Navigating the Forest of Zola Jesus' Taiga

Music Features Zola Jesus
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“I feel thwarted as a human being. I feel like I can’t flourish in a city.”

For someone who gravitates towards the controlled, man-made and synthetic beats of electronic self-expression, Nika Danilova—aka Zola Jesus—is far more interested in the unbridled nature of the country than the neon-splashed, concrete corners of any given urban sprawl. She can appreciate “the business of it,” but the city isn’t where she writes despite its plethora of places for an electronic musician or a DJ to thrive. She’s at home in the woods, free from distractions and noise she’s not creating. Who needs cell service, a dependable Internet connection and the constant glow of streetlamps when nothing but trees and twilight are competing for the attention of your muses?

“I’m incredibly sensitive to my environment,” she says. “Nature is comfortable. I feel more alive when I’m alone, in general. A city eventually overwhelms me.”

This isn’t news. Taiga, her new record and her fourth studio effort, is named for the woods she creatively retreats to, a word that’s familiar in every sense to a Russian-American kid who grew up in the pine-laden expanse of Minnesotan wilderness. Her family home is one of the few remote locations where the songs of Taiga were conceived and crafted. “Lawless,” a song that ruminates on the human tendency to take ownership of land and other things that weren’t ours to begin with, was conjured up in her dad’s “Guy Room,” which is decorated with various firearms, taxidermy and other spoils from his hunting expeditions.

Split between her parent’s house with its various animal heads, Vermont and a dwelling with windows for walls on Vashon Island in Washington overlooking Puget Sound, Danilova wrote what would become the follow-up to 2013’s Versions, the retrospective record that revamped previous releases of hers in a neo-classical framework. Her prior experimental, electronic tracks were given warm, orchestral makeovers on Versions; cellos and violas brought out the euphoric notes of her engaging dance tracks and the bass lines that breathed and moved as though they were living on their own. With Taiga, the chamber-pop vibe is still present, but she’s not as tied up in strings as she was before. As Taiga focuses on her voice as her strongest instrument, the arrangements exude a refurbished confidence with dance floor-ready anthems that hit the bass she loves, hard, while employing a zeal for bright, riotous brass notes.

“I was really inspired by marching bands while making this record, and so I was watching a lot of marching band videos and listening to marching band music!” she says, laughing. “Hunger,” with its bouquets of trumpet volleys, is the best example of this. “It’s kind of weird. I just like how triumphant it sounds and how aggressive the drum lines are, things like that.” When she hits the road in support of Taiga, the brass band is the most notable addition to her live set, and one she considers intrinsic to the record’s manifestation onstage. “I can find ways to deal without a brass ensemble, but to have them there, and replicating it live, and doing everything on stage, it’s just so much more formidable than doing a track of brass,” she says. “That was really, really important that I have a brass ensemble at some shows. The sound of the brass playing in person is just undeniable. That’s really exciting. I’ll be doing that for the record release shows. We have a really amazing band that figured out how to play these songs live.”

Big, bold horns aside, Nika’s proudest accomplishment on Taiga isn’t found in the intricate soundscapes she composes or the risks she takes with new arrangements but the fiber of her own vocal chords. She describes the way she used to write as “piling synths on top of each other,” while with Taiga, she wrote with her voice as the primary instrument. Taking that first step in a direction where her vocals as the backbone of each and every track forced her to rely on her voice the same way most work with a piano or a guitar. It was a revelation in that it cleared the path to the sound within herself she had yet to discover, but it wasn’t easy. With “Dangerous Days,” the glorious, empowering lead single, she not only spells the dawning of a new era out for us plain in the lyrics, but emotes every last fear encountered and conquered with an exquisite belt.

“I will say that vulnerability is the reason why I have a complicated relationship with my voice,” she reveals. “Because I was singing a particular way for so long, I started damaging my voice and also getting really bad habits. It was harder to sing than it should’ve been, and that’s why I had to connect with my old voice instructor from when I was singing opera as a child. She helped me bring my voice back down to a neutral area where I felt like I could sing whatever I was feeling or thinking. My voice sucked; there was a lot of tension that I had to work through. It was a couple of years before I felt like I could actually sing the things that I wanted to sing. It’s an incredibly personal thing. You can take as many voice lessons as you want or you can train to sing, but your voice is always going to sound unique. It’s always going to sound one way or another. I’ve come to terms with that as a singer throughout the years.”

And now, with Taiga, she’s out of the woods: she’s got new sounds to share, new beats to put forth out into the electronic ether and a newfound confidence in the one instrument she would never shelve.

“I definitely feel like I’m at a point in my musical journey where I’m ready to let down my guard,” she says. “I’m ready to push myself in ways that demand a sort of, how do you say, humility. Working with a producer and bringing people into the process, I’m ready to open myself up and push myself in ways before I was too afraid to do. That’s the most important thing.”

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