Zola Jesus: From Personal Cataclysm to "Magical Present" | Revolver

Zola Jesus: From Personal Cataclysm to "Magical Present"

Inside goth-industrial artist's stunning new album 'Arkhon'
zola jesus 2022 CORTES, A.F. Cortés
photograph by A.F. Cortés

In a world that feels increasingly lawless, loveless, godless — there are very few who actively choose to spend their lifetime in pursuit of magic. And then there's Nika Roza Danilova, a.k.a. Zola Jesus. Last year, right after a brutal snowstorm battered the east and west coasts of Turkey, the classical-turned-industrial musician boarded a plane to Cappadocia, an ancient psychedelic landscape in the middle of the country made up of cave-like fairy chimneys that were once home to Bronze Age troglodytes.

Traveling alongside director Mu Tunç, Danilova spent long days filming in oppressively cold conditions, burrowing herself in the caves at twilight. "It felt like time didn't exist," she tells Revolver. "These caves have been used throughout time for so many different purposes that you just start to feel like time is stacked on top of itself. It doesn't go anywhere."

Like the early Christians who fled to Cappadocia centuries before her, Danilova made the expedition in search of devotion and divinity; to reconnect with the magic and mysticism of music itself. "We just can't lose the divine nature of music," says Danilova. "For me, it was all about that experience. Going to Cappadocia felt like this physical experience of putting myself in a magical place — the magical present."

She trapped the spark of that "magical present" within her new and sixth album: Arkhon, meaning "ruler" or "power" in Ancient Greek. In Gnosticism, "arkhons" are depicted as wardens who imprison the divinity of the human soul in the inharmonious and chaotic material universe that we find ourselves in.

Danilova believes we are living in arkhonic times; lost, dispirited, atomized. We are custodians of the planet, but the planet is on fire. "We're being asked to think about everything but the real problems at hand, and we're not really allowed to have any solutions because of these nefarious forces that keep trying to push us further away from life," she says.

Arkhon also seems to mirror the internal state from which these propulsive songs were born. It was a "cataclysmic moment," in Danilova's life. "Many relationships ended, and I went through this major transformation. It was incredibly difficult, I didn't know if I would get through it," she says. "Through the process of making this record, I rebuilt myself one song at a time. Arkhon is the end result of my own healing process over these past five years."

Danilova shaped that ruinous emotional landscape into sound alongside drummer and percussionist Matt Chamberlain — whose previous work can be heard with Fiona Apple, Bob Dylan, David Bowie — and who lends Arkhon a ritualistic, galvanizing and foreboding backbone. Danilova sent the demos to Sunn O))) producer Randall Dunn, who helped sculpt Arkhon into a cavernous world that feels as cosmic as it does subterranean, as immediate as it does ancient.

zolajesus_2022_2_credit_afcortes.jpg, A.F. Cortés
photograph by A.F. Cortés

Danilova's propensity for maximalism and torrential sound palettes like these have made her a recognizable figure within the metal and extreme-music spheres. She's no stranger to performing on heavy bills (including 2018's Roadburn Festival at the request of curator and Converge singer Jacob Bannon), and each of her band members have played in metal groups. She also mostly mixes with noise musicians in her personal life. Though in the past, she admits, she felt a kind of stigma towards metal. "I felt it was a very closed world and could only be specific things," she says. That was until she discovered black metal, thrash metal, powerviolence — branches of the genre that appeared to cause a rupture in the metal world, opening it up to more catholic interpretations.

Danilova — whose music now typically features industrial, electronic and operatic elements rubbing up against pop tonalities and experimental, abrasive noise — seems to have always been drawn to these musical ruptures.

Danilova was raised in Merrill, Wisconsin, on over 100 acres of forest. The geography granted her enough boredom and space to dream up entire galaxies from her own imagination, and she began experimenting with her voice from early on. At seven years old, she was reading opera sheet music, and by the time she turned 10, she was receiving intensive classical vocal training from a coach.

