Everything about Zola Jesus is massive.
Booming vocals like the voice of God. Distorted, floating melodies that fill a room’s every crook and crevice. A performance art that barrels through like a ghost train.
Everything is massive but Zola Jesus herself — hers is a talent that comes from a frame less than five-feet high.
But this might be the least remarkable fact about Zola Jesus, the musical persona of Madison-based artist Nika Roza Danilova.
Studied and well versed in the arts, Danilova is a sonic Messiah of sorts, a preacher also of opera, philosophy and suffering. Music is her sermon, catharsis her divine gift and personal reward.
It’s a practice, Danilova said, begun at an early age.
“As a child, I really loved to sing,” said Danilova, a 20-year-old UW senior double majoring in French and philosophy. “It was an obsession, just the process of opening my mouth and shouting out whatever I could think of with a melody attached. It felt so good to sing. I started studying opera at a young age in order to find an outlet for that obsession.”
Her vocals are brooding and tortured, according to Pitchfork. “Holyshitbeautiful,” says Rolling Stone. A bold voice and philosophic study, which have yielded frequent proclamations of Zola Jesus’ music as goth, noise-goth or goth pop.
Danilova, though, sees it somewhat differently.
“It’s pop music, there’s no escaping that. But it’s realistic. It’s not bubblegum, and I’m not afraid to embrace challenge in whatever form that may be,” Danilova said.
And sugary sweet it is not, though Zola Jesus’ music certainly provides something to chew on, her music serving as an intrinsic outlet for philosophical inquiry. It’s the interplay between her study of philosophy and her sonic exploration, Danilova explained, that culminates in self-discovery.
“When I read books by [Arthur] Schopenhauer or [Slavoj] Zizek or [Jacques] Derrida or whoever, it’s productive because you’re learning about yourself as a human in the process.”
But Zola Jesus’ music is also about sonic discovery. It’s a sound of its own, characterized by its moody, contemplative nature: a confluence of frothy sonic waves and organic drones drawing frequent comparisons to early Danielle Dax or Siouxsie and the Banshees but with Danilova’s distant voice — a massive, operatic howl drowned beneath layers of longing and anxiety.
Layers, though, that have been peeled away with every record Zola Jesus has made since her first full-length endeavor, 2009’s The Spoils. Tracks like the somber “Clay Bodies” and “Smirenye” are sub-lo fi numbers dotted with booming and sometimes clanging percussion and punctuated with Jesus’ wail, all bound together by gauzy notes of distortion. Yet it’s on Zola Jesus’ March 9 release, the Stridulum EP — a six-song endeavor that shares its name with Italian director Giulio Paradisi’s film about the battle between good and evil — that Danilova finds herself more comfortable shedding the excess vocal distractions.
To be sure, the bits and pieces from Zola Jesus’ past albums are all still there — the ticking of her drum machine and murky drones are still familiar on this just 21-minute album. But Danilova’s gutsy, oft-reverberated vocals ring stronger and with more truth on the Stridulum EP, as though they’d been recorded within a cathedral, especially on tracks like “Night” or “Manifest Destiny,” rather than from six feet below.
It’s a moderately different approach on the Stridulum EP but still true to her form, a sound that has garnered her “Rising” and “Best New Music” nods from Pitchfork. It has also sent Danilova on the road everywhere from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York to Austin’s SXSW for the past two years, and it’s a sonic venture that jetted the musician across the globe to perform for Greek designer Angelos Frentzos during Milan Fashion Week.
“It was really surreal,” Danilova said of her time in Italy. “I have an incredibly loyal international audience and so many supportive and enthusiastic fans over there. It was an amazing experience and makes me very eager to get back to Europe!”
While Zola Jesus has been blowing up in national and international markets, it’s taken the Madison audience a bit more time to meet this adoration.
“I think it takes national recognition to break people’s concept of your music as another ‘local band.’ But that’s fine. Support in Madison has been growing, and it’s been really exciting to finally see!”
But it was a following that had grown enough to fill the Project Lodge last month for Zola Jesus’ Stridulum EP release party, Danilova’s first show in Madison in a year.
There, Danilova, backed by keyboards and percussion, showcased not only her vocal power but also her performance prowess, launching herself onto the floor and scaling speakers, hunching her barely 5-foot-tall frame in anguish and unleashing her catastrophic vocals, an imposing voice that loomed over the crowd like a giant.
There once more was that passion, in a voice and persona large enough to fill the space each on their own.
There, Zola Jesus wasn’t massive. She was colossal.