Zola Jesus (Jeff Elstone)

Zola Jesus: I hope my music helps people who are struggling with anxiety

The singer spoke to Salon about atheism, growing up on a farm and the problem with today's pop stars


Erin Lyndal Martin
October 18, 2014 3:00AM (UTC)

Zola Jesus, aka Nika Danilova, was raised on a rural Wisconsin farm where her family’s milk came from a neighbor’s cow and her father’s hunting trophies were on display. It was in these years, especially during the endless winters, that Danilova began to sing, gravitating toward opera. Now the 25-year-old musician calls Los Angeles home, and she has said that it’s more difficult to be creative in a city without a winter.  So it's probably not surprising that her latest work is a full-length album entitled "Taiga" that explores our place in nature.

I know you like to make music that deals with dualities or tension. What is the tension in "Taiga"? 

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The duality was definitely man vs. nature. How man reconciles his place in nature. Because I feel like human is still inherently very alien from it. We build these big cities to insulate us from the natural world, and we just choose to distance ourselves from nature. From forests, from more natural environments. We create a synthetic ecology to live in.

Are there any lyrics on the album that you feel are a snapshot of that idea as a whole?

There’s a song called “Lawless” that discusses the idea of land and how humans find it so important to own land. I just find that really interesting. Like, what does it mean to own land?

Have you done a lot of environmental activism? 

No, it’s definitely not an environmental record. Only because I feel like it’s just too late for that. I don’t really think that there’s much that we can do as an entire society to retroactively fix everything that we’ve done to the world. But it’s more of a discussion or a rumination on the concept.

You’re a big science fiction fan. Have you found anything within that realm that inspires your music? 

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Yeah. That’s why I like science fiction. Because I feel like it holds a more critical lens up to the world, in a way. Using speculative elements or things that are not necessarily realistic. I like that. The metaphors that it uses. My favorite science fiction writer is Philip K. Dick, and I think he does that very well.

You have also talked a lot about dealing with anxiety.

Well, I think that the foundation of a lot of anxiety is not really having any sort of strong sense of purpose in the world. I feel like not having religion, you’re faced with these questions more deeply, and having to come to terms with them on your own. That causes a lot of anxiety, because it’s just impossible to know the reason we’re here and having to deal with those questions on a daily basis. With only pragmatic mechanisms to deal with them, which is very difficult. So I think that’s why so many people here -- especially now that we live in such an atheist or such an agnostic world -- are having more and more anxiety. Because we’re having fewer options for faith. Because religion just isn’t really a mechanism to deal with it anymore like it used to be.

When you sing, what are you thinking? Do you have a specific goal for your music?

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I would love to be able to contribute something to the world that allowed people to think about things differently, to give them a mechanism to deal with that anxiety in the way that the music helps me deal with it. And of course, everything about my music is -- it’s fixated on the bigger picture. It’s fixated on big questions, big ideas and big concepts. If I can only introduce people and make them feel like they have a safe place to talk about those things. I think a lot of people avoid asking those big questions because they’re afraid of what they’re going to find out, or they’re afraid of confronting the answer, however unanswerable it is, or enigmatic these questions are. I think it’s important that everyone asks them and confronts them in a way that’s brave. That’s what I hope I can contribute, a sense of safety.

How important is projecting vulnerability?

Vulnerability is humanness. It’s the only thing that separates us from computers, from machines. So I think it’s very important. You look at pop stars these days and they have no vulnerability because they’re meant to be iconic, to be looked up to as a sort of deity. And deities are supposed to be flawless.

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Are there any pop stars who seem vulnerable to you?

Well, that’s the interesting thing about Britney Spears when she had that breakdown, is that she kind of felt like a malfunctioning robot. She had a break, and that was very vulnerable. I wish she would just confront that more and embrace that more. I just don’t think the machine around her lets her.

You mentioned wanting your music to be a safe space for people, to help them with their anxieties. Have you gotten feedback from people who say that your music has helped them?

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Yeah, definitely. That’s the kind of feedback that I feel like is the most important, because it feels like the music is productive. And the opportunity to help people through it, or to help them grow or to help them confront themselves or their demons in some way -- I mean, that’s the most productive thing you could ask for from your art.


Erin Lyndal Martin

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