Zola Jesus: The Ice Queen

Zola Jesus: The Ice Queen

Zola Jesus
Photographer Ariel Zambelich
October 03, 2011

Zola Jesus is poised to melt hearts.

By the time I get to Nika Danilova’s West Hollywood apartment, she’s been branded ankle-to-knee in Xs, her skin having absorbed the imprint of hours spent cinched into a pair of Louis Vuitton corset boots. The shoes have come and gone with another magazine’s stylist, but Danilova’s green eyes are still kohl-rimmed, and her white-blonde hair looks as if it’s been doused with several coats of spray glue. Pantless in an oversized T-shirt, she lounges on a black leather sofa next to her husband, Adam Higgins, and her publicist Christine Morales, who’s flipping through her iPhone to show me a picture of Danilova in the boots. Four inches taller but still just teetering at a diminutive 5'4", she looks like someone else in the photo—an anonymous Hollywood starlet, shirking the paparazzi on any given sunny LA day.

“Working with stylists is the worst, always,” Danilova says. “I always get excited, because I think, They’re going to bring all these awesome clothes, but then they bring all this crap that makes me feel stupid. I’ve never worn something for a shoot that’s been styled and felt like, This is me. That’s them and what they think I am. The thing is, I’m actually an extremely dynamic person—I’m not depressed, I love Beyoncé, I love Britney Spears. I grew up in the ’90s. [People] think I’m so one-dimensional and now I have to do all this extra work. People are like, How do you feel being a goth icon? I don’t know. It’s frustrating.” You can’t blame people for misunderstanding Danilova. It’s pretty easy, actually. A cursory glance at her bookshelf, with its two prominent volumes of Marquis de Sade (next to Schopenhauer) and Criterion Collection editions of Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom and The Night Porter, seem to do a fine job legitimizing the fetish boots. Casting the tiny 22-year-old as the macabre sorceress of the big-voiced, brooding music she makes as Zola Jesus seems only natural. Her sound is heavy and synthetic, her voice deep, soulful and serious. The titles to her most recent records—Stridulum, Valusia and Conatus, respectively—sound atavistic. Their covers feature Danilova in lurid portraits, standing beneath a heavy pour of viscous black sludge, or walking shoeless through the woods, like some wandering witch.

“People try to explain in so many words what you are,” Danilova grumbles about journalists’ tendency to reduce everything to a word count. “They obviously don’t have an adjective count, because they just use the same ones over and over again: Goth. Brooding. Dark. Siouxsie Sioux is an adjective now, I guess. The thing is, I’ve never identified myself. I’ve always known exactly what I liked and what I didn’t like, but it never had any title. You read these things about yourself because you’re so excited you’re being written about, but the more you read, the more you hate yourself.” To Danilova, Zola Jesus is counter to classification, an aesthetic mined from an innate and unquantifiable sensibility. Her style is not defined by a desire to look a certain way, but rather a need to satisfy a feeling. “I know what I like, and I know exactly what I want to feel like when I’m wearing something. That’s what style should mean. I like to feel very powerful when I wear something, or aggressive. I think a lot has to do with a Napoleon complex. I like to feel like, Don’t fuck with me! I’ve always wanted to feel tough.” Which is tough when you’re actually a tiny, very sweet girl.

Famished from her day-long fashion shoot, Danilova decides to change for dinner, and disappears into the bedroom. She reemerges looking very Blade Runner in a pair of paneled leggings, a large metallic talon dangling from her neck. Higgins is wearing a vintage Aliens T-shirt; the row of piercings predominating his left ear and nostril cast his otherwise wholesome good looks slightly askew. When we get to the restaurant, a cheap neighborhood sushi place, the couple fall into a monogamous food-ordering pattern, knowingly selecting both the amount and variety of sushi the two will consume with ease and pleasure, and recount the tale of their rapid courtship (they’ve been together just two years, married for just one). A slight discrepancy about whose musical tastes influenced whose at the UW Madison radio station where Higgins was program director is the only brief and good-spirited instance of marital discord. Higgins claims that Danilova chose records she thought he’d like, and Danilova claims he conveniently scheduled her show to fall directly before his. Later she says that, “the day I met Adam, I knew I wanted to be with him. The first day we started dating, it was like, Just so you know, we’re going to get married. I’ll do whatever it takes, I don’t care.”

