Zola Jesus

“I had to make pop music to throw people off guard” 

Words: Andrew Swann

Wisconsin-born musician Zola Jesus talks about smelling like the woods, the human existence and what it takes to make good pop music  

At just 25, Nika Roza Danilova aka Zola Jesus has already achieved more than most people in a lifetime. Five studio albums, a performance at the Guggenheim and numerous collaborations with the likes of M83, Orbital and Jozef van Wissem confirm her credentials as a musical force to be reckoned with.

2014’s Taiga saw Zola Jesus throw off her lo-fi industrial/gothic shroud to reveal her clean-cut inner pop princess. With the dust now settled on the release, and touring the new album in full force, The Red Bulletin sat down with the Wisconsin-born musician to talk about pop music, smelling like the woods, and a possible future writing songs for, erm, Justin Bieber? 

“Dangerous Days” was the first song to be released off the new album Taiga, and the first via her new record label Mute  

You described your 2014 album Taiga as “tackling the challenge of making a big record.“ Would you consider Taiga your pop album?

I think they’re all pop albums, but this one felt like the most produced, the most thought-over. So in that way maybe it is pop, I don’t know.

What is your definition of pop music?

I think the idea of pop is abstract. You’re always chasing after this very abstract notion of what it means to be pop. But I think it is about making music that’s emotional and visceral. Even noise can be visceral but you know – doing it in a very melodic way – I think that would be pop music.

How has the album been received?

Well, I think people were expecting me to make something different but, I think my whole career has been about trying to do something that throws people off guard, and this is just another version of that. I had to make pop music to throw people off guard instead of making something noisy. 

Do you think you succeeded?

I did (laughs) for better or for worse!  

“My whole career has been trying to do something that throws people off guard”
Zola Jesus

Do you think there is a certain stigma attached to pop music?

Probably yeah, because I think, especially when you come from the DIY or indie world, people are often scared of pop because it means less, it means it is disingenuous or something. I feel like pop is just a medium in order to express your honesty in a different way. But yeah, it is definitely stigmatised.

How can we make pop more accessible to people that see “pop“ as a dirty word?

That’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since I wrote my first song, which was quite noisy, but it was still pop you know?  Back then it was covered in noise so people were ok with listening to it. I think my goal with Taiga was to create an album that felt pop, but also felt like it maintained an honesty to it. 

What is a good pop song in your opinion?

Halo by Beyoncé. I know she didn’t write it, but yeah, that is a great song. I think it’s immaculate. 

Is it true that you have your own fragrance?

Yeah, it’s called Taiga. It smells like the woods.

Why a fragrance and not just a band T-shirt like everyone else?

I like the idea of smell and how it can completely transport you, and I think it is the same with sound. When you put a record on the whole world ceases to exist and this other world builds up in front of you. I feel the same way when I smell something and I’m caught off guard and I’m like, “Where am I?” I just like the idea of trying to simulate the world of Taiga in a multi-sensory way.  

Zola Jesus

Follow Zola Jesus on Instagram 

© Instagram

Are you going to be competing with Beyoncé, Katy Perry and the rest of them soon?

Well, at one point I thought I could compete with them, not fragrance-wise but musically. But no I don’t think so, all that shit just smells like plastic flowers and chemicals!  

You have released an album every year since 2009 apart from your break in 2012 – That’s quite a ratio. Would you say you’re a workaholic?

Yeah, I suppose, but then again this is my life. There is no separation between the job and private life. That has caused quite a lot of stress over the last couple of years, realising how all-consuming it all is. That’s what I love about it, but at the same time you realise that without music I would have to rebuild my life.  

You spent nine months living in relative isolation on the island of Vashon. What did you learn about human existence while you were there?

Oh man, don’t even get me started on that! Well, I have always known human existence is futile, but I feel that being isolated from civilisation makes you realise that our whole idea of human civilisation is just this construct that we create in order to give ourselves order to the chaos. Once you take this away you realise just how primal the world still is you know?

What were you were able to put into the record from your time there?

The whole idea of how we build these concrete forests to replace our actual forests, and that our concept of synthesising nature makes us feel more comfortable because we’re in control of it. I think that was the biggest thing that I took from it. 

Zola Jesus

Zola Jesus’ goal with Taiga was to create an album that “felt pop, but also felt like it maintained honesty to it”

© Julia Comita 

I heard you wrote 2-3 songs a day for almost two years. How many songs do you think you have written over the years? 

So many! Even the little bits, they’re still swimming around. 

Where do you keep them? Up here (points to her head.) 

Have you ever just taken words without feeling and created a song?

I am obsessed with that idea! The future goal is to be able to answer the question, “what’s this song about?” with the answer, “I don’t know, just for fun!” At the moment every song for me comes with a war and it is exhausting. But I have tried [to make songs from random words] and they’re all terrible (laughs) because they don’t mean anything!

Where is the strangest place you have ever written a song?

Hmm, I don’t know because they happen everywhere. I wrote “Nail” in the shower, so I guess that is pretty weird right? (laughs).  

“There are a lot of songs that I have written where I think “No one should be saying that out loud“” 
Zola Jesus

What is the worst song you ever written? Oh there are so many! Sometimes I get really embarrassed about my lyrics because they are so direct. I am just like, “can’t I be poetic at all?! Is there no poetry here?“ (laughs). But yeah, there are a lot of songs that I have written where I think “no one should be saying that out loud.“

Ever written a tribute? I did write a freestlye song about the death of Robin Williams, I really should have recorded that one… 

“Justin Bieber? Sure whatever, he can take it” 

Have you ever sold a song to someone? No, but that would be great, because I often feel like half the songs aren’t even written for me.

Would you ever consider selling a song to someone like Justin Bieber? Justin Bieber? Sure whatever, he can take it (laughs).

Is it a possible route you would consider taking in the future? Yeah, why not. I mean, touring feeds you in a certain way, and I think that is important, but it would also be nice to have the opportunity to focus on something else. After a whileyou kind of get stuck in this cog, so yeah, i’m open.

So Justin should give you a call? Ha ha, I’m not totally stoked on Justin Bieber, but Sia can call me anytime. I think that what she has done is really great. 

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