Zola Jesus: 'I feel like I have to push myself off a cliff'

Nika Roza Danilova tells Hugh Montgomery about the angst behind her compelling brand of doom-pop...and why she changed her name

The pop business may be filled with upstarts following their dreams, but what about those just trying to stave off the nightmares?

Ask Zola Jesus about her creative drive, and her answer is decidedly gush-free. "I have an underlying fear that my body might fail at any moment," she says, her eyes directed at the floor, her hands picking at her tights, "so everything I do is reinforced by the terror that I could die any day ... I need to reaffirm why I'm here and pay my dues."

That such a statement engenders admiration rather than giggles is a measure of the compelling musical intensity of the diminutive diva, aka Nika Roza Danilova. Since her 2009 debut album The Spoils, the 22-year-old philosophy graduate has become the toast of the blogosphere with her brand of skyscraping doom-pop. Founded on industrial electronics and earthquaking beats, its trump card is her humdinger of a voice: guttural yet ethereal, with a formidable range in part fostered by opera lessons in her early teens. Her third album, September's Conatus, ratcheted up the grandiosity further, with her pipes likened to those of Florence Welch. In truth, though, her music makes Welch's sound Tesco-bound.

More interesting is her emergence amid a new wave of goth-pop stars – among them Canadian band Austra and her upcoming UK tourmate EMA, aka singer-songwriter Erika M Anderson. Point this out to Danilova, however, and she will not love you for it. "Oh God, do we have to ...?" she sighs when I bring up the G-word. "The problem is I live in America, and when you say goth there, people think of girls with pink hair listening to Marilyn Manson."

Indeed, though she used to dress exclusively in black, recently she has shifted to the other end of the spectrum, acquiring an icy peroxide dye-job and a white-and-grey-centric wardrobe to match. "This new record was about trying to force myself out of habits. I feel stronger when I'm in all black, but I feel like I have to push myself off a cliff," she says.

Danilova has always been protective of her singularity. She grew up on a remote farm in wintry Wisconsin, enjoying a childhood at once isolated and liberated. "When you live in the country, there's a sense in which you live without law. I felt I could do anything and have the room to explore," she says. Zola Jesus, meanwhile – a composite of Emile Zola and Jesus Christ – was a pseudonym dreamt up by her teenage self as a means of freaking out her high-school peers. "I didn't want to spend this time getting to know people who I knew would serve me no purpose in the long term. So I thought that I could cut myself off from them [with the name], which is very easy in a place which is pretty conservative."

Zola Jesus may be a pseudonym, but it is not, crucially, an alter-ego, since she considers her music "too personal for anything to be separated". She has spoken of putting herself through a "personal ritual of self-martyrdom", a ritual that peaked during the recording of Conatus. "This record was about looking within: What's the problem? Why can't I grow? What's keeping me from being the person I want to be? And it turns out there's a lot of things ... it was the hardest thing I've ever made," she continues, in her incongruously affectless drawl, "[in terms of] the self-destruction and rebuilding of myself that I went through."

In the past few years, she has been diagnosed with both generalised anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, but has resisted medication. "I don't like the idea of taking something every day to not feel a certain way when I could just get through it naturally and be stronger and not be so avoidant."

You have to witness her on stage to appreciate the extent to which her music is predicated on suffering. A few hours after our interview, she plays her album launch at Toynbee Hall, London, where the audience is treated to something akin to a one-woman Greek tragedy. Dressed in a flowing white robe, she spends much of the performance stalking the hall like a Fury; towards the end, as she returns centre stage and throws her arms aloft in despair, she shifts into Cassandra mode. Another moment sees her frenziedly thwacking a cymbal before bolting off stage; that you're not quite sure if she'll return (she does) is a marker of the gig's extraordinary sense of agonised occasion. It's a nervous performance in the best sense: indeed, she has always disliked live gigs, ever since, as a child, her anxiety would cause her to lose her voice before classical recitals. "I don't understand it, getting up on stage. I feel like I have this responsibility to do more than sing the song. I just try to pretend no one's there."

Still, it would be fallacious to portray Danilova as some Little Miss Misery; she's an incisive and worldly interviewee. And while she is not averse to such statements as "maybe the apocalypse has already started", as she told one interviewer, such portentousness springs not from histrionics but from informed opinion. "I was at the airport at the other day and I saw Bloomberg [Business Week], and the cover of the magazine said 'America isn't working'," she tells me. "This is a magazine owned by the Mayor of New York, and it's part of the whole Bloomberg business conglomerate, one of the very financial institutions that are corrupting our country. They have the balls to say that, but they're not doing anything about it. It's crazy ... it feels like the rustlings of a revolution," she says.

But do you want to know the truly dark thing about Zola Jesus? When not suffering for her art, she likes nothing better than to kick back and create auto-tuned R&B pop with her live bandmate Rory Kane – and darned good it is too. For now it remains a hobby, she says. "There was a moment when we just released those songs for free, for fun, and we started getting all this attention from major labels but it made me think: is this something I want to be known for right now?"

Nevertheless, who knows what may follow. "I love Rihanna and Beyoncé and Britney ... [theirs is] the most psychological and sophisticated music I've ever heard," she says, with only the merest flicker of irony. "The [latest] Britney Spears album [Femme Fatale] is an incredible record. It's vacuous – it's got this giant gaping hole in the middle – but that's set against this beautiful modern electronic arrangement of music."

Zola as the new Britney? Now that would surely be her greatest trial yet.

Zola Jesus tours the UK this week, playing Heaven, London (Wed), Manchester Academy (Thu) and The Kazimier, Liverpool (Fri)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week