Zola Jesus Frees Herself from Constraints on ‘Okovi’

Even if you’ve never heard the name “Zola Jesus” you’ve definitely heard the music of Nika Roza Danilova. It’s been used on several high-profile TV shows including Skins, Grey’s Anatomy, How To Get Away With Murder, Gossip Girl, and Elementary.

The trajectory of her career has been impressive, especially when one considers that Ms. Danilova is not even 30 years old. She studied opera as a teenager (a practice she still continues) and after being “reinvigorated” by the experimental music of Diamanda Galas, went on to self-produce her debut album The Spoils in 2008.

This was followed by a series of EPs released on Sacred Bones and collaborations with Former Ghosts and Amanda Brown of Pocahaunted. In 2012 Danilova was invited to perform at the Guggenheim accompanied by an orchestra conducted by JG Thirlwell, a concert which inspired the release of Versions not long after.

Any critique of Zola Jesus’ music would not be complete without a discussion of her remarkable voice. Although on her earlier releases Danilova often buried her voice under “reverb and distortion,” with Versions she finally set it free, and it’s an incredible thing to behold. 2015’s Taiga showcases the continued development of not only Danilova’s vocal style, but also her distinctive approach to electronica: the album incorporates not only brass instruments, but also feels influenced by R&B and dance music.

After the almost mainstream appeal of Taiga, Okovi feels like a step in yet a different direction for Zola Jesus. Okovi is the Russian word for “shackles,” but this feels like an ironic title. Danilova sounds freer than ever, more comfortable with not only the parameters of her voice, but the personal quality of her lyrics.

Okovi opens with the synthesized vocals of “Doma” (translation: home), a track that feels positively otherworldly. There is continued irony in the contrast of the music and lyrics: “Please take me home / where I can be one / with the same land I’m from,” a reference perhaps to her recent move back to the woods of Wisconsin.

The dramatic strings that introduce “Exhumed” create a sense of tension, one relieved by the introduction of Danilova’s voice, which slices through the music like a finely honed blade. “Bury the tongue / between the teeth / open the jaw /and sink in deep,” she sings, with all the fire of a warrior priestess. The combination of electronic instrumentation, booming drums, and Danilova’s ghostly background wails produces goosebumps.

“Soak” reveals what “Exhumed” only hints at, that Danilova’s voice is driving the melodies of this album, not the reverse. It’s a powerful yet melancholy song, the shuffling drumbeat offset by flourishes of piano, and a haunting chorus, punctuated by some brilliant alliteration: “You should know I will never let you down / you should know I will never let you drown.”

The painfully gorgeous “Witness” feels like it could have appeared on Versions, all piercing strings and emotions. Lyrically, it references physical and emotional scars, and serves as a plea against suicide, whether real or metaphorical: “To be a witness / to those deep deep wounds / to resist it / to keep that knife from you.”

Musicially, the most Taiga-like of all the songs on Okovi is “Siphon”; the lyrics, again, seem to reference self-harm or suicide: “we’d love to clean the blood of a living man / we’d hate to see you give into / those cold dark nights inside your head.”

While Zola Jesus’ music is different from her Goth-influenced peers like Chelsea Wolfe or Eivor, there are flashes of School of Seven Bells’ Ghostory in the echoing synths of “Veka” (translation: ages), a song which raises thought-provoking ideas about the ephemeral nature of art: “Who will you find you / when all you are is dust / who will find you / in centuries?”

It’s hard not to think about the JG Thirlwell project of the same name when hearing “Wiseblood” and considering Danilova’s history of performing and recording with him, it may not be an accident. Of course, most will think of Flannery O’Connor’s novel of the same name, where the “wise blood” refers to one’s instinctive knowledge. This is an uplifting song, both musically and lyrically: “If it doesn’t make you wiser, doesn’t make you stronger, doesn’t make you live a little bit / what are you doing?”

“Remains,” although possessing fewer obvious hooks than “Wiseblood,” is even more life-affirming. Danilova pushes her voice into falsetto territory, recalling the questions asked in “Veka”: “What remains of us?” The piano melody that builds in intensity in the middle of the song foreshadows Danilova’s vocal performance in the word “through” towards the end, one which brings tears to the eyes with its effortlessness and power.

It’s brave to put an instrumental after such a passionate tune, but “Half Life” is a stunning track. It provokes questions about a life well-lived or not at all. How long it takes our creations to disappear from memory will never be known, but thanks to Okovi, I predict Zola Jesus’ talent will be remembered for a long time to come.

Okovi was released on September 8 and is available from Sacred Bones Records.

Zola Jesus will be touring North America, the UK, and Europe through the end of the year. She plays Toronto’s Longboat Hall on October 6.

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