Nika Roza Danilova, better known as singer-songwriter Zola Jesus, was raised singing opera on a hundred acres of forest in Wisconsin. She studied under an instructor for several years before going to college and switching to more rock- and pop-focused music writing.
While she went on to release several EPs and two full-length albums, including 2011’s breakout, Conatus, she began to reject opera, thinking it was holding her back.
But when she came off two years on the road supporting Conatus last year, Danilova, who combines elements of classical music with swirling vocals and industrial electronica, found herself unable to sing or write effectively.
“I was getting in a place where I felt that my singing was so tense that I couldn’t sing freely and I couldn’t communicate myself freely,” said Danilova, who performs Wednesday at Bimbo’s 365 Club. “So I sought out my old opera instructor and I had her help me. I worked with her actively, and she helped me open my voice up again.”
Danilova has continued to work with her instructor since then.
“I consider myself more of an operatic singer now than ever before,” she said. “I’m actually singing opera now, listening to opera more. … Now I’m embracing it. I’m actually using it more on the record. I’m singing in more operatic ways. I’m using more technique.”
Danilova spoke to The Bay Bridged from Los Angeles, where she was rehearsing for her first tour supporting new album, Taiga, which will be released on Mute Records the day before her San Francisco show. Los Angeles may very well be her least favorite city in the U.S., and her move away from Southern California was an early building block that resulted with Taiga; a term that refers to boreal forests found in her ancestral home of Russia, as well as in Wisconsin, and elsewhere.
“(Taiga is) very personal,” she said. “I’m very intrigued by … how you’re born from these people and keep repeating the same things over and over. You never become much more different than your ancestors. You just become a modern version of them. I still see that in my family. History is just a constant loop.”
Taiga was also inspired by where she grew up (Wisconsin), as well as where she recorded the majority of the album, Vashon Island, off the coast of Washington State. The natural environment – the island could only be reached by boat – gave Danilova a sense of home.
It was a perfect destination, after living in Los Angeles made Danilova feel trapped in 2012. The city made her feel strained by society and the music industry’s pressured atmosphere to succeed and meet expectations.
“I couldn’t handle it anymore; I never felt like I belonged there,” she said. “It never fed me; it never made me feel restored. Moving to Washington was an effort to seek the place where I would be comfortable, finally. It worked. I feel so comfortable there that I’m living there permanently now.”
The 25-year-old resident of Seattle has so far released two songs from the new album, both of which set a theme of people conquering nature, only to build cities where they are more isolated than ever.
The first single, “Dangerous Days,” is perhaps Danilova’s most accessible, danceable, and radio-friendly. She actually wrote it a couple of years ago during the sessions for Conatus, but it didn’t survive past the demo stage. Last week, she released the second, “Go (Blank Sea)”. The song was one of the first she wrote for the album, and then hacked it to pieces looking to improve it. At one point, she fought with herself to figure out what it was about.
“I listened to it over and over and I realized it’s about … the feeling that we’re so overwhelmed by the population and the world,” she said. “That song is exploring feeling unessential in a city.”
The subject matter may be brooding, but Taiga may change some people’s perceptions of Zola Jesus as a goth artist.
“My music is the most serious thing that I do because it’s my entire being; everything that I live for,” she said. “But I’m much more easy-going than it seems I am.”