Nika Roza Danilova, known as Zola Jesus, is back. Her new album, Okovi, was released in September, a heavyweight champion in the category of her albums so far. We meet up in Zagreb, ahead of her concert in Močvara. She says she feels very much at home in Southeastern Europe. Her mother’s family is Slovenian, and her father’s Russian-German, and they spent a lot of years in Ukraine.
Okovi is a journey back home on many levels, one of them being Danilova's Slavic roots (hence the title Okovi, "shackles" in most Slavic languages). Danilova is a master of turning tragedy into cathartic energy, on and off stage. Zagreb got to see her dark shine, once again.
While making Okovi, you went through significant changes in your life, moved back to Wisconsin and built a house in the woods, on your family's property. What made you seek that change?I was doing a lot of thought experiments about how it would be like if you know your life is going to end by the hand of somebody who didn't respect your life. How you would make peace with that? That also mirrored in my own life, feeling my own circumstances were insurmountable
I lived in Seattle for a couple of years, and even though I love the Pacific Northwest, I was feeling very lost and very depressed. I felt very rootless, like I wasn't connected to my family, I didn't have friends, very displaced all together. I really wanted to find a permanent solution for living because I've been moving every three years since I was eighteen.
Not having stability was really frustrating, so I decided to make a very extreme decision, which is to move back home and build a house - the most permanent choice I could have made. It was an effort to put my claws into roots, into the dirt, not moving anywhere. Once I moved there, I started to feel better, healthier, more connected. I had family and loved ones around me and I had more clarity.
Did you think a new album would be born out of that change? When did you start thinking about Okovi?
I was writing in Seatlle a little bit, and once I moved back I was writing more. I had no idea what the album is going to be, and even today, when I look back at it, it's a beautiful time capsule, but it wasn't something where I knew what the result will be like.
What did living in the woods teach you, how did it change you?
Being in the woods for me is very comfortable. When I am separate from the society in such a way, I feel like I can breathe, like I am myself. When I have to interact with human constructions, I feel very uncomfortable, there are these things I need to navigate and understand and I find it very hard and oppressing. Being in the woods and away from all of that allowed me to dig deep within myself, because I didn't need to worry about all of these superficial constructs.Then I sat down and started writing this song and said to myself – if it doesn't make you wiser, doesn't make you stronger – what's the point? It was almost like a pep talk to myself
James Baldwin said it was books that taught him that "the things that tormented him most were the very things that connected him with all the people who are alive, who had been alive". When I first listened to Okovi, it made me think of that, because of this great feeling of togetherness in pain, and the wonderful potential of empathy that comes with that. Did making this album make you feel more connected to other people and their struggles?
I believe okovi is the word for shackles in Croatian too. I love being in Slavic countries, there is this instant understanding of this term. It's a universal word in so many different countries, and all the differences aside, it is what binds us together. It's the shackles, chains. There is this imprisonment shared. I felt that reflected universally, since we are all bound to something.
The songs on this record were very painful to write, either about my own struggles or the struggles of those very close to me. At the same time, I struggle with making music that doesn't directly change the environment in a way. If I am doing something I need it to serve a purpose, otherwise I feel like I am wasting everybody's time. For this record to have served a purpose to me, even just that alone was enough, but if it can also help somebody else, that's extremely necessary for me too. To endure the pain of performing these songs night after night, but knowing there is a possibility that some sort of paradigm shift will happen to someone in the audience, is really rewarding.
As you've mentioned, the album is deeply private and personal, it's about the people you care about, who went through many hard situations, attempted suicide, were seriously ill. How do you handle such a sensitive material? Were there fears and doubts before releasing it?
Some of the songs on the record are extremely personal, to the point where there's no censorship in what I am saying, it's extremely literal. That was intimidating and I felt concerned for my family and people I was writing about, because it was so invasive. To those people I sent the songs early on, because they were also my way of trying to communicate with them. I made sure they were ok with the content being public. So, I did have apprehensions, but in the end, I felt like the songs needed to be heard.Not having stability was really frustrating, so I decided to make a very extreme decision, which is to move back home and build a house - the most permanent choice I could have made. It was an effort to put my claws into roots, into the dirt, not moving anywhere
Talking about the need, was this the album you needed to make more than any other before? In terms of processing everything that was happening...
