“This record is made in the time of the Archons,” Nika Roza Danilova said, matter-of-factly. The Archons — Gnostic malevolent forces and rulers that corrupt humanity — are the namesake of her sixth full-length album as Zola Jesus. We live in an Archonic period, she said, because we have a “lot of rulers trying to manipulate and control humanity in a way that is nefarious and potentially very dangerous and destructive.”
For a gothic pop record as anxious as it is cleansing, that dark, mystical spirtuality is key to Arkhon: While music has long been Danilova’s catharsis, on this record, magic, too, was instrumental for self-examination. After a divorce and the loss of several important relationships — not to mention, of course, the pandemic — Danilova needed to recalibrate: Who was she without these people in her life? And what tools could she access to exorcise her suffering and better understand herself?
As she created Arkhon, she explored Gnosticism, author Dion Fortune, shamanism (specifically “the way that music is used as a modality within shamanic practice”) and Carl Jung’s writings on the collective unconscious. As she did shadow work — “in terms of really looking at my shadow and looking at the behaviors or patterns that I get myself into that are not serving me and not serving the people around me” — she experienced “a real ego death.”
“From there, I kind of rebuilt myself, but in a more open way, where I broke down a lot of the walls that I kept between myself and the world, and myself and other people, and learned how to become more comfortable with who I am without feeling like that’s not enough,” Danilova said. “My whole life, I felt like I had to be somebody else in order to fit in, or in order to please people, and it got to a point where I realized I really need to be honest with who I am and what I want instead of what I feel like the world wants for me.”
Danilova thinks that after her work started receiving some amount of critical attention, she wanted to please and impress listeners, and that impacted her creation. Not only was her work affected, as it was tweaked for the invisible critic rather than her own preferences, but it also didn’t provide her the catharsis that she experiences from creating and performing music. She lost some sense of herself and her identity as an artist.
“Much of my first couple records were just trying to be like, ‘Is this good enough? Is this what you want? Is this what you want from me? Will you finally give me that good score, give me that good review, will I finally be accepted?’” Danilova said. “I just wanted to be accepted, and I thought that that meant having to shave off all of my edges. And then I did that and I was bitter, because I felt like I couldn’t actually be honest with myself.”
She felt “the music was being written by the mind more than the soul,” and, at the time, her mind wouldn’t let her soul speak; letting it speak leaves you vulnerable. Hinging on magic in this time of loss helped her put her own ideas at the music’s forefront.
“So much about magic is just about shifting and manipulating energy, and in order to do that, there's a sense of inner confidence that you need in the end result,” Danilova said. “When I applied that to my music and let my music become more of a divinatory practice … when I collaborated with people, it became a divinatory act.”
Collaboration played a larger role in her songwriting than ever before. Danilova worked closely with producer Randall Dunn, as well as drummer Matt Chamberlain and others.
“The music took on this universal life because other people were involved in it,” Danilova said. “The spirituality behind the music is different because it isn't just like this narcissistic, highly individual act: It's more communal and universal and bigger than just me, and that was really beautiful. It taught me so much about the power of art and how important it is to bring other people into the process sometimes.”
Perhaps her most collaborative song is “Sewn,” built off one of Chamberlain’s drumbeats and followed by Dunn’s synths. Kicking off spacey and ominous, “Sewn” suddenly sets off with a tight, fast drumbeat; she sings cooly, unaffected, as if reciting an incantation. “It’s about finding the divine for yourself, and communing with the divine yourself,” Danilova said. “That we all have the power to wake up and to accumulate the wisdom that's in the earth — but you have to seek it, you have to wake up.”
Compared to “Sewn,” the piano-driven “Desire” is very much an individual song, one that reminded Danilova of music’s importance to her healing. She’d sit and play that chord progression a number of times: It was a “grounding force” when she “was feeling so out of control.”
“Music is like a limb; it’s like an appendage. It’s something that I need. My entire life, I’ve needed music as a means of not only understanding myself better, but understanding the world and also feeling connected to the outside, outside of myself,” Danilova said. “But this record, I let myself use music more personally than I think I did in the past … Now I’m like, ‘I eat first.’ It is about my catharsis because I needed it, because I’d gone through so much inner turmoil. [I] needed the music in order to heal.”
Caitlin Wolper is a writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Vulture, Slate, MTV News, Teen Vogue, and more. Her first poetry chapbook, Ordering Coffee in Tel Aviv, was published in October by Finishing Line Press. She shares her music and poetry thoughts (with a bevy of exclamation points, and mostly lowercase) at @CaitlinWolper.