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Inside Zola Jesus' Surprising New Pop Album 'Taiga'

How the singer left L.A. and found inspiration in divas like Mariah Carey and Barbra Streisand

Zola Jesus
Jeff Elstone
July 16, 2014 4:10 PM ET

After two years on the road supporting her breakthrough 2011 LP Conatus, Nika Roza Danliova decided it was time for a break. The 25-year-old songwriter better known as Zola Jesus discovered that Los Angeles is a difficult place to concentrate. "Writing in my apartment, I could hear the sounds of the city," she says. "It was really distracting, hearing my neighbor blasting Rihanna. You don't ever feel at peace to create something that feels very personal or intimate."

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So she moved on to rural Vermont, Wisconsin and Washington, where she holed up in a friend's summer home in Vashon Island, a small chunk of land only reachable by air or boat. "We went there in the winter," explains Danilova, who loved the walls of glass windows overlooking the icy Puget Sound, an arctic scene that reminded her of what she imagined her ancestors would have seen in Russia. "Being alone in isolation you can just focus on creating something that you feel is very unique."

The resulting album, however, is not the Bon Iver-style "retreat to the woods and get intimate with the acoustic" indie-folk collection that these stories usually produce. Instead, Taiga features a surprising set of 11 pop songs, replete with catchy beats and stuck-in-your-head hooks. Its first single, "Dangerous Days," is what Katy Perry might sound like recovering from a bad breakup with a steady diet of the Cure and New Order.

"I was a child of the Nineties," says Danliova, her platinum blonde hair having returned to its natural deep brown. "I grew up on Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, and I was listening to a lot of vocal music. You know, divas — Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, Barbra Streisand — strong female vocals. I wanted to be really confident in my voice, which is usually very intense."

This emphasis on voice meant that she had to tweak her usual writing process, moving away from her habit of fitting somewhat unrecognizable lyrics into soundscapes she'd already programmed. "For this album, I wrote most of these songs a cappella first, then put instruments underneath later, after I figured out what they needed to support them.

"I feel like now that you can hear what I'm saying, I have the responsibility to say something," she continues. "And I find that when I have a message that I'm communicating, the song is much more effective, or powerful — if I'm just saying abstract things that don't mean anything to anybody, I don't feel like I'm doing my job as an artist or a musician."

Set on doing her job, Danilova wrote hundreds of songs, recording demos in a simple studio and sending them back to noisy L.A., where producer Dean Hurley offered a second listen. Hurley, who had been working with Danilova's label-mate David Lynch, was originally set to only mix the record, but after their meeting, Danilova asked him to co-produce. "I really liked working with Hurley because he was like, 'These are the really good ones, and there's 200 more that are just whatever.' That's the hard thing about being a solo songwriter — you get so in your own head that you can't differentiate quality anymore."

Though the album is already done, Danilova decided to push its release (and the accompanying tour) til October, describing the finished product as a "fall record." The title, Taiga, a Russian word that refers to boreal forests, came not only from her surroundings but also the theme of the album. "It's about man versus nature, how man internalizes being a part of nature," she says, admitting that to be – contrary to her reