It’s been nearly three years since Nika Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus, released her fifth full-length album, Taiga, and the time that’s followed has not been easy for the songstress. Between battling her own depression and watching friends who didn’t want to live anymore attempt to end their lives, and others who wanted nothing more than to live get diagnosed with terminal illnesses, Danilova decided it was time to return home to Wisconsin after a stint in the Pacific Northwest.
“You know, I never thought that I’d move back to where I grew up,” she admits to me in the garage of a friend’s house in Los Angeles, “but everything just happened very intuitively, where I just felt like I needed to quite literally go back to my roots.” The 28-year-old musician decided to make the move permanent by building a small house on her parents’ land. “I can’t sell the house, it’s on my family land. It’s not going anywhere,” she explains. “So I think that was a subconscious effort to be like, ‘Okay, I need to find stability,’ and it helped. I felt like I was able to find that.”
All of those experiences made their way onto the upcoming Zola Jesus record, Okovi—a breathtaking observation of the human condition and a cathartic project for an artist who’s still trying to see light through the darkness.
VMP: You’ve dealt with a lot of traumatic experiences both internally and with those close to you in the past few years. Are you comfortable going into more detail about that?
Nika Roza Danilova: I won’t talk about specifics, but I was going through a really intense depression the last couple of years. When I moved back to Wisconsin, I started getting a little bit more clarity and started to work through it. As I was getting more clarity, several people around me were in their darkest moment, so it was just this avalanche of everybody’s heaviness … I had someone very close to me attempt suicide several times over the course of last summer, so working through all that and then having someone else close to me get diagnosed with terminal cancer and trying to work through that—there was a lot of weight and heaviness that I was trying to sift through and understand myself, and also trying to help the people around me. It was pretty thick.
The album is very dark and focused around death. Was writing it a means of catharsis for you?
It was very cathartic. I needed this music and the experience of making this album. I don’t know that anything’s been resolved, but it’s a snapshot. It helped me at the time, and now it’s out in the world, which is a little uncomfortable in some ways, but also hopefully can help someone.
Because of the subject matter and everything that was going on during the songwriting process, was it difficult to record this album?
Yeah, and it was really hard to write. It’s not like this stuff was coming out easily; it’s not like I was just churning out hits—there was a period of maybe six months to a year where I couldn’t even finish a song—so it was a huge battle to get this stuff out. At some point, it felt like an exorcism. I trusted my process and the service of music. I felt like in the beginning, music was the thing that crippled me because I felt like I had so much to prove to myself when making it, but then as I let that go and shed my own critical aspect of it, I let it be useful for me to work through things. That’s how discovered music in the first place, so it was basically like rediscovering the origins of what I do.
The songs that stood out to me most were “Witness” and “Siphon,” are those about the same subject?
Yeah, both of those songs were about the same situation that happened twice. They were both very much a letter to the person, quite literally. I wrote the song and sent it to them. Those are very personal.
How has the person they’re about reacted to the songs?
I think they were touched. I know that they were. I don’t know if it was helpful; I don’t know if it in some ways made things better or worse, but I asked the person if it was OK that these songs were on the record, and they said yes and that they still really loved the songs. It’s really delicate when you’re writing about somebody else’s trauma. It’s coming from the experience of—this is me trying to reach out to this person, but at the same time I want to respect their struggle. It’s really delicate, and I’ve never been so direct. In music, I don’t think I’ve ever had songs that were so necessary and raw. If it’s me, it’s one thing, but if it’s about somebody else, it’s a whole different game.
It’s a touchy subject, but it’s good that you still went there.
Yeah, I mean, I needed to, whether or not I decided to put it on the record. But at the end of the day, I thought those two songs were really important for them, they were really important to me, and I feel like maybe they could be of service to people.
The other song that’s really interesting to me is “Soak,” because of its subject matter. It’s written through the lens of a serial killer’s victim right before she’s dumped into the water—how did you come up with that?
It’s one of those things where I just started writing the song, and sometimes I’ll just channel a feeling, and throughout the course of the song I’m figuring out what it is I’m channeling, so I’m inhabiting this experience. It’s such a weird metaphysical, hard-to-explain thing … I’ve been really interested in serial killers in general—the psychology of them, and how they can so freely and so sadistically take someone else’s life and decide how it’s going to end for [their victims]. Then I was thinking how so few people really think about what the victim is going through, and that feeling of resentment and anger and frustration and fear and knowing how your time is almost up, and how you can have some sort of peace at the end of it. Once the song was written, I was listening to it and I could hear in the lyrics how they mirrored my own frustration and resentment that I was going through of how my life was going to go or how my life was going to end, so it’s a double-edged song, in a way.
Okovi is the Slavic word for “shackles,” what made you decide that was the right title for the album?
Couple reasons, the first is that I wanted to use a Slavic word because I’m Slavic, and I liked that it was a word that meant something in many Slavic languages … all these countries that are constantly at war with each other have something in common, and it’s shackles. The one thing that everyone has in common is restraint, is being prisoner to something, is being chained to something. I thought about that just in terms of the people in my life—how we’re all so different, but at the same time we’re all chained to something, whether it’s one person being chained to life, they can’t die, and another person feels like they’re chained to death, they can’t stay alive, and another person is chained to their illness, or their body, or their mind. For me, I felt chained to my own mind and to my own fate. It just seemed like it made sense.
What are you most proud of about this album?
(Sighs) That it’s done. It was the kind of album that I kept saying, “I don’t have anything.” Like, I have all these songs, but it’s not a record. Also because I feel I was so hard on myself, I didn’t feel like I had it. Being able to listen to it as a whole, and hear it as a piece, and see how it came together so organically—I did have an album, I just wasn’t healthy enough to be able to see the beauty in all these songs. And I like that they feel like they each have their own life—there’s a lot of space in them; it’s like an environment.