This album did feel more like an exorcism than my previous albums. Just in terms of my own transition in the last couple of years, my journey towards finding a healthier way of living, and everyone around me going through the same thing. It felt like this record recalibrated and reminded me about my relationship to music and why I write. It made me think about the utility of music in my life and also for those around me. None of these songs were written in vain, they were all very much necessary for me.
In some of your previous interviews, you said one important realization you had lately was that you don't have to become anything, that you can just be. In a world that's forcing us to always think about what's next, what's more and better, how did you come to this realization and is it a struggle to maintain such a perspective?
It is incredibly hard to maintain such a perspective, I struggle with it every day. My personality is the type where I feel I am never content, I am terrified of stasis. I am constantly having to push myself, trying to expand my mind, challenge my status quo and of those around me as well. I don't like the idea of complacency. At the same time, I think that can become an illness in a way. It can become intoxicating, this feeling of It's the shackles, chains. There is this imprisonment shared. I felt that reflected universally, since we are all bound to something constantly needing to push yourself. I try to be more mindful of these facts and critical about my capitalist upbringing, of this feeling installed in me – the feeling of never being satisfied with what I have or who I am. This quest for more and what's next, doesn't allow space and time to just be.
Thinking about space and time, do you have different relations to some of the songs now, when you are performing them live, considering the time that has passed between writing them and going on a tour?
In a sense, I feel that I've performed them enough times that the novelty of the intensity has worn off. I am able to distance myself a little bit, but at the same time every time I sing these songs, like several songs that are about my uncle's suicide attempts, I am having to relive the moment of a family member not wanting to be alive. That can be emotionally exhausting.
Of all of the songs on the album, Wiseblood seems like the most apparently positive one, like a mantra for hard times, to get by.
That was the first song I wrote, it's the oldest song on the record. I had written it when I was in Seattle. I was extremely depressed, I wasn't writing much, I hated everything. Then I sat down and started writing this song and said to myself – if it doesn't make you wiser, doesn't make you stronger – what's the point? It was almost like a pep talk to myself.For this record to have served a purpose to me, even just that alone was enough, but if it can also help somebody else, that's extremely necessary for me too. To endure the pain of performing these songs night after night, but knowing there is a possibility that some sort of paradigm shift will happen to someone in the audience, is really rewarding
Soak, on the other hand, was written from a perspective of a serial killer's victim. She knows she is going to die, so she changes the situation in her mind and decides to die. Was that your way of coping with hopelessness and powerlessness we often feel in today's society, a way to try to have control in situations that feel totally out of hand?
There's more layers to that story. It's about a serial killer's victim, but it's also about my own experiences. There's a lot of different interpretations that I go through when I am performing the song. I was doing a lot of thought experiments about how it would be like if you know your life is going to end by the hand of somebody who didn't respect your life. How you would make peace with that?
That also mirrored in my own life, feeling my own circumstances were insurmountable, trying to understand it. Trying to make peace with the hand I've been dealt and navigate the whole spectrum of emotions that comes with it.
With Okovi you returned to your longtime label Sacred Bones. Why such a decision?
I loved my previous label Mute, but Sacred Bones was and always will be family. I feel like at this point in my life I needed to be with people I know and trust, people that will stand by me no matter what. It's not a commercial transaction, it's an artistic one.
You're using your records to get better at crafting everything – songwriting, singing, producing. Do you feel you're now at a point where you're fluent in all of these things?
I had to go through a lot of trial and error, figuring out all of these things. Now I feel confident about all of the different aspects of music making and I feel I can finally just make stuff, not worrying about figuring out how all of these other things work and dedicating so much time to that.
What are some other musicians you've been into lately, what inspires you?
While making Okovi, I was inspired by a lot of Eastern European folk music, like Bulgarian choirs and Ukranian village songs, and the Romanian I am constantly having to push myself, challenge my status quo. I don't like the idea of complacency. At the same time, I think that can become an illness in a waysinger Maria Tănase. But also a lot of opera, like Maria Callas. And talking about the musicians I am moved by now, Devon Welsh, who's performing with me on the tour, is really great. His music is very emotional, intense and direct, and I find the purity of his songwriting very inspiring.