Danilova says she didn’t have many friends in high school and that she didn’t make many more in college. Her husband comprises one-third of her extended network. “I graduated high school in three years because I fucking hated it. In my life, I’ve only had two friends. I can only think of two people. And then my husband, who counts as my third. I would meet people just by the nature of being in a public space and being a person in the world, but other people were never a priority to me, which is why I am so surprised to now be married.” When she recounts stories of traveling and playing with her band, you get the sense that there’s a general conviviality, but she’s quick to point out that Zola Jesus, the group, is basically made up of Higgins’ college friends.

A year ahead of Danilova, Higgins studied entomology in school simply because he “liked bugs” and moved to LA shortly after graduating to be closer to the film industry, his true passion. He possesses an archivist’s appreciation for movies, but seems to have no ambition to make them himself. Four days a week he works in a lab, detecting bug parts in imported food, and on Fridays, he works as a projectionist at Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema. He seems proud, if a bit bemused, by Zola Jesus’ success, though, like Danilova, he is hard to impress and suspicious of celebrity. He is the only person over whom Danilova openly gushes. “I’ve never really respected other people very much,” she explains. “I think I’ve always been a misanthrope, for better or for worse, but with him, I just have so much respect for him. He’s a very strong-willed person. He knows exactly who he is, what he likes, what he doesn’t like, what he wants to do...and there’s never any question. He’s not trying to find his place anywhere, and I just really respect that. This industry becomes really vain and people really quickly get caught up in themselves as this spectacle that people see them as. It’s hard enough for me to be in this industry and have to deal with that spectacle.”

Back in LA after nearly three weeks of touring in Europe, the only real plan Danilova’s made for the upcoming weekend, aside from practicing for the Serge Gainsbourg tribute concert she’s playing in at the Hollywood Bowl the following week, is to go to a screening of Fassbinder’s World on a Wire at LACMA with Higgins, and play Half-Life, a post-apocalyptic science fiction game on her computer. In other words, when she’s home, she’s literally at home. “This is my sanctuary,” she says, motioning around her and Higgins’s sparsely furnished apartment—a black veneer coffee table is littered with a couple laptops and a spectacularly large black Panasonic flat screen television dominates the room. “This is a very sacred spot.” Crouched on her knees and operating the hulking display from a black keyboard on the floor, she crawls over to point out their new boutique System 76 computer, stroking the sleek silver tower as if it were a beloved pet and adding, proudly, that it operates on Linux. Media is obviously important to her and Higgins, and it seems that they regularly forego the brilliant LA sun in favor of the warm glow of a monitors and screening rooms. “It didn’t even hit me that you could make music with computers until way later,” she explains. “I never used computers for making music, I used it for programming and making things that were very digital. I wasn’t drawn to that right away.” Danilova wrote and recorded all of Conatus from her living room, using a series of synths like Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Sequential Circuits Six-Trak, Yamaha DX-7, Arp Odyssey, Korg MS-20 and Yamaha CS-10 run through Ableton. She says she stared at pictures of ice while she recorded simply because she’s written every other record in the winter, which is non-existent in LA’s perma-summer—the exercise more a superstitious tick, like a MLB player tapping the plate before he’s up to bat, than a dark goth ritual.

Danilova grew up in central Wisconsin in a town called Merrill. Her mother is an English teacher and her father, an avid hunter, is in the car dealership business. Danilova is one of two children, and she credits her older brother with introducing her to experimental music. “We both grew up really passionate about music, and he really taught me a lot about experimental music,” she explains. “But now, he’s completely devoted to folk music and I’m dedicated to synthetic, electronic music. Because there’s only so much you can do with a guitar, a bass and a drum set. All the things you can do with the computer and electronics, it’s endless.” Danilova started taking voice lessons from the age of five until about 15. For much of her early life, she dreamt of going to Juilliard and becoming an opera singer, but her obsession with her voice became self-destructive. “I would have these recitals and these vocal competitions, but I would rarely go through with singing in them because I kept getting sick. It was very psychosomatic. I couldn’t get over the performance anxiety, and I couldn’t practice or rehearse unless everyone was gone in the house, and even then, I’d have to be in the basement with the doors closed because I had no confidence in my voice. It was too hard on me; I was too young for that.”

