Music

The Return of Zola Jesus

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A week before the September 8 release of Okovi, her first album in three years, Zola Jesus is thinking about the tensions that animate her latest work. There are a number of them: She harnesses dark aesthetics, like those on standout track “Exhumed” and in its accompanying video, to tell stories of rebirth; she rejects belief in the supernatural, yet her classically trained alto reverberates angelically through cathedrals of echo; and most importantly, the painful scenarios she sketches are colored by private feelings she’s about to share with the world.

“So many of the songs on this album were not written for the public,” she says as the unveiling of her sixth album draws closer. “I’m trying not to think about it, [but] I’m starting to reconcile a little bit.” One thing helping is the chance to share these new songs — which she’ll bring to Basilica Soundscape in Hudson, New York, on September 16, and then to Rough Trade on October 4 as part of a lengthy tour of North America and Europe — with likeminded, receptive audiences. “I’ve wanted to play it for so long,” she says of the festival in Hudson, which takes place in a church-like former factory building owned by Melissa Auf der Maur and her husband, Tony Stone. “It’s made by people who love music, and that’s the end of the story.”

The story of Okovi is more complicated. Some of the eleven songs gestated for years, and recording them meant Zola Jesus had to retrace her steps, moving back to the Wisconsin of her childhood, where she had grown up as Nika Roza Danilova, in a family that counts Russia, Slovenia, and Ukraine among its countries of origin. Named for the Slavic word for “shackles,” Okovi is a meditation on life, death, loss, the body, and existence informed by a string of traumatic events in her life. While Danilova — herself a lifelong sufferer of depression and anxiety — was writing this material, one close friend attempted suicide twice, and another was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “So many songs on this record are snapshots of people in imprisonment, whether it’s mine or others around me, whether it be emotional, physical, or mental,” she says.

In many ways, Okovi shows Danilova stripped down to her barest essence; the lyrics are some of the most straightforward of her career. And while her prior experiments with noise, pop, orchestral, and electronic/goth instrumentation are all present in a mature synthesis of styles, her pathos-laden voice is the primary instrument on display.

“I’m fixated on having my voice be as honest as possible, but at the same time having the most control over it,” Danilova explains. When she first began recording nine years ago, she explains, “I was combating a lot of anxiety and self-doubt, so I covered my voice up quite a bit, but as I’ve gotten to know my voice more and gotten more confident in it as a tool, I’ve pushed myself to go to further edges of scaring myself.”

Danilova launched this intense personal undertaking from the stability of two different kinds of home bases. Following the release of the more pop-minded Taiga on Mute in 2014, Okovi reunites her with her musical family at Brooklyn indie label Sacred Bones. And she returned to her blood family in rural Merrill, Wisconsin, from Seattle, where she had begun to feel “depressed and rootless.”

“Being back where I grew up, and being so isolated in the woods, made me feel more creatively liberated,” Danilova explains. “This is the place where I grew my imagination and where I felt completely at peace and safe. It allowed me to think deeper within and not be so concerned about the outside world.”

This is not to say she hasn’t thought about the artist’s role within our current dystopia. “I know a lot of people are like, ‘What’s the point?’ And I was in the same boat a year ago,” she says, acknowledging that on a political level, people need a kind of change she is ill-suited to provide. But she hopes that on a less tangible, what some might call “spiritual” level, she can channel emotion in a way that listeners find useful. “So much of art is a distillation of the collective experience of the time, and that happens naturally,” she maintains. “People need catharsis more than anything right now.”

It’s that promise of mutual catharsis that drives her to share this output, however frightening it might feel. That, and her need to create a legacy. As an atheist with no plans to have children, Danilova hopes her art will survive long after she’s food for worms. “I think so much of why people create is to either challenge death or circumvent it, or conquer it in a weird way,” she says.

Zola Jesus plays Basilica Soundscape in Hudson, New York, on September 16 and Rough Trade in Brooklyn on October 4.

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