Interview: Zola Jesus is Having a Moment of Transformation

Upon releasing her poignant new single ‘Lost’ this past March, Zola Jesus (nee Nika Danilova) confirmed of the title, “It’s true, everyone I know is lost.” It resonated intently with a moment in which so many of us believed we’d narrowly averted our own extinction, and were now forced to find a new way forward with a deadly virus still dogging our steps.

But while most of America was at war with itself morally and philosophically (and sometimes physically), the Wisconsin born songstress boarded a place for the crossroads of Europe and Asia, to seek a higher enlightenment on the ancient and sacred grounds of Cappadocia, Turkey. She came back with a video – helmed by Turkish director Mu Tunc – that feels like a transformative instance for her, both visually and spiritually.

Yet another single was released just last week, the starkly, beautifully haunting ‘Desire’, which is Zola Jesus at her most vulnerable and unguarded. To be sure, she leaves little room for lyrical ambiguity:

“If you knew my pain
If you could see my side
Only for a minute
Just enough to empathize”

“Sometimes songs are written simply for the cathartic effect of playing them,” she explains. “This is one of those songs, an exorcism for my pain. Some days I would sit at home playing it over and over on my piano, just to provide myself that sense of control over what I was feeling.”

She is just weeks away from releasing her first new album in five years. And the enigmatically titled Arkhon (May 20, Sacred Bones) may just end up one of the most visceral representations of the deeper soul-searching we were all forced to undertake as a result of two years of lockdowns and quarantines. It also marks a move away from her generally self-contained working methodology, as it was a true and genuine collaboration with producer Randall Dunn, known for his astonishing sonic work with experimental metallers Sunn O))). She now rhapsodizes about the experience.

As release date approached, we engaged her to discuss this surely cataclysmic moment in the evolution of Zola Jesus.

What was the pandemic experience like for you?

It was pretty challenging to adapt to what was happening, because my life had felt like it had been put on hold. But in learning to accept it, I discovered a deeper sense of what it means to live. I’m grateful for that.

Did the lockdowns inspire more anxiety or more creativity?

Both. In the beginning, I was very confused about how I relate to myself when I felt like I couldn’t fully live. Once I changed that paradigm, the floodgates opened.

Zola Jesus in the past has seemed like a somewhat hermetic proposition – what inspired the more collaborative effort on Arkhon?

I’ve been reflecting a lot on the cult of the individual and how restrictive it is to feel like you have to be your own island in order to survive. I started to crave collaboration on a creative and spiritual level. As I was rebuilding the way I related to music, I realized that I couldn’t grow without the friction and embrace of others.

Randall Dunn actually did seem a natural fit for your aesthetic – what did he bring to the new album?

Randall is as much a producer as he is a musician, doula and mystic. He understood me on an intuitive level, and believed in me when I could barely even see myself. That dude is pure visionary conduit, and this record is as much him as it is me.

What’s changed about your vocal style?

I wonder the same thing! I think because I did a major inner clearing that changed the way I’m able to express myself, it was reflected in the way I sing. My whole life, my voice has been a mirror for my emotional state. If I’m tense, the voice is tense. If I can let go, the voice lets go. It seems I’ve let a lot go.

Do you really feel like we’re in a “lost” moment?

I do. I feel like we are being forced into this perpetual straddle between the future and the past, unable to embark upon the path that will lead us in the correct direction towards long term survival. The consequences of hesitation are destabilizing to our collective will.

Was it difficult creatively articulating such uncertain times?

It can be hard to know one’s place as an artist, in terms of commenting on the current moment’s struggles. But just being honest to the songwriting process is the most important thing. If a song calls out for a light to shine on our world, then it’ll be done. Sometimes songs are personal and others are tribal or collective, and sometimes both. All you can do is follow it to where it wants to go.

What did you discover in Cappadocia?

My heart, for sure. It was completely otherworldly and resonant. I cannot wait to go back.

Just wondering, if you were asked to articulate a Zola Jesus philosophy, what would it be?

Oh, I don’t know that I have a coherent philosophy.

And finally, what are some of the most important moments for you on Arkhon?

Every song is like an entire chapter of experiences and memories, all precious documents of an incredibly transformative period of my life. It’s a real album’s album, you know? It has a flow, a state of a mind, a consciousness. It’s something I’m really proud to have crafted with Randall and all the other musicians. I want people to enjoy the experience of listening to it all the way through, and bonus if they catch a glow of hope in these dark times.

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