One thing you probably know about Nika Roza Danilova, better known as Zola Jesus, is that her voice is big. Whether it’s a dissonant cover of a Jefferson Airplane song, the intro track on M83’s double album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, or one of the throbbing, straight-faced pop songs from her own catalog, the vocals soar. She definitely doesn’t need live strings or the acoustics of a 169-year-old church to sound massive. But at her sold-out performance on Saturday at Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral in Brooklyn Heights, she had both. As part of of the Wordless Music Series, the 24-year-old Danilova was joined by forward-thinking Australian composer J.G. Thirlwell (who often releases music as Foetus) to play songs from their recent recording project, Versions, an idea that stemmed from a collaborative performance at the Guggenheim Museum in the Spring of 2012. Versions re-imagines some of the best Zola Jesus songs as warm-blooded, orchestral-minded epics, without sacrificing their severity.
The cathedral itself — packed like midnight mass on Christmas Eve —was a beautiful space. I overheard someone from event staff explaining how the intricate woodworking on the upper pews is “the only of its kind.” I’m not sure what he meant exactly, but I tried to look impressed when he glanced over and caught me eavesdropping. Just before the performance began, the whole church became so dark and soundless that for a couple of seconds when the petite Danilova first walked out, no one reacted at all, collectively afraid to break the sacred-seeming quiet. Almost immediately, she began singing “Avalanche” from her 2011 album Conatus. In a seafoam-green dress and with a metal cuff on her left bicep, she paced slowly along the “stage” area, which was the space just in front of where the choir would sing if this had been an actual service. She was backed by a string quartet; two musicians sat on either side of Thirlwell, who gazed attentively into a Macbook’s glow, keeping time with one hand and assumedly using the other to trigger the percussive loops and minimal electronics that peppered the live soundscape.
With just a few seconds between songs, they ran briskly through the Versions track list, though not in order. Sometimes, the arrangements seemed to collapse inward: Thirlwell waved his arm frantically, Danilova sang soulfully off-tempo, the violins screeched. But then, suddenly, it would right itself just in time for the hook or refrain, like the Do you wanna go? / Do you really know? on “Sea Talk,” which reverberated on a larger-than-life scale. She would occasionally walk down the cathedral’s center aisle, gravely, like some sort of bizarre one-woman wedding processional. She even climbed up onto the altar, kicking over invisible goblets of wine before dramatically leaping off, in sync with the song’s final bows.
There were few cheery moments during the hour-long set. I saw Danilova smile exactly twice: when she pulled Thirlwell forward during curtain call as the crowd erupted, and when she dedicated a song to Caleb Braaten of Sacred Bones, the Brooklyn record label behind the majority of Zola Jesus’ releases. Appropriately, the single-song encore was “Avalanche (Slow),” Versions sobering, almost operatic take on the Conatus cut that opened the show. Danilova sounded heavenly over doleful, sluggish strings. At one point, someone in a different pew carefully passed a glass pint of brown liquor to the guy sitting beside me. He took a long sip. Like Zola Jesus and J.G. Thirlwell, he meant business.