Zola Jesus: from personal cataclysm to the “magical present”

In a world that feels increasingly anarchic, loveless, Godless, few actively choose to spend their lives seeking magic. And then there is Nika Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus. Last year, just after a severe snowstorm hit Turkey’s east and west coasts, the classical musician-turned-industrialist boarded a plane for Cappadocia, an ancient psychedelic landscape in the middle of the country. Comprised of cave-like fairy chimneys that were once home to Bronze Age troglodytes.

Traveling alongside director Mu Tunç, Danilova spent long days filming in oppressively cold conditions, burrowing into caves at dusk. “It was as if time did not exist”, she says Revolver. “These caves have been used over time for so many different purposes that you’re just starting to feel like time is piled on top of itself. It’s not going anywhere.”

Video of Zola Jesus – Lost

Like the early Christians who fled to Cappadocia centuries before her, Danilova made the expedition in search of devotion and divinity; reconnect with the magic and mysticism of music itself. “We simply cannot lose the divine nature of music,” says Danilova. “For me, it was all about this experience. Going to Cappadocia was like this physical experience of putting myself in a magical place – the magical gift.”

She trapped the spark of this “magical gift” in her new and sixth album: Arkhon, meaning “ruler” or “power” in ancient Greek. In Gnosticism, “arkhons” are portrayed as guardians who imprison the divinity of the human soul within the inharmonious and chaotic material universe in which we find ourselves.

Danilova thinks we live in an arkhonic age; lost, discouraged, atomized. We are guardians of the planet, but the planet is on fire. “We’re asked to think about anything but the real issues that arise, and we’re not really allowed to have any solutions because of these nefarious forces that keep trying to pull us away from life,” she says.

Arkhon also seems to reflect the internal state from which these propulsive songs are born. It was a “cataclysmic moment” in Danilova’s life. “A lot of relationships ended and I went through this major transformation. It was incredibly difficult, I didn’t know if I was going to pull through,” she says. “Throughout the process of creating this record, I rebuilt myself one song at a time. Arkhon is the end result of my own healing process over the past five years.”

Danilova shaped this ruinous emotional landscape in sound alongside drummer and percussionist Matt Chamberlain – whose previous work can be heard with Fiona Apple, Bob Dylan, David Bowie – and who lends Arkhon a ritualistic, galvanizing and disturbing spine. Danilova sent the demos to Sunn O))) producer Randall Dunn, who helped sculpt Arkhon in a cavernous world that seems as cosmic as it is underground, as immediate as it is ancient.

photography by AF Cortés

Danilova’s propensity for maximalism and torrential sonic palettes like these has made her a recognizable figure in the metal and extreme music spheres. She’s no stranger to big bills (including the 2018 Roadburn Festival at the behest of curator and Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon), and each of her band members has played in metal bands. She also mainly meets noise musicians in her personal life. Although in the past, she admits to feeling a kind of stigma towards metal. “I felt like it was a very closed world and it could only be about specific things,” she says. Until she discovered black metal, thrash metal, powerviolence, branches of the genre that seemed to cause a rupture in the world of metal, opening it to more Catholic interpretations.

Danilova – whose music now typically features industrial, electronic and lyrical elements rubbing shoulders with pop tones and experimental, abrasive noise – seems to have always been drawn to these musical ruptures.

Danilova grew up in Merrill, Wisconsin on over 100 acres of forest. Geography granted her enough boredom and space to dream up entire galaxies from her own imagination, and she began experimenting with her voice early on. At age seven she was reading opera scores, and by age 10 she was receiving intensive classical vocal training from a coach.

With the dream of becoming a professional opera singer, Danilova entered into a masochistic relationship with her own voice. She castigated herself on every imperfection. A flat note would shatter his self-esteem, turning the music and his own instrument into a crude enemy that had to be controlled at all times.

It wasn’t until her teens that she discovered Meredith Monk and Diamanda Galás, two classically trained singers who tore the rules to shreds. There Danilova began crafting her own lovely sound and then recording it on tape with her lyrical influences still intact.

Zola Jesus Video – Into The Wild (Viewer)

From then until today, Danilova has sought to create an ideal version of herself through her art. “My music is always about reaching for an ideal and it’s also a focused version of myself,” she says. Prior to Arkhonthe desire to control the unknown emerged both as a theme and as an artistic practice through his albums.

But Arkhon – a project born out of great devastation – was a break from total self-discipline and a surrender to the unknown, a spontaneous thrust into the magical present. “I realized that it was easier to let go than to try to grasp things better. It allowed me to let go of everything, especially creatively,” she explains. The songs on Arkhon are so “raw and personal,” she says, that it was impossible for her to think about them on any objective level. “Even the idea of ​​people criticizing these songs, to me, I’m like… It can’t even be reviewed. It’s a deeply personal album… it’s not about whether it’s good or bad . It just had to happen, and it happened the way it did.”

This sense of freedom – allowing the songs to follow their own will – opened up Danilova’s voice to new dynamics. With a tendency to manifest everything she feels inside through her voice, the singer says that while recording the album, she “wasn’t holding so much tension because I had let go so much.” Her singing became a kind of childbirth.

While trying to rebuild and be reborn, bit by bit, song by song, Danilova found herself obsessed with prehistoric artifacts and “the beginning of time… really, fundamentally creative times, where life is birthed.” She was particularly inspired by Egyptian mythology and magic. “A lot of the images that inspired me were mummies, mummified wolves. Things that are so much older and deeper than we will ever understand as temporal humans.”

zolajesus_2022_credit_afcortes.jpg, AF Cortés

Zola Jesus

photography by AF Cortés

During our short stay here, Danilova is someone who tries to capture the whole landscape and the expanse of life. A descendant of German, Slovenian and Russian ancestry (alongside a family that immigrated to America from Ukraine), she also felt very drawn to her own roots. “I feel like I have a lot of karma to deal with there,” she says. “This album was about digging into that and healing, thinking about the roots and what they mean.” In the title track of the album “Lost” (the video of which features footage shot in Cappadocia), she uses an excerpt from a Slovenian folk choir, singing a song from the region where her ancestors lived. “I’m always so curious to know where I come from, to dig deeper, to piece things together.”

The recent conflict in Ukraine has, unsurprisingly, been on his heart and on his mind. “It’s such an act of terror for people who just don’t deserve it,” she says, “but their resilience is so inspiring. I can’t wait to play a show in Kyiv.”

For now, however, Danilova’s mind is far from the release of Arkhon. Although usually based in Wisconsin, she has spent the last few months in Toronto. “One of my relatives is terminally ill and I am helping at the hospice at the moment,” she explains. The experience of caring for someone during their last days clarified a lot of things for her, mainly where she puts her energy and focus. “I think being an artist and a musician can be such an egocentric process that encourages a person to identify too much as an artist,” she says. “Being in this situation where I’m trying to take care of someone else, or not think about myself at all, or put out a record, it really puts things into perspective and the place of art – no just how important it is, but how to integrate it into life is the most important thing you can do.”

Together, Danilova and her hospice friends were forced to reunite for love. “To experience someone else dying…was so incredibly enlightening,” she says. “Before that, I was so scared of death. But now I kind of have to die second-hand. This experience makes me realize that death is just a part of life… isn’t something we really prepare for, it’s such a natural and beautiful experience in its own way.”

From the magical present, Danilova learns to find magic in the unknown – a place where time is simply piled on top of itself, going nowhere.

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