When artists stop by the office to share music, we almost always ask them to take a “FADER Selfie” for our Instagram. Nika Roza Danilova, the 25-year-old Seattle transplant who releases severe pop songs as Zola Jesus, posed against a white wall with a serious look on her face. She took a bunch, deleted them, took some more, before ultimately settling on the shot pictured above. This happened right after she played us a handful of tracks from her new record, Taiga, the follow-up to 2011′s Conatus and last year’s collaboration with J.G. Thirlwell, Versions. The selections she chose set her powerful voice against mammoth-sized instrumentals, syncopated percussion, brass horns and other carefully-considered stylistic choices that reflect the sort of perfectionist who likes to take her time, whether she’s making a full-length LP or shooting a #selfie. Later on, the one-time FADER cover star spoke about her fear of pop songs, working closely with David Lynch-collaborator Dean Hurley and why Taiga, in some ways, feels like her debut.
Why did you choose “Dangerous Days” as the single? Because it’s so different, I wanted to get it out of the way. “Dangerous Days” is actually an older song; I wrote it as a demo in 2011 for Conatus and it didn’t make the album because I thought it was too poppy. I was encouraged to finish it, and I was like, “No it’s so poppy I’m scared,” and then I just embraced it. I embraced what I’m good at which is writing pop songs. When I was done with it, I was proud of it because I didn’t feel the need to destroy it. So often when I write pop songs, I’m so ashamed of them that I need to cover cover them in noise or distortion. I like the fear that that “Dangerous Days” gives me.
What inspired you production-wise while working on Taiga? I co-produced it with Dean Hurly, who works with David Lynch full-time. He mixed the record and then, the way that he works, we also did a lot of production—just filling in things that didn’t work. All of the really big beats are things that I did, like “Hunger” was totally produced by me and [Dean] actually hates that song, but I love it. I was really inspired by drum and bass and I’ll always love Aphex Twin and breakcore and stuff. Making the record, I didn’t listen to a lot of stuff because I was trying to clean my system a little bit. I couldn’t even tell you what it was inspired by—just the things I like.
Did you guys attempt to make it sound “Lynchian” at all? So, a lot of [David Lynch] songs have really purposive drumbeats, and I really wanted a song that has those drums because Dean has a really amazing way of playing and mixing them, so I did write a song where I thought, “I want that David Lynch drum sound.” It’s called “Circles.” It’s not even on the album because I think I made the the conscious decision of, like, knowing that it’s a drum beat like Dean would make. When I played it for him he was like, “It’s too close. It’s too close to home.”
You introduced “Hunger”as the defining track on the album. What makes you say that? I think it’s a really aggressive track, so I don’t know if it will ever be a single, but when I wrote that song I was like, “This has everything that I love.” It has brass, it has a strong vocal line. I’m more proud of the beat that I produced [for “Hunger"] than anything. The song’s about how my whole life is predicated on this notion of wanting and desiring and desiring to grow and desiring to attain something new, and this feeling of never having gotten there. It’s like a retrospective about my life. I can’t even remember the words now, but it’s like, I got the hunger, I got the hunger in my veins, it’s taking me under, until it takes me away. It’s like my whole life is just wanting to achieve more.
You mentioned in a recent press release that even though it’s your fourth full-length, Taiga feels like a debut. Why is that? I think what really helped was the fact that I had to overcome a lot of fear and confidence issues and because I am so confident now—in my ideas and musical choices and in my voice—I don’t have any reverb or anything on these songs. I felt like, in a sense, it’s a debut because I’m finally there, I’m present and I’m ready for the world. Before, I was so shrouded in vulnerability and fear that it was holding me back from really being myself.
Did some of that assuredness come from working on Versions? Yes, definitely. I used Versions as an exercise to try and find my confidence through that—through having no adornments. It was something that was born out of the Guggenheim show where I performed with the string quartet and J.G. Thirlwell. Once I experienced performing with that sort of true vulnerability, because I had nothing to hide behind, that to me was the most empowering moment of my career so far. I realized that I don’t need to hide, I need to face the world and the audience itself. In making the album, I really had to overcome all of my anxiety about being judged or failing.
The album’s teaser trailer is really pretty. Is that the imagery you associate with the music? It’s Taiga. It’s overgrown forests, uninhabited mountainous regions that have been untouched by man, places that humans haven’t invaded yet. I like that idea that they’re full of life—it’s not desert. It’s very much full-blooded but no one’s civilizing it. No one wants it, you know?