Creating her band in 2006 was one way to cope. “Zola Jesus was like my way to rehabilitate my relationship with my voice that was so destroyed. I felt like if I had my own project, I did everything, I wrote all the songs, everything was from me, there were no standards. When it’s opera, you’re upholding a tradition in these songs that have withstood the test of time for hundreds of years. That’s just too much stress. But when it’s your music, you have control over that.” You can hear this gradual empowerment over the three records she’s put out since she started Zola Jesus. Her first LP, The Spoils, is built primarily around traditional rock guitars, drums, keyboard and bass, and many of her vocal lines are barked out flatly, sounding distant and reverb laden, enmeshed in layers of Danilova’s classically-trained voice wailing through minor scales like a banshee, almost as if it were just a sampled vintage aria. With her Stridulum and Valusia EPs, she’s gotten lighter and more dexterous, actually using her voice instead of apologizing for it. On Conatus, she’s come full circle, belting out the melodies like a diva, any manipulation or technical trickery seems to be less about coping than a choice of orchestration.

“I think that I was in a rut, a little bit, and Conatus was my way of breaking habits. I’m only comfortable with my voice in certain ways, because that’s the one thing that I’m so critical about. But for Conatus, I was like, Whatever, who cares. If you hear some flaws, you hear some flaws. I have to get used to it. I tried to do things that were different that took a little bit longer to come out of me. I’m initially drawn to big, primal drumbeats that are super minimal, and in this new record I wanted to do tinier beats, like cymbals. When I was making Stridulum, I hated cymbals. I hated cymbals, I hated hi-hats. But then I would make beats just out of hi-hats, just to break that habit. It just feels super raw. Conatus to me is like this chaos, but I really like it because of that. I want to feel uncomfortable.” The “flaws” that are so apparent to Danilova are imperceptible to the casual listener, but even to a trained ear, like Danilova’s producer on the record, Brian Foote, her perfectionism and vocal control are singular. “There’s no pitch correction on this entire album, which is insane,” Foote explains. “[She’d want to do] like seven takes of a song, and it’d be exactly the same, like, Holy shit! She’d be concerned with her mouth shape or something. She’s very precise.” Foote and Danilova joke about her extreme self-criticism, scrolling through her original raw files, with titles like “I Hate Myself” and “Good Drum 5,” giving a window into Danilova’s narrow allowance for hubris.

Hanging out on her sofa is where Danilova is most natural. She’s quirky and wry and talks easily and openly about film, music—even astrology (she’s an Aries and Higgins is a Taurus). When Higgins gets home from work, he grabs a glass of milk and munches on a piece of banana bread. They shoot the shit and decide to watch a few hours of downloaded, mid-’90s MTV. The hours of posthumously recorded music television illustrating the trappings of stardom, as a string of one-hit-wonders projects out onto their massive television screen. She laughs when a mock-turtlenecked John Sencio introduces the lineup for his hour-long show, and some title treatment for the band Seven Mary Three flashes beneath his flannel-encircled torso (he’s wearing so many layers). No one can remember the song, but they’re confident the band had just one. Higgins gamely whips out his phone to group text his friends, the bunch of guys who’ve all played, at one time or another, in the band Zola Jesus. He’s certain Nick Turco will know the answer. Meanwhile, Sencio introduces the video for “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and it’s generally agreed that The Smashing Pumpkins still look pretty cool. Danilova squeals with delight. “I don’t hate this!” Higgins’ phone vibrates, and we all anxiously turn to hear Turco’s guess: “Clumsy.” We turn back to the screen for at least 20 more minutes of music videos. The horrible “strummy strum strum,” as Higgins calls it, “of ’90s rock.” Bands like Deep Blue something, The Goo Goo Dolls, Joan Osborne—artists who all played to expectations in ways Danilova has vowed never to do. Finally the Seven Mary Three video airs. It’s actually called “Cumbersome” and, 15 years later, it’s still terrible. What keeps a band from going stale, becoming a punch line?

It’s hard. Like another pop star who got her start as the outré choice, Danilova loves Björk because she has always done “whatever the fuck” she wants. “I was talking to my mother, and I was like, You should really listen to Björk, it’s beautiful. And she was like, Björk’s so weird. That swan dress?! And I was like, That was 2001, mom! There’s a creative force there, and people forget that because of a fucking swan dress! I think that when you go for that long, you become a cartoon of what people think of you and expect of you. That’s my greatest fear, to become a cartoon of a person.” If the focus continues to be about the look and not the girl, Danilova may be at risk. But getting down to the meat of it, the one solid gift that’s defined her life and music is her voice. “There’s no continuity in Björk’s music,” she goes on to say. “The only thing that’s continuous is her voice, and that’s, in a way, her home.” So it is with Zola Jesus, and it seems she’s finally settled enough to invite us in.

Zola Jesus: The Ice Queen