“Everyone carries a shadow,” psychologist Carl Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
Most folks run from their “shadow,” but painting it on one’s personal canvas, however vulnerable and risky that may be, is an essential role of the artist, thereby opening the door to the psyche for others and cementing a feeling in time.
Nika Danilova—the woman behind Zola Jesus—hides nothing with her brand of brooding, avant-garde pop-rock. “Making music has always been the conduit for communicating all the things inside of me,” she says. “It has given me a constant catharsis, so I’ve never really had anything build up. Maybe I’m lucky that way.”
The 22-year-old Wisconsin native began singing at an early age, performing opera from age 7 on. She did this off and on for 10 years, eventually stopping because of self-imposed fears of inadequacy. When she finally shelved arias, she began writing music that fused her brother’s influence of industrial and punk sounds—The Residents, Dead Kennedys and Venetian Snares—and the tunes in her father’s record collection—The Talking Heads and Oingo Boingo—with bubblegum pop and her classical training.
But more important than the sonic roots of Danilova’s artistic creations are, in some respects, the philosophical musings of nihilistic writers that she began studying as a teenager. These include Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard and Arthur Schopenhauer, who, at various points in their respective careers, proposed that the world is devoid of meaning and that all of our actions are pointless.
“Having read and explored people like them, it’s really only liberated me in a way,” Danilova says. “When you take that pointlessness, loss of hope or the lack of purpose in the world, you feel like whatever you do is going to be absurd, so you can do whatever you want.”
Where her debut, Stridulum, dealt with feelings of desperation and frustration, becoming aware of them and starting an internal revolution, Conatus, her 2011 follow-up, embraces those feelings—Danilova owns her “shadow”—and explores what’s beyond them. She was liberated, as she said, to take a keen look at the dualities of the world on a sonic landscape to make a transgressive pop album.
“Good and evil; happy and sad; black and white. [Conatus] is about trying to understanding the polar opposites and knowing where you lie in between,” Danilova says. “It’s something that my whole life I’ve been fascinated with.
“I’m really interested in never censoring myself, because you are missing out on a feeling, whether it’s good or bad or disturbed,” she adds. “That’s the duality. I want to know and feel it all.”
With that sensibility, Conatus is a completely visceral experience: It’s richly layered, baroque and creepy, while at the same time emotional, dense and image-heavy. And Danilova wonders if that emotional sentiment resounds with the current world condition. In the third quarter of the 20th century, visual artist Joseph Kosuth began creating art as a way of asserting the current world situations of his time as historical benchmarks, because art is what anthropologists will look back upon in 100, 200 or more years as a clue into various periods of late human development. Danilova is not a Kosuthian, but the same curiosity rings true.
“It’s vital and crucial as an artist that you are representing a whole people,” Danilova says, adding that’s why she doesn’t want to make music about going to the club, even though it’s true that is a reflection of society to a certain degree; we are living in a highly escapist world.
Pop music is about the most basic, superficial human drives, and “that hurts my heart a little bit,” Danilova says. “That’s partially why I’m so passionate about making music that’s aware of the philosophy of our time.” Danilova nails this aesthetic with enigmatic lyrics and the dark musical layers of Conatus. Her voice is reminiscent of Florence Welch, but is more elusive, shrouded behind murky synths and industrial dronings.
“It’s really important to me that I not really reflect society, but contribute something to culture or to anthropology in a way that we can bookmark the emotional mindset of the time,” Danilova says, “because I think that I’m not alone.”