Nika Roza Danilova didn’t have anything heretical in mind when she settled on the stage name Zola Jesus for her 2009 debut disc The Spoils. It was merely a punk-inspired mashup of two distinct moniker/concepts, French J’Accuse! author Emile Zola and conversely forgiving and benevolent religious figure Jesus Christ, nothing more. So the Gothic electronica artist finds it ironic that the personal travails leading up to her latest magnum opus, Arkhon, her sixth, have been almost biblical in magnitude. As in, Book of Job challenging. She won’t go into elaborate detail about her Covid era spent on her hand-built homestead in rural Wisconsin, which fed into new Siouxsie Sioux-meets-Dead Can Dance, layered-vocal soundscapes like “Lost,” “The Fall,” “Dead & Gone,” and a chugging juggernaut of a coda called “Do That Anymore.” But she admits that her path to studio salvation was rooted in following the classic Prayer of Serenity—“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
“During the pandemic, I learned that I’m capable of a lot more when I let go of control and just let go of the outcome,” sighs Danilova, who trustingly handed her demos over to producer Randall Dunn. “And he was like a doula who helped me give birth to these songs, because I just couldn’t do it on my own. It was far too painful for me.” Keyboardist Dunn had not only worked with similarly cinematic artists like Anna Von Hausswolff, but he’d also helmed soundtracks for recent horror flicks Mandy and the Candyman reboot, so he instinctively knew how to buttress Zola Jesus’ rose-windowed cathedrals of sound. It helped, of course, that the raven-haired singer herself always resembles an ominous vamp from some lost German Expressionist masterpiece—it only serves to add to the visual impact of their collaborations. They might not have parted the Red Sea with Arkhon, issued on the hip Sacred Bones imprint. But there was certainly a sense of prophecy fulfilled when it was done.
“These songs are so raw because they are all about me, not somebody else,” says Danilova, who even lost focus on her trademark operatic fashion sense during lockdown—she downgraded her daily outfit to what she currently calls “a simple black uniform.” That made it incredibly difficult to see Arkhon clearly through to completion, she adds. She was just too close to the sensitive subject matter. “I really needed someone else to come in, and that’s why I’m so grateful for Randall Dunn,” as well as drummer Matt Chamberlain and her longtime touring violinist Louise Woodward, who fleshed out percussion and complicated string arrangements, respectively. So there is no shame in admitting that you need a little help, especially during a soul-deadening coronavirus onslaught. “I definitely believe that at this point,” she says, before diving into a deep existential discussion on the meaning of it all.
Paste: How was it during the pandemic in your secluded Wisconsin enclave?
Zola Jesus: It was incredible. I was so blessed to have that space and to have access to nature. I’m so glad that I locked down my house situation before Covid, because so many of my friends were really struggling. And the animals keep their distance, thankfully, and I keep my distance from them. But it was just really nice to connect with the woods on a deeper level, being there so consistently.
Paste: How was it going through the seasons there? And you could probably sense them even more acutely now, right? Especially in the wake of escalating climate change.
Zola Jesus: And the seasons are so different. It goes from blistering hot to freezing cold throughout the course of a year. It’s still snowing there—spring hasn’t really reached us yet. But all the seasons are quite loud in how they express themselves, which I appreciate. And that’s why I feel like living by the Great Lakes is a safer bet, because I’m definitely noticing the way that the seasons are changing in sort of an abnormal way, but they’re still there, you know? We’re still getting cold, we’re still getting hot. But it’s more serene in some ways, and the winters are less harsh.
Paste: Do you feel a sense of pending doom, or do you feel calmer now?
Zola Jesus: No, I feel doom. I feel doom at all times, absolutely. Don’t you worry. There’s so much going on in the world that is just so anxiety-inducing, whether it’s climate change or the realities of our political leaders, surveillance capitalism, and the rise of platform capitalism. And I’m talking about Uber and all these apps that will contract out work, like, ‘Oh, you can set your own hours! You can get paid by using these apps!” But in doing so, we’re being stripped of all of our benefits and any sort of bargaining power, because all of the people that are contracted out are these kinds of, well, contractors. So there’s not a lot of solidarity between anybody or anything right now, and that’s the most daunting thing. Because we already have such real problems in the world that need to be taken care of very quickly, but without solidarity we can’t even really begin.
Paste: You actually had your identity stolen at one point, And it took you forever to get it back.
Zola Jesus: Yeah. But you know, these are just modern problems. You’ve got to be extra careful about everything you do, because nothing is a closed loop, you know?
Paste: And the algorithms are already calculating what your next want or desire will be.
Zola Jesus: Yeah. No one’s really exempt. When I was a kid, being able to explore new music felt like I had to put my own puzzle pieces together, and piece together what was interesting to me, just through what I’d found. So there was a lot of digging and hunting involved, but that allowed me to confront the question of, “What am I looking for? What do I want?” But in seeking out new music now, people just listen to whatever’s in their Discover Weekly [Spotify playlist]. Which hopefully is Zola Jesus. But if not? It’s garbage! Ha! Just kidding! But you know, the algorithm takes our work out, but at the same time, does it take our freedom of choice away, because it’s assuming that this is what we want? Does it create a barrier around what we might even potentially see as our options, really? It’s a real question.
Paste: Given that, how do you personally break down those barriers and keep your options open to change and new things?
Zola Jesus: Um, for me, I really look at the big picture. And I have to really zoom way, way, way out, so far out that I start to get existential angst about why we are even alive. But in zooming out and having a wider perspective of what we’re here to do and who we’re here to be allows me to have guidance about what’s really important in this mess of things trying to grab our attention. So that’s important for me, just to really hold onto the context of who we are and what we’re supposed to be doing here.
Paste: There were times during the pandemic when I felt like Neo—in both The Matrix and The Matrix Resurrections. When they finally tack down his corporeal form, he’s just a human battery in a slime pod, powering this dismal gray AI dystopia. Like, “Am I just a faceless power source? Keeping this hopeless future functioning?”
Zola Jesus: That’s what my song “Lost” is about—that very feeling, where it’s like, everyone I know has so much potential to give and contribute so much to the world and society and communities, but we’re all so atomized and alienated and exploited, that our gifts are being wasted on doing menial bullshit jobs, or things that don’t matter, or participating in machines that are just zooming around an exploiting all of our value. It’s just a really scary thing. And for me, the more I think about the fundamentals, like I said … Like, as I zoom way, way out, I also zoom way, way in, and I think, “Okay, what are the fundamental aspects of life that provide me joy and meaning?” And I latch onto those, instead of relying on the structure of society to give me meaning, because they are misleading me, and they’re not actually being forthright about how they’re using our labor. Like, these jobs may be paying us so we can pay our rent, but the way in which they extract labor from us keeps us from ever being able to self reflect, because we’re having to work, 24/7. They’re working us to death, as if that’s the point of life. There’s just so much wrong now with the way that society is engineered, it makes me want to just exit it all, altogether. But I think for me, as an artist, I find that I have a responsibility to imagine a better world, and to be a champion of hope, and a champion of all the things that I believe in, and believe to be so fundamental to life. And those things are irrevocable, and those are the things that I continue to get up in the morning to fight for, because now, more than ever, we need people that are keeping the dream alive, and not getting sucked underwater by the lifestyles of this modern life.
Paste: It’s nice to stop and remember, though, that in the process, we’re leaving a tangible body of hopefully important work behind.
Zola Jesus: That’s all you can do, you know? All you can do is contribute to the world, and to the magic that you see in the world, and to not get too downtrodden by everything around us that’s trying to keep us from feeling that magic. That would be the real shame, if we let that magic die. And I just can’t. I can’t.
Paste: And it’s interesting what just happened for you in April—you just turned 33, the so-called Christ age, when your path in life becomes crystal-clear if you’re open to the signs.
Zola Jesus: I know! And I’m loving it! I’m living this Christ age thing. I mean, most of my days have been taken up by helping care for someone close to me who’s dying of cancer, so I’m kind of providing hospice. But it’s been a huge blessing in understanding my priorities and what’s really important and connecting … again, just connecting to people that I love in just such a pure way. And having to reckon with death, which is something that I never felt comfortable doing, because I’m very afraid of death. But being forced to really face it head on with people that I love is fascinating. And if anything, I think that’s quite an edgy thing, to really surrender yourself to the moment, to surrender yourself to the call to provide care for others, even in the midst of releasing an album, which is already quite a selfish experience. And I think that we’re always learning from mistakes that we never learned from history, and that’s just how it is. And it’s kind of funny to watch unfold in real time, like being here and going, “Really? We’re not going to dig into our past to realize why we keep making these mistakes?”
Paste: As in, “Really?! We’re actually going to try and elect Trump, again?!
Zola Jesus: Yeah! You’d be surprised—people just don’t want to reflect on the realities of history, and we’re living in this kind of ever-stretching present that isn’t able to contextualize history, because there is no reflection. There’s just content, current content. There’s just the moment, and so it’s almost like history is an old newspaper that we don’t want to read because it’s not new anymore. We forget all the lessons that we’ve learned. But that’s what’s interesting to me. I’m more interested than ever in ancient wisdom and the things that we’re at risk of losing or have already lost to time. Because I find that stuff to be things that we really need to keep in the consciousness, keep in the collective mind for the future.
Paste: Well, just like any animal species that got in our industrialized way, any indigenous culture—along with their language—has been systematically stomped out of existence by so-called Western civilization.
Zola Jesus: It’s horrible. I hate it. It brings me malaise, to know that there’s no respect for indigenous wisdom, which I find to be the most profound wisdom that we have. And I find that to be very frustrating. Their wisdom makes sense. But we’re not thinking about survival in the future—we’re only thinking about survival in the present. And to that extent, we are prepping ourselves for extinction, because we aren’t thinking long-term, about anything.
