between 2011 breakout album Conatus and whatever comes next. “[Versions] was a really strong attempt at trying to let the songs be songs, especially because the way that I make music is very production-based,” she says. “[My music is ordinarily] very much about the sound and the mood and the atmosphere—things you can’t necessarily convey with just a piano or just vocals.” Having a string quartet interpret a tune, she says, feels like getting to the skeleton of her music. “If you can play it with a string quartet, then it exists. It is a real song.”
If Versions and the pure weight of that Guggenheim performance indicate anything, it’s that Danilova has a knack for thinking big—something she guesses she has been doing since she was practically a toddler. “I [was] like, ‘Madison Square Garden! MTV!’—those things that as a very young child you think are symbols of success. So, from a very young age, that’s the place that I felt like was the endpoint,” she says. “Now, I feel like it’s so amorphous. Your meanings of success are not defined by things like how many arenas you play, which is exciting. But also, it’s very different.”
Thurs., Sept. 12, 7pm. $25-$30. With JG Thirlwell. International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut St. ihousephilly.org
The Pack A.D. are built for the road
PW's Music Issue 2014