GEN F: Zola Jesus

Photographer Beth Rooney
January 26, 2011

In 2010 America, it's strange to marry young. A culture of divorce, financial instability and later-blooming adulthood conspire to delay a youthful rush to the altar. So it's surprising to find out that Nika Roza Danilova, recent college graduate, Wisconsin lifer and top goth Zola Jesus, moved to LA and got hitched at just 21. "A lot of change, but I'm still alive," she says. "Nothing that happened around me has been traumatic, so I have nothing to complain about." She bleached her black hair blonde, too, the kind that turns in chlorine. Brightness and commitment from a woman whose songs sound like they should all be about being buried alive in a sarcophagus of black velvet.

But, as Danilova knows, being goth is just a special kind of nerd, and like bookworms or theater geeks, eventually you grow up and blossom. During college, Danilova started Zola Jesus as a bedroom project, composing, singing and producing from the not particularly bleak academic meadow of Madison, Wisconsin. She was prolific, releasing four LPs and numerous EPs and collaborations. Now that she's graduated, Danilova is slowing down and growing out of the dingy recording quality that muted the obvious bombast of her voice and vision on those initial recordings. It's a testament to the underlying diamond in the charcoal that, despite unnecessary muss and fuzz, the chorus of "Sea Talk" is still so good. Do you wanna go o o o/ Do you really know ow ow/ I don't ever stay awake for you oo oo oo. Danilova wrote and recorded the song more than a year ago and it appeared on her Tsar Bomba EP, gruff and tinny, her voice sounding more like a lifelong smoker than young adult. Her label requested that she re-record "Sea Talk" as a bonus track for a European EP, when short on time to write a needed new song. She bristled. "You write a song a certain way, a certain place and time, and it should just stand alone and exist as that," Danilova says. "To re-record it—it never made sense to me why anyone would do that." Despite her understandable hesitance, the new version is way better. Its sonic clarity intensifies the awesome power of her newly pristine voice, contrasts to the muck she's been singing through the last two years. She's no swamp thing, and she finally took off that heavy costume.

Not to say she doesn't still dress a little funny. In the fall, Danilova played in New York wearing white pants that were a mix between crazy Frank Gehry building and mummy costume made out of toilet paper. You couldn't see them until you got close to the stage, though. From the back of the room, you only saw a tiny woman's head over the crowd, pacing back and forth like a nervous maniac. And if you stopped watching, all you heard was the darkest soprano of the most peculiar opera.

Stream: Zola Jesus, Valusia

GEN F: Zola Jesus