Zola Jesus, aka Seattle-based singer-songwriter Nika Roza Danilova, has come a long way since the haunting, gloomy, artfully damaged postpunk she started recording at home (and eventually releasing) in the late aughts. The brand-new Taiga is her fifth full-length album, and the first since she departed chic New York indie label Sacred Bones for Mute Records; it's as much of a culmination of her past work as it is a confident step forward. The album pays its respects to her upbringing—the dramatic goth synths are intact, and its title could be read as a reference to the weather and terrain in her childhood hometown of Merrill, Wisconsin. But its bold, immaculate pop also builds upon Danilova's relatively symphonic work with composer J.G. Thirlwell and the Mivos Quartet on last year's Versions. Her assured, sirenlike singing connects the title track's cavernous, minimalist opening passages to its glistening, club-ready finale, which she punches up with a refined drum 'n' bass loop. Taiga is futuristic underground pop that's made for aboveground celebrations.
Interviewing Danilova for this week's Artist on Artist is Chicago singer-songwriter Daniel Knox, whose educated ear for early 20th-century pop informs his blend of Tin Pan Alley, Dixieland, lounge, and bebop. His irresistibly buoyant songs are frequently cinematic in their sounds and stories, as befits a projectionist at the Music Box, and recently he's been collaborating with visual artists as well: he's written and performed music inspired by the exhibit "Blacks & Whites" by photographer John Atwood, and he scored the fiction film The Poisoner, directed by his occasional bandmate Chris Hefner. Knox will release a self-titled LP early in 2015 on Carrot Top, and his next show is Sat 11/1 at the Co-Prosperity Sphere as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. —Leor Galil
Daniel Knox: What kind of band do you have going right now?
Zola Jesus: I have a percussionist, who also plays some synth, a trombonist, who also plays some synth, and a synth player. [Laughs.]
So people are kind of trading off between playing synth and keyboards and—?
My percussionist and trombonist are mostly playing their respective instruments; there are only a couple instances where they play keys. And then my synth player is dedicated to playing bass lines and just, like, making everything happen. But there's definitely a lot of live percussion and a lot of trombone.
The thing I'm most interested to ask you about is your recording process. What kind of gear you're using, how a song starts, and what the studio-versus-home-recording experience is like for you.
Well, most of the time, because they're a cappella, I would just be walking around, coming up with a vocal melody, and then trying to figure out how to fit that to a song. I would take the vocal melody, go into Logic, and start building around it—building beats around it, building sounds, just whatever it needed. [For Taiga] I took the songs and went to a studio in Los Angeles, and I worked with my coproducer Dean Hurley. We just kind of amped everything up—anything that I felt like I was hitting a wall on my own, we worked through it together, and he helped me kind of break through those walls. And then we went to a studio called Westlake to do final mixes and ran everything through a Neve console.
So you're not usually sitting in front of an instrument when you're coming up with a song? Does it always start with a vocal melody, or do you tend to create little pieces of music or rhythms or things like that, and then use those as a springboard for something new?
It depends on what I'm trying to express and the means with which I need to express it. If there's a concept, I'll start with lyrics and then I'll do vocals. If there's a musical idea—like for the song "Hunger" on my new record, I wanted a really fast, intense beat, almost like a reggaeton song. So I tried to figure, "OK, how can I make a reggaeton song make sense for Zola Jesus?" You find these little things that are interesting to you, and they're like threads, and you just follow the threads until they give you a song.
Do you find yourself, when you're putting an album together, just making a body of work, looking back, and then refining it? Or starting with a few pieces and then building on those pieces and trying to make new songs that form relationships with the existing material?
I definitely think that it's all connected, because my songwriting is very innate and because I do all of the songwriting I definitely have a style and I couldn't sound like anybody else. My music is always going to sound like me. I definitely don't go, "Oh, I can't explore this musical territory." You know, like I was saying, "It doesn't sound like Zola Jesus." For this record I was like, it's not fair to me, as a musician and as a person who has a lot of interests, to be chained to my past work. That's actually a true concern—I'm a fan of music as well, and when someone that I love is trying a lot of different things that don't sound like their previous work, it kind of throws you off guard. But that's the most exciting part about being a musician.
This record sounds very different from your previous work, and yet there's that thing that's very signature about it—you can obviously identify that it's you, but it sounds like a departure. It sounds dynamic and yet still cohesive from start to finish.
Working with brass was helpful in tying it all together—some of the songs on the record have brass, and it's all being used in a very similar way. That was kind of like the stamp or the skin of the record.
How do you feel about collaboration?
In the beginning I was very protective of my artistic independence, and I didn't want to collaborate. But the more that I grow and the more that I make and the more that I learn, the more I want to collaborate, because I think that it opens you up. And being a solo musician, like I said, you're constantly chained to yourself—collaborating allows you to see how other people work and push yourself in ways you never would've before.
I'm sort of obsessive, as a musician and just in general as a person—the recording process for me starts with just me alone in a room working on something for an extended period of time, and I get really rigid about how I want things to sound. Whenever I collaborate with somebody on their work, I almost find myself too strict about just taking direction and not offering something.