With dreams of becoming a professional opera singer, Danilova entered into a masochistic relationship with her own voice. She castigated herself over any imperfections. A flat note would shatter her self-esteem, turning music and her own instrument into a mulish enemy that needed to be controlled at all times.

It wasn't until her teens, when she discovered Meredith Monk and Diamanda Galás — two classically trained singers who ripped the rulebook to shreds. There Danilova began devising her own rapturous sound, then committing it to tape with her operatic influences still intact.

From then until now, Danilova has sought to create an ideal version of herself through her art. "My music is about always reaching for an ideal and it's also a concentrated version of myself," she says. Prior to Arkhon, a desire to control the unknown has emerged both as a theme and an artistic practice across her albums.

But Arkhon — a project born from great devastation — was a sundering from total self-discipline and a surrender to the unknown, a spontaneous lunge towards the magical present. "I realized it was easier to let go than to try and find a deeper grip on things. That allowed me to let go of everything, especially creatively," she explains. The songs on Arkhon are so "raw and personal," she says, that she found it impossible to think about them on any kind of objective level. "Even the idea of people reviewing these songs, to me, I'm like… It can't even be reviewed. It's a deeply personal album … it's not about whether it's good or bad. It just needed to happen, and it happened as it did."

That sense of freedom — allowing the songs their own will — opened Danilova's voice up to new dynamics. With a tendency to manifest whatever she's feeling internally through her voice, the singer says that during the recording of the album she "wasn't holding onto so much tension because I'd let go of so much." Her singing became a kind of birthing.

While trying to rebuild and rebirth herself, bit by bit, song by song, Danilova found herself obsessing over pre-historical artifacts and "the beginning of time … truly, fundamentally creative moments, when life is given birth to." She was inspired by Egyptian mythology and magic, in particular. "A lot of the images that were inspiring to me were mummies, mummified wolves. Things that are so much older and deeper than we'll ever understand just as temporal human beings."

zolajesus_2022_credit_afcortes.jpg, A.F. Cortés
Zola Jesus
photograph by A.F. Cortés

During our short time here, Danilova is someone trying to grasp the whole scape and scope of life. A descendent of German, Slovenian and Russian ancestry (alongside family who immigrated to America from Ukraine), she has also felt very pulled towards her own roots. "I feel like I have a lot of karma to work through there," she says. "This album was about getting deeper into that and healing, thinking about roots and what they mean." In the album's lead song "Lost" (the video for which features the footage shot at Cappadocia), she uses a sample from a Slovenian folk choir, singing a song from the region where her ancestors lived. "I'm always so curious to learn about where I come from, to get deeper, to piece things together."

The recent conflict in the Ukraine has, unsurprisingly, been on her heart and mind. "It's such an act of terror on people who just don't deserve it," she says, "but their resilience is so inspiring. I'm desperate to play a show in Kyiv."

For now, though, Danilova's mind is far from the release of Arkhon. While usually based in Wisconsin, she's spent the past several months in Toronto. "A loved one of mine is terminally ill and I'm helping out with hospice for the time being," she explains. The experience of tending to someone during their final days has clarified many things for her, mainly where she puts her focus and energy. "I think being an artist and musician can be such a self-centered process that encourages one to over-identify with themselves as an artist," she says. "Being in this situation where I'm trying to provide care for someone else, not think about myself at all, or putting a record out, it really puts things into perspective and the place of art — not only how important it is, but how integrating it into life is the most important thing one can do."

Together, Danilova and her friends in the hospice have been forced to come together for the sake of love. "Experiencing someone else going through the process of dying … has been so incredibly instructive," she says. "Before this, I was so afraid of death. But now I'm having to kind of die secondhand. That experience is making me realize that death is just a part of life … Even though it's not something we really prepare our-selves for, it's such a natural and beautiful experience in its own way."

From the magical present, Danilova is learning to find the magic in the unknown — a place where time is simply stacked on itself, going nowhere.