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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)