Depending on who I am collaborating with, sometimes I'll be a contracted performer. That's nice, because then I can use my voice in ways that I don't usually use it. I can just kind of stand back and watch someone else work and be a vessel, be a tool. Other times if it's a really pure collaboration, there's a lot of back-and-forth. I've never been in a band before because I don't like working with people—I have a really hard time yielding to peoples' ideas. But if it's a collaboration with someone that I respect, then it's interesting, because you start entering this whole new dialogue with someone who was before just someone you admired or a friend or something.
It can be really interesting.
But it can also be very bad. I've definitely had collaborations where I'm like, OK, this isn't going anywhere, why don't we just drop it.
I wanted to make sure to ask you about your experience doing the show at the Guggenheim with Versions, and how working with classical instrumentation changed your approach.
It was definitely very revelatory. Working with J.G. Thirlwell as an arranger and a collaborator opened me up to allowing people into my work, and that was a huge stepping stone. Working with purely orchestral instruments for these rearrangements allowed for space in the music that I'd never had. Usually I have layers and layers of dense instrumentation and synths, and opening up that space forced me to focus on the voice. Because before, the voice had just become another layer, but now it was a thing in itself. That was really huge, and after that experience I was kind of forced to sing more, to have more dynamics, to weave in and out of the instruments in a more delicate manner. I took that and I just kind of amped it up for my next record, because it was something that I'd never explored before and I was really excited to try.
How do the songs change for you live? How much loyalty do you feel to re-creating the experience of the record live? And what's the thing that you bring that kind of changes them for the live performance?
I've been really loyal to these songs, because they've never been played live before. They're very much like the record. There's live brass happening, there's live percussion happening, so it feels just like "the live version." Which is exciting, because they're so bombastic and larger than life and kind of jumping out of your headphones. I feel like they're made for the stage—it's very easy to translate them. The more that I play songs—like my older songs, I have no loyalty to. I totally bastardize them and chop them up. I've been really excited now to bring them back, so I'm planning the original version of "Sea Talk"—my older songs, some of them I'm playing, like, the very first version, just kind of as a reward to my fans to let them know that those versions still exist and they're still very valid. But yeah, songs are alive, and they're bound to change and evolve.
Could you describe what your recording situation was when you started versus what your process is now, and how that's evolved?
My first records, pre-Stridulum, were made entirely with a consumer-grade keyboard from Best Buy, like a Yamaha—one of those ones that they teach kids how to play piano on, that have a bunch of funny sounds. I had that, and I had a four-track that was hooked up to Audacity. Then I would basically use distortion pedals and stuff in Audacity. I had just a handheld mike to sing. That's where I started. Then I got Logic, and then I got Ableton. I got monitors, I got synths. You know, you just slowly build—for this record, I was in a studio that had a really good mike setup, a Pro Tools rig, a Moog Voyager. I used softsynths, I used brass. I used real percussion, drum sets, things like that.
Are you making demos that you then go into the studio and finish up? Do you start over again, or do you find that you're still working on elements of the original session for the final product?
They're all the original sessions. Some of the songs are built up with Dean and I, just because I was like, "I have this vocal line and I would rather leave it a cappella, but I know I can't have six a cappella songs on the record." So we go, OK, what can we add? But most of the songs, what you're hearing is the demo. Because I work on it, then I work on it more, and then I take it to the studio and we take those files and work on those. Many of the things I played when I was living on that island [Vashon Island in Washington State]—it's all just my original productions from when I was alone.
But not the original recordings?
There are some. I have a mike setup, and for "Nail," a lot of the backup vocals are the original ones, just because I like the performance. But for the main vocal lines and for the drums and for brass, that was all done in a studio in Los Angeles at the end.
Is there a favorite piece of gear that you use? Something that you maybe just discovered or something that you've always returned to as far as keyboards, or software, or something like that?
I like Native Instruments a lot, because I feel like their softsynths are really interesting and the FM synthesis is really interesting. When I'm stuck, I'll open a plug-in that I really like, that's just fun—like the SoundToys plug-ins I like a lot as well. I have a Moog Voyager that's fun; I can play around in that and do some interesting things. There are definitely things you go to when you get into the studio and you're like, "Where do I begin?" You open up your tool kit and you go, "What's exciting me right now?"
Are there any hardware synths that you have an affinity for?
My favorite synth, that inspires me every time, is the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, but I don't own one. I love that guy so much. I don't use a ton of hardware, just because it takes too much work to get it to work—by the time I get it to talk to everything it needs to talk to internally in the studio, I lose my inspiration. So that usually comes later.
I feel like using the word cinematic is kind of loaded, but when I hear your music it feels like there's a visual component to it. And when I watch the videos, it definitely seems like that's something you've had a hand in.
The visual component is very important for me, because I feel like the music is a part of a world, and you're trying to constantly find ways to communicate that world. And so you do the sonic world, but then on top of that you see the world where it's going to exist. And you're able to bring that to fruition on the live stage, because that's an audiovisual experience—but also the videos. And so you can find ways to translate all these ideas that you had, that you've only had one sense to communicate with, and it just opens you up. I'm even inspired by the sense of smell right now, and I'm trying to figure out how can I communicate the idea of the taiga through smell. It's more than just songs on a record, it's an environment, and that's always been very important to me.