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Zola Jesus

Zola Jesus is the project of Nika Roza Danilova, who crafts dark yet uplifting music dominated by her operatic vocals and keyboards. As her work moved from the lo-fi bedroom productions of early works like 2009's The Spoils to the more polished territory of 2017's Okovi and the dense, ambitious arrangements of 2022's Arkhon, the power of her voice and her blend of electronic, industrial, and classical influences endured. Born in Phoenix, Arizona and raised in Merrill, Wisconsin, Danilova showed an interest in singing early on, buying voice-lesson tapes and opera sheet music at age seven. Soon after, she began working with a vocal coach for the next decade. Anxiety and the competitive nature of opera caused her to stop singing for a couple of years, but missing that form of expression spurred her to begin Zola Jesus. Inspired by favorites like Diamanda Galás, Lydia Lunch, Throbbing Gristle, and Swans, she made cathartic home recordings using keyboards, drum machines, and anything else she had on hand while studying at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Her first officially released music included a couple of 2008 7"s: the Poor Sons EP on Die Stasi and Soeur Sewer on Sacred Bones. After transferring to the University of Wisconsin Madison, in 2009 she recorded her debut album. Released that July by Sacred Bones, The Spoils reflected the greater emphasis on her voice and the slightly cleaner production values compared to her earliest recordings (a year later, Sacred Bones reissued the album with tracks from Poor Sons and Soeur Sewer). That year, Zola Jesus also issued the Tsar Bomba EP on Troubleman, New Amsterdam on Sacred Bones, and an untitled, limited-edition vinyl album and a split release with Burial Hex on Aurora Borealis. In addition, Danilova played in the group Former Ghosts, which featured Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart and Freddy Ruppert. In 2010, Danilova graduated from university with a double major in French and philosophy while keeping her busy pace of releases and shows. That March saw the arrival of the Stridulum EP. Named for Giulio Paradisi's 1979 horror film, the EP stripped away the noisy production of Zola Jesus' previous efforts and put her voice and songwriting front and center. She followed it with the Valusia EP, and that July collaborated with Pocahaunted's Amanda Brown on LA Vampires Meets Zola Jesus, an experimental lo-fi EP. A month later, Souterrain Transmissions combined tracks from Valusia with Stridulum into the full-length Stridulum II. Tour dates supporting Fever Ray and the xx rounded out the year. Along with working with M83 and Prefuse 73, in 2011 Zola Jesus released her third full-length, Conatus. Arriving that September, the album was co-produced by Danilova and Brian Foote of Cloudland Canyon and Jackie-O Motherfucker and incorporated strings and other acoustic instrumentation. Like Zola Jesus' previous albums, Conatus (Latin for "moving forward") earned critical acclaim. It also became one of Danilova's more commercially successful releases, reaching number six on the Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart in the U.S. and number 22 on the U.K. Independent Albums chart. Toward the end of the Conatus tour, Danilova was asked to perform at New York's Guggenheim Museum, an event for which she collaborated with Foetus' J.G. Thirlwell, who provided arrangements for the Mivos Quartet. These string-based renditions were captured in 2013's Versions. For her fourth album, October 2014's Taiga, Danilova moved to Mute Records. She opted for a musical and geographical change of pace, drawing from pop powerhouses like Mariah Carey and Barbra Streisand and writing songs while on Washington State's verdant Vashon Island. Named after the Russian word for "forest," the album was mixed in Los Angeles with Dean Hurley and peaked at number nine on the Billboard Heatseekers chart in the U.S.; in the U.K., it hit number 48 on the Independent Albums chart. In 2017, Danilova returned to Merrill and started work on songs sparked by hard times she and her friends had experienced. Okovi, an album named after the Slavic word for "shackles," appeared in September 2017. The first Zola Jesus album to feature guitar, Okovi's meditations on loss and healing featured contributions from Alex DeGroot, WIFE, Pedestrian Deposit's Shannon Kennedy, and percussionist Ted Byrnes. The album reached number eight on Billboard's Dance/Electronic Albums chart. The following year saw the release of Okovi: Additions, an EP of songs recorded during the Okovi sessions as well as remixes of some of the album's tracks by Johnny Jewel, Katie Gately, Joanne Pollock, and Wolves in the Throne Room. Zola Jesus' first concert album, Live at Roadburn 2018, arrived in September 2020 and captured her show at the Netherlands' Roadburn Festival. While working on her next set of songs, Danilova experienced a severe case of writer's block. To get the creative juices flowing again, she recruited producer Randall Dunn and drummer/percussionist Matt Chamberlain, both of whom helped her shape the sound of June 2022's Arkhon. Named for the ancient Greek term for "ruler" (as well as the Gnostic idea of power wielded by a flawed god), the album turned away from the dance leanings of Taiga and Okovi in favor of a heavier sound driven by Chamberlain's polyrhythms.
© Heather Phares /TiVo


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