Despite her remote, enigmatic persona, Nika Roza Danilova, a.k.a. Zola Jesus, has always been adept at exposing the glowing emotional core beneath her steely exterior. Conatus, her third album in as many years, shows her tempering the sheer force of her voice and production even more. Though Conatus reprises the martial drum machines and goth chanteuse vocals of her last release, Stridulum II, there’s more lyrical self-awareness here, and clearer than production work than we’ve seen from her in the past. Stridulum garnered high praise for its dramatic and sometimes abrasive use of noise, minimal synths, and tribal beats. On Conatus these elements return buoyed by Danilova’s huge voice (she’s opera-trained) and an array of dance touchstones. Conatus embraces pop, with a strong focus on tightly-configured drum patterns that take cues from house, techno, and other corners of electronic music. While vulnerability is a theme throughout, Danilova harnesses that emotion to create her own world of near-continuous cathartic release. The end result is her most accessible work yet.
Hive spoke to Danilova about her recording process, working in solitude, fighting against her instincts, the apocalypse, and her inner solidarity with Gloria Gaynor.
[Stream Conatus at The Guardian]
Tell us about the name of the album.
Conatus basically means “continuing to exist.” Just existing and making the choice to do so. In another sense, moving forward and progressing. It was really important with this record to do that in my own way. To progress.
What did you do to try to achieve that?
I made this kind of leap when I made Stridulum because I wanted to make something that was honest and really straightforward. For this record I wanted to think about things more, and in some ways do the inverse of what I had done previously. If I continued to do things the same way, create in the same processes, then I would get stuck in habits. But I got there so differently. From the opposite side.
I did notice that you were experimenting with different types of drums and patterns than we’ve heard from you before. There are elements of dance and pop in there. What were you drawing inspiration from?
When I was making the record I was listening to a lot of IDM and breakcore. And that’s all about the programming. I mean, the changes are so subtle that at the same time they have the same weight that any major change in a song would. The subtle changes of a breakcore song, for me, just felt really giant. I wanted to learn that. I wanted to learn subtlety too.
The album is still very introspective too. What was it like to make that kind of record alone? You were working in solitude, right?
It was pretty self-destructive. It got pretty bad. The whole point of the record was to deconstruct everything I do and all of my habits and the way that I make music and the way that I think about music and try to flip it in reverse. It ended up getting to a point where it felt crippling. It felt incredibly raw and to know people are going to hear it makes me feel very vulnerable. I knew I was experimenting in a way that I know it still feels very new and unfinished.
How did you keep any sort of perspective in that situation? How did you keep yourself from going crazy?
I think the problem was that I didn’t have anything to give me a break. I woke up and it was that, and then I went to bed and it was that until I woke up again. It haunted me a little bit; to make this record and know I wanted it to be better than anything I had ever done, but not knowing how. Those loose ends and unanswered questions were really hard to deal with.
Your Last.fm page describes you as “invoking the approaching apocalypse.” Any thoughts on our impending doom?
[Laughs.] As far as the end times, or whatever, it’s obviously something that I think about a lot. It’s something that everyone has on their minds, consciously or subconsciously. There’s a sense of anxiety and tension that you can feel. Where, at the end, what’s the point? What’s the point? It’s just constant, lingering anxiety in everyone about when things are ultimately going to end. I think we’re realizing that we’re not immortal and maybe things aren’t going to last forever.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you get a lot of your material from your dreams. Can you give us an example from this album?
“Avalanche” was one of the first songs that I wrote. It was during a time when I was having these really strong visions of what the music looked like but I didn’t know what it was going to sound like. I had some dreams and I started journaling them. There was one where I was in a … actually … they’re stupid. I don’t want to tell you about them. [Laughs.] You know when someone is like, “Let me tell you about my dream,” and it’s this non-sequitur, convoluted story that won’t make any sense to anyone but you? [Laughs.] But for me they were very, very vivid and a song like “Avalanche” really invoked those things I had in my head, in my dreams. I mean, there’s definitely specific dreams and they were very bizarre and surreal and felt larger than anything. Explaining them reduces them because you can’t really expand. It’s like, “There was this guy and then we went to this place and this kid I knew in second grade told me something crazy.” [Laughs.]
And then there’s “Seekir,” which is this kind of upbeat, goth-pop track. If you were to make a dance playlist with “Seekir” on it, what else would be on there?
Hmm, I don’t know. I guess Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
That song, to me, I just feel like it’s the biggest, obvious Gloria Gaynor “I will overcome” song. [Laughs.] You know, like, “I’m a human being! I will make it through!” type jam.
I wouldn’t have expected it.
I think that’s a common misconception about me, just because I am interested in things that are unsettling or uncomfortable. Like I said, there’s a duality. Humans are dynamic and I’m incredibly dynamic! [Laughs.] And I’m not going to pretend I’m not. What’s the point in that?
Conatus is out now via Sacred Bones.