Twenty-two-year-old Nika Roza Danilova is not a goth -- at least, that's what she told Q Magazine earlier this year. But you can see how people might be confused given the operatic vocals and dark, reverb-soaked synths in the music this Wisconsin native releases as Zola Jesus. Although her haunting pipes often get compared to Diamanda Galás, Kate Bush, and Siouxsie Sioux, Danilova insists her tastes skew more toward industrial groups like Throbbing Gristle, the Residents, or Whitehouse.
Either way, churning dirges and sweeping ballads like "Sea Talk" are catching on fast with critics and fans. She made two distortion-laced albums in 2009 and two beautifully restrained EPs for Brooklyn's Sacred Bones label in 2010, in addition to touring Europe with the XX and Fever Ray. Danilova recently completed a double major in philosophy and French at the University of Wisconsin as well as songs sketches for her next album. In conversation, she speaks as boldly and intelligently as her idol Lydia Lunch, despite admitting that she's agoraphobic. She talked to us by phone from Madison, Wis., as her band drove west to S.F. for a show this Friday at the Rickshaw Stop.
How is your tour going? Any highlights?
Yesterday we played a Christian college in Pennsylvania called Messiah College. It was quite surreal but a very good experience. We played in a cafeteria -- I don't think the students were expecting us. The Bowery Ballroom show in New York was incredible, too. We played with Cult of Youth and Naked on the Vague. It was sold out and my [Sacred Bones] label family and all my friends based in New York were there. It felt like a homecoming.
You went to college in Madison. Are you looking forward to that show?
Yes, but I'm kind of nervous. It's been a year or two. Things have changed a lot for me, but people in Madison might not realize it. It's such an insular community, once you leave it's like you've just fallen of the edge of the Earth and they'll never see you again. My brother lives there, [he's] my strongest connection to the city. I grew up [in Merrill] north of Madison; it was basically farmland.
You turned 22 earlier this month. What did you do for your birthday?
I rehearsed with the live band, so nothing special necessarily. But I wouldn't rather be doing anything else than working on this music and tightening the live set. So it was a wonderful birthday for sure.
How did you come up with your performance name?
I created it in high school. It was a name that came to me even before I had a music project. I like creating names. I'm not a poet by any means, but I like putting words together. This one just kind of stuck. I started reading Emile Zola. I found his book Nana in a dusty bookshop in Minneapolis, and I loved the look of the book and the ideas. My band is not a concept piece on Zola, but [he] definitely helped shape who I am.
How has your music evolved since 2009?
With every release I try and push myself further and further, because I don't like to be comfortable with what I'm doing. I try and create a new sound with every record. By the time I recorded Stridulum [in 2010] it was a challenge to not rely on noise and distortion to cover up my vocals and to create something that was really clear, concise, very proud but vulnerable. That's where I've ended up now.
Were you anxious about people being able to understand your lyrics?
Previously [songs] were almost like a diary for me, and to cover them up was almost like putting a lock on the diary. For Stridulum I wanted to make the lyrics very clear and very basic, like a mantra that people could hear, almost like an affirmation.
What challenge did you create for your latest recordings?
The latest album was one of the most difficult to write. I had so many ideas, but I felt so depleted, so it was a challenge just to create. I always feel pressed for time -- sometimes that can help. I had three months to write the record, which is not enough time but it's also too much time for me. The music became a lot more personal. Just talking about really intimate problems like, "Why am I here?" They're really basic questions, but also hard to wrap your head around.