Zola Jesus, aka Nika Roza Danilova, went a long way in a short time. From art-school-solo-project beginnings, her early lo-fi recordings grabbed the attention of an international audience hungry for artistically-minded pop, and found fans in Fever Ray and the xx; before long, Zola Jesus was opening for both. Danilova continues to carve an unconventional path, having just released “Versions”, an album comprising minimalist arrangements of tracks gleaned from her back catalogue.
I’ve just been listening to Versions – it’s such a different foundation for your voice. Could you tell us about the thinking in this project, in revisiting your existing songs in a new light?
First, it is important that I test my songs. Stripping away the major electronic elements and putting them into an orchestral context allows the songs to really show themselves. Additionally, it is exciting to watch how they evolve and change from the new setting. In giving more space in the structures, as a vocalist I was able to fill the gaps and find new ways of communicating the same ideas. After you sing a song so many times you start to hear all the other songs that are happening parallel to it… all the harmonies and sub-melodies. I like to play with that.
Do you find working with a set sonic palette – say the synths, drum tracks and voice we heard on Stridulum II – restricting? Or is it enjoyable to work within parameters, to make something coherent?
You need limitations in order to flourish creatively. I’ve tried to write with no boundaries and it’s just not as fun! The only problem is that working this way, I tend to get burned out on particular sounds or instruments very quickly. It becomes a second skin you itch to shed.
Which versions of your songs is the Airwaves crowd going to be treated to?
I will be performing my standard electronic set with my full band, not with a string quartet. Most or all of the tracks I performed on Versions I have performed live in a more electronic setting as well.
You’re playing at Gamla Bío come Airwaves, an atmospheric old theatre. Do you find that the feel of a venue affects shows for you, as a performer? Do you have a favourite live setting?
I get very picky about venues. Because the venue itself is a part of the experience, it’s energy and character is just as integral to the live environment. I really love playing in modern buildings, such as the Guggenheim or ICA in Boston. I was able to play in a building designed by Zaha Hadid, my favorite architect, and that felt very good. Architecture has it’s own pulse and story, so to perform in a space that aligns with the atmosphere of my musical ideas just makes it all the more powerful.
You’ve said before that the cold has a relationship to your working method – do you feel like you’re preparing to work as the winter comes in?
I work consistently, regardless of weather, but in the cold ideas tend to come easier. There is a temperamental quietude and focus, and you tend to think about more cerebral things in the wintertime. In the summer I become inordinately occupied with writing pop songs!
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Iceland has a serious winter in that there are just a few hours of daylight in the darkest times. Does that sound like an environment you’d like to work in, or do you think the darkness would be oppressive?
I think I would love it, but I can imagine not getting sun would really wear on you over time.
Have you been to Iceland before? Will you go and explore?
I’ve not been to Iceland before, but I am so excited. I am staying there for an extended time to explore the outskirts and hopefully bury myself in a volcano.
Have you much experience of the Icelandic scene? Are you into Bedroom Community at all?
I am a fan of Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, Valgeir Sigurðsson, Hildur Gudnadottir. Iceland breeds very talented musicians!
Do you think you’ll have a chance to watch anything at Airwaves? Any must-sees in mind?
I hear Kraftwerk is playing! I would love to see them.
Find out when to catch Zola Jesus with the Airwaves App.