Zola Jesus interview part two: the new record plus recluses of Vashon Island

The other day I interviewed Nika Danilova of Zola Jesus, in anticipation of her performance at the Loving Touch on January 19. As the feature got bumped for space, I’ve broken the interview into a few chunks. This here is part two. 

MT: Why and how did you go to Vashon Island, near Seattle, to do the record? Was it just a self-imposed exile or what? Why there?

ND: Well, I was living in Los Angeles and I had enough of it. It wasn’t doing anything for me. Coming from Wisconsin to Los Angeles, it was just too much. So I became very fixated on Washington, from coming here on tour. I opened a map and found an island that was really cool, not too far away from civilization but far enough, and that was it. I moved there and that was it.

MT: So you went there by yourself and worked on the music?

ND: Well, I’m married so my husband came with. He just watched movies.

MT: Did you guys interact with the people? It’s an interesting mix of people that moved there in the '70s and then Microsoft millionaires that moved there in the '90s. 

ND: There are definitely a lot of characters there, which is cool. There was a strings player from there, Eyvind Kang. He wasn’t living there at the time, but he had lived there for years and years. So when I lived there, we got together and talked about tons of cool people who lived there.

MT: Did you ever perform with him?

ND: I tried to get him on the record, but our schedules didn't overlap. He’s awesome.

MY: Speaking of strings, I really love that video of you in the Guggenheim, that string work. That was something you wanted to do for a long time or did Jim Thirlwell bring it up or did it just sort of happen that, since you were working with him, you worked with him on that?

ND: When I got the offer to play at the Guggenheim, it was such a huge opportunity that I didn’t want to just play my set. I wanted to do something different. So because it was unique acoustically, I wanted to use that. I wanted to have a string version of my song. So I contacted my friend, who was a producer in New York, and I asked him if he knew any string arrangers. And he said JG. And I said, what? I was a huge fan. I contacted him and he was totally down. Working with him was absolutely incredible because he is the sweetest dude and such a visionary. He really took the songs in a direction I never would have and he pushed me a lot, which was good.

MT: Do you think you’ll ever work with him again?

ND: I would love to. I love that dude. And I loved working with him. I definitely hope to.

MT: Back again to the new record. Is it fair to say that while you seem to change a lot in production and maybe even genre, there’s from the start a tension in your music between noise and melody, between structure and the loss of it, and that’s the common thread? Am I over thinking it? Do you think of it in those ways?

ND: Yeah. Without tension what do you have? And everything is based on a challenge and challenge is tension. There’s always stress involved.

MT: Right. Because on the surface your music has changed a whole lot. Obviously you have the singing. That doesn’t change: it’s always you. Is it true you deliberately set out to make more of a pop type album? How did you go about doing that? Did you listen to more stuff on that radio, or is that rumor not even true?

ND: I’m always listening to stuff on the radio. I’ve always listened to pop music. But it’s the challenge of making music that was cleaner and more hi-fi. In the beginning — of course I love noise and industrial music — but also it was easier to make something that sounded worse because you had lower expectations, sonically. For this I was like, you know what? I’m gonna try to set out to make something that very concise, very well produced, but still has the same character that I’ve always had in my work. It was a challenge, and I feel like if I kept doing the same thing over and over again, it would just be rote after a while and what’s the point?

MT: Are you happy with it? What do you think the next record will be like?

ND: I’m very happy with it. The next record I have no idea. I have a feeling it’s like a pendulum: I swing one way and then I swing another way and everything is a reaction. Assume whatever from that. I’m not sure yet.

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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