Paste: Are there books you recommend to folks as reference points? Like Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels?
Zola Jesus: Well, yeah, The Gnostic Gospels is interesting. But for me, I’ve just been really interested in mysticism. There are two things I’ve been very interested in—mysticism, through the study of Gnosticism, as a type of mysticism, but also the Kabbalah and other types that I’ve been curious about. Just having a direct relationship with the divine is something that I’m really interested in, especially as a musician, because for me when I’m making music, it feels like a divine experience, and I feel like I’m divining something. And having that really personal, spiritual relationship with everything, through music as the conduit, is something that is really profound to me, And then I’ve also really been interested in shamanism, for lack of a better term, and just indigenous healing, which I think is so important, because we’re losing a lot of that wisdom of psychic healing. So where I’m coming from is, this record was born out of extremely transformational circumstances, and a lot of challenging moments—relationships ended, versions of myself were destroyed in the process, and it was an incredibly overwhelming experience of having to rebuild myself from the ground up. So through that, I really understood myself on a deeper level, and was curious about psychic trauma. And so I got interested in things like shamanic healing—not that I pursued it, but I’ve been studying it, because it’s such a specific thing. But I feel like shamans are psychic healers, they’re emotional healers, and their skills are being lost. So, as a result, our people are not being treated for very important things that would otherwise be handled by a shaman, just like psychic and emotional trauma, which therapists can help with. But there are other aspects of that trauma, that are just lingering, regardless, so I got really interested in that, and in music as a form of healing, because it was healing me. And that’s why Arkhon is such a special record for me—Arkhon was my way of healing on a psychic level, the process of making the record, what the record’s about, everything, even the people that I worked with, and continued to work with, on the record. It was a healing process for me, that I would liken to a shamanic practice. So those things have been really interesting to me lately, and they gave me hope in a deeper and more primal aspect of our emotional world.
Paste: Not to be ghoulish, but was there a been-down-so-long-it looks-like-up-to-me moment where it felt like things couldn’t get any worse?
Zola Jesus: Yeah. I feel like that now, to an extent. I felt like that in 2018, 2019. Since basically 2017, my life has just been one thing after another that has tested my will and tested my resilience. And I really think it’s a collective experience, too—everyone is experiencing a very tumultuous time right now, and we’re all going through it in personal ways, but we’re feeling it collectively. But that’s something that’s really interesting, and it makes it easier for me, because I’m like, “Okay—this is a transformational time for everyone, but it’s like how it manifests for each person is going to be different.” So I have solace, knowing I’m not the only one suffering. But it’s been intense, and just trying to maintain grace and resilience through it has led me to explore things like mystical traditions that have given me a sense of hope and wonder amidst all the difficulties.
Paste: Are there any rites or rituals that you perform, or daily routines you follow, to keep yourself centered?
Zola Jesus: Yeah. I do have a bunch of practices that I do, and I also do meditation. And I spent some time at a Zen monastery earlier this year that was really helpful. Nothing happens there—you just sit and you meditate, and it was great training and I can’t wait to go back. I would live there if I could. But I did constantly kind of push myself to see what I’m capable of handling at any given moment. That’s kind of like the call that I’m trying to answer, because shit’s not gonna stop coming my way—it’s just about how I end up dealing with it and turning it into something I can use, you know? I think it’s important to give myself an hour, at least, of daily reflection. But for my evenings, sometimes instead of watching TV, I’ll do something that I call Dream Time, where I’ll just sit in bed, put music on, light incense, and just kind of dream and reflect. And I just love daydreaming and getting in those kind of half-lucid states where the mind can just kind of be free, because our minds are always so busy these days. My mind gets so tired just having to look through my email, even—it needs its own playtime. The mind needs to play and to let go and to relax, too, so that’s something that is so important.
Paste: Do songs occur to you during that time?
Zola Jesus: Yeah. Actually, the first lyric of one of my songs on the new record came to me just as I was falling asleep. The lyrics are, “Sewn together as a fist of God.” I was falling asleep and I heard that and I went, “Whoa!” And then I wrote a song and I put it in the song, and the song, “Sewn,” is about that kind of experience, of feeling like you’re divining something.
Paste: That song feels like a subterranean Gothic-blues disturbance, in a good way. But you end the album on the thumping tumbler “Do That Anymore” for a reason, right?
Zola Jesus: The record is such a journey that at the end of it, it’s kind of like, “Yeah, we’re still here, we’ve still gotta deal with some shit, and it still sucks. But this is the reality of what we’re dealing with.” So there’s not really a resolution. It is what it is. And I kind of like that, just leaving it on this melancholy note …
Arkhon is out now on Sacred Bones Records.
Listen to Zola Jesus’ 2011 Daytrotter session below.