At her core, Zola Jesus is a student of philosophy. The singer-songwriter approaches the subject with great academic fervor — she was once a firm believer in situationalism to the point that all the world really felt like a stage — but she’s softened her worldview and allowed for minimalism to overtake her on and offstage.
Nika Roza Danilova, the woman behind the bold moniker, spent her formative years learning to sing with the help of a vocal coach and in one of the most demanding disciplines out there: opera. She moved into other genres, but never lost her classical slant, one that makes her music completely engrossing, its vibrations at once tender and commanding. A recent stint at New York’s historic Guggenheim museum spawned a return to her roots.
“It was such an amazing opportunity. The space is just so unique,” Danilova tells the Appeal.
“I’ve wanted to work with a string quartet for a while and J.G Thirlwell was also brought on. It was surreal. Versions is kind of a representation of that show. I love strings and it was a nice contrast to more of the electronic work I’ve done.”
Versions sees Danilova attempting to make sense of humanity and nature, itself. Strings add an organic feel to tracks like “Run Me Out” and “Vessel,” both haunting, almost overwhelmingly dark songs. It only makes sense that Danilova see humanity in a more Hobbesian manner.
“I definitely think people are inherently evil, especially being a musician and reading what people say on the internet. I feel like when people are presented with the opportunity to be evil, they take it. They commit crimes and ultimately look out for themselves,” Danilova says, “because we’re all inherently selfish. I do believe we have the capacity to be empathetic though. I feel like self-preservation is key.”
As for that previously mentioned situationalism, Danilova takes the same approach in her stage shows as she does in life. The singer’s sets are minimalistic, less theatrical than a grand opera yet just as much of a full-bodied performance. See for yourself when Zola Jesus plays the Palace of Fine Arts tonight. Industrial composer Thirwell will be joining her.
“I just go with whatever suits the music. It’s really all about context and about the emotional story behind it,” Danilova says.
“I’ve had a lot of experiences of people coming up to me and saying that my music helped them through a rough time and that means a lot to me. It’s all very cathartic.”
Catch Zola Jesus tonight at the Palace of Fine Arts. Purchase tickets here.