Amid another brutal winter in 2009, then-University of Wisconsin student Niki Roza Danilova established a recording studio in her apartment, where she recorded her first album, The Spoils.
Not long after, Danilova, popularly known as Zola Jesus, emerged as a promising underground artist, attracting the likes of Jamie xx from The xx and later M83. Her success may have propelled her music to the international stage, but she will soon return to a more familiar one: the Wisconsin Union Theater, for a free show Sept. 24.
Despite Danilova’s unique Madison experience, her upbringing was not dissimilar to that of many UW students: raised “up north” in Merrill, Wisconsin, she developed an early interest in singing to pass time.
“Growing up in Northern Wisconsin, without a lot of cultural opportunity, you have to make opportunities for yourself and you also have to entertain yourself a lot more,” Danilova said.
Her affinity for singing led to opera — a conspicuous influence on Danilova’s powerful vibrato — but the singer-songwriter felt restricted by the classic style’s technicalities and tradition. She left the practice, seeking a greater outlet for her craft.
This would not be her only divergence from tradition. The name “Zola Jesus” emerged in high school from Danilova’s non-conformity; it draws inspiration from author Emilé Zola — she had just read his famous novel “Nana” — and Jesus Christ. She hoped to give the latter a “new meaning” in a Wisconsin area permeated by seemingly omnipresent Christian morality and culture.
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When it came time to attend college, Danilova originally attended UW-Milwaukee to study business. To the unsure teenager, it seemed like a practical skill for someone without a clear career path.
But, in true Zola Jesus fashion, she quickly discovered that a “set trajectory” was neither necessary nor fulfilling. With a craving to create, Danilova transferred to UW-Madison to study philosophy and French. Her studies would later be integrated into her music.
“I make music because I have questions, and, you know, music is my way of being able to ask those questions and to come up with answers,” Danilova said. “Philosophy has a lot of answers as well; it’s the study of questions.”
The artist’s influences transcended campus, citing Madison as an incubator for musical expression, something she couldn’t find in Milwaukee or elsewhere.
“Because [Madison is] smaller, if you make music, you are already part of some sort of minority, and so matter what you make, you all come together,” Danilova said. “You end up learning so much about different types of music … and there is more of an openness to the music scene [in Madison], and that was really a good help to me because the music that I make is always in-between a lot of groups and a lot of genres, and it felt like a really easy place to exist musically.”
Unfortunately, balancing touring and producing with academia became too much, and Danilova was forced to leave UW.
Though Danilova regrets compromising her education, she cites music as her “greatest passion.” Last year, the now-26-year-old released the album Taiga, featuring hits like “Dangerous Days” and “Hunger.” She described it as her most challenging work to date.
“[For] this newest album, it’s so much about forcing myself to confront things that weren’t at the top of my head before,” Danilova said.
But, even after five studio albums and multiple tours, Danilova still calls Madison “home.” She recalls her time at UW as a period of self-discovery, whether within her apartment’s makeshift studio or as a WSUM DJ, where she incidentally met her husband.
“If I could go back I would,” Danilova said. “I’m excited [to return to Madison] because that’s where my career started and I feel like I owe a lot to the city and I owe a lot to the state of Wisconsin … That’s my identity and that’s truly who I am and where I’m from, so it does feel so natural and I feel so at home to be back there.”