Music for wintertime: Zola Jesus’ Conatus

Zola Jesus is 22 year old Nika Danilova, a diminutive but enormously-voiced Russian-American singer, musician and songwriter who first emerged from the underground in the UK last year with her second album Stridulum II. The title came from a late 70s horror film and it was this -along with the cold drama of Danilova’s opera-trained voice, the influence of industrial music and her use of stark, frequently monochromatic imagery- that got her tagged at the time as belonging to a supposed goth revival.

Danilova was keen to reject such attempts at classification: “If goth is trendy again then I’m buying fucking polo shirts”,she announced to music website The Quietus.* But one of the central tenets of goth is its individualism, a Romantic hangover that frequently adds the explosively creative tension of contradiction to many musical genres and collective, subcultural identities. You wear black, invoke pain, mystery, melodrama and epic landscapes, but you’re not a goth? Of course not.

We need pop stars who seem like they’re transmitting through the aether from another world, even if in reality they’re from the Mid Western sticks

Danilova might say that her lack of connection to a like-minded community (she claims in an interview with The Fader to have only ever had three close friends in her life, including her husband) cuts her off from generic continuity, but then aren’t goths also outsiders, the weirdo at school? I know I was. All I can say is that it feels highly appropriate that I’m writing this review at Halloween.

This isn’t a criticism. It’s hugely enjoyable to have a single-minded, massively gifted young woman in the music world who re-invigorates the old formula of enrobing herself with all the lustrous, grave-robbed trappings of goth, whilst claiming them simply as the projection of her innermost personal feelings. Her interviewer for The Fader piece notes that “to Danilova, Zola Jesus is counter to classification, an aesthetic mined from an innate and unquantifiable sensibility,” and on the surface, it works. We need pop stars who seem like they’re transmitting through the aether from another world, even if in reality they’re from the Mid Western sticks.

One of the main features of her new album Conatus is evident from the very beginning: by opening with a short instrumental and waiting until the third track, ‘Vessel’, to unleash one of her elemental choruses, Danilova has sacrificed a fragment of immediacy in a bid for greater subtlety and variation. The formula continues – after the uplift of ‘Vessel’, ‘Hikikomori’ maintains a similar dynamic throughout before the album takes off again with the pacier and more melodic ‘Ixode’ and ‘Seekir’, followed by a few more shifts of emphasis before the sparse piano ballad of ‘Skin’ and the final percussion-less drone of ‘Collapse’.

At first, I felt this was a gamble that hadn’t really paid off – Stridulum II with less hooks – but after a few more listens I re-assessed this hasty judgement. I’d thought that it seemed a shame to relinquish one of her previous album’s strengths, the way it commandingly gripped you from start to finish. However, placing the vocals further back in the mix and relying less on anthemic lift-offs draws far more attention to the glittering, icy sophistication of the music, already evident on Stridulum II. The sound palette is similar, an aesthetic I’ve come to think of as ‘digital-ghoulish’, made up of compressed film-score strings, warped synths, shimmering piano, cavernous production, spectral sampled whispers and pounding programmed drums.

What seems at first to be a delayed piano in ‘Vessel’ actually turns out to be Danilova’s ominous murmuring emerging from the graveyard mist

In line with the album’s greater subtlety, however, the drums now sound less like battering-rams against the sigil-carved gates of an ancient fortress. Sometimes, the dancier end of industrial music can be detected in their twitchy, mechanistic forward motion. With any luck, this might lead to increased club-play and greater exposure, though with plenty of glowing reviews and frequent media coverage under her belt, Danilova hardly needs it by now.

This feeling of forward motion is important in another sense. Though on some tracks the lyrics are not only less dominant than before but also less intelligible (‘Ixode’ in particular), Conatus does have a recognisable theme, one revealed by its title. In an illuminating interview for the Dutch music website FaceCulture, Danilova states that in Latin it means ‘to continue’, ‘to move on’, and in philosophy refers to the will to live and self-develop.

She’s recently moved from the rural surrounds of her native Wisconsin to Los Angeles and it is possible to make out the occasional whiff of West Coast motivational psychobabble in the lyrics, such as “I wanna go ’til I never stop”. These sentiments are a little worrying: whilst on the surface it seems like a sunny outlook, the endless Californian imperative to ‘growth’ and self-realisation is inextricably linked to the dynamics of consumerism. You can never stay still, reflect or relax – you have to keep ‘building’ yourself, ‘discovering’ (inventing) new desires and facets of your identity which can be expressed through appropriate purchases.

This is how we’re whisked along with a system which can only function if it keeps moving and expanding, no matter what the impact on people and planet. Certain interview statements by Danilova seem to back up a vague subscription to this self-centred worldview – “other people have never been a priority to me…I’ve never really respected other people very much”, and on the issue of the media assuming she is lethargic, gloomy and downbeat: “The thing is, I’m actually an extremely dynamic person–I’m not depressed, I love Beyoncé, I love Britney Spears. I grew up in the ’90s.”

Reassuringly, there’s a healthy dose of evidence to the contrary. In the FaceCulture interview, Danilova also discusses her degree in philosophy. Explaining her attraction to the subject, she enthuses that it “encourages you to ask questions…it’s important, especially at a time like now, to be sceptical, to never take anything at face value.” Affirming a particular penchant for cynical philosophers such as Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, she values them for leading her to the belief that “there’s no reason for us being here so we can have the freedom and the liberty to make our own reason for being here.” Here, there’s a more positive spin on that need to keep shape-shifting: the message seems to be “don’t be inert, passive – don’t be a vessel for the propaganda you’re fed every day.”And it’s audible in the twist and turns of the music – what seems at first to be a delayed piano in ‘Vessel’, for instance, actually turns out to be Danilova’s ominous murmuring emerging from the graveyard mist.

She’s also exquisitely talented when it comes to that old gothic fascination with portraying the ugly as beautiful. Whether intentional or not, the degraded incantations and detuned bass synthesiser notes which open ‘Seekir’ reveal the dark heart of the motivational rhetoric which is elsewhere wrought into poisonously seductive confections. Sometimes, the doubt breaks through into the lyrics, as in the song’s pulse-quickening chorus: (“Is there nothing there? Just a hole inside? It will be gone – the only security – will be gone…”) and that of the unashamedly pompous ‘Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake’ (“The need to grow it takes you under…again and again”), lines which sublimely evoke the swirling whirlpools of anxiety generated by the enforced pace of modern life.

Thankfully, however, these are whirlpools which Danilova has managed to avoid being sucked into. Whilst Conatus is not the enormous leap forward from Stridulum II implied by its title, it’s still a self-possessed, successful follow-up. And that dynamic drive isn’t all bad – she completed high school in three years, released her first album whilst still at university and only began work on Conatus in January 2011. Dark magic channelled through twisted circuitry, perhaps? Wherever Danilova gets it from, it seems unlikely that her spell will break any time soon.

Zola Jesus images by Angel Ceballos, courtesy of Work It Media

*For some reason we are unable to link to the interview with Zola Jesus on The Quietus website. If you would like to read it, please copy and paste the following url into your browser window:

David Wilkinson is writing a PhD on post-punk, feminism and left-wing politics. He was known to paint his nails black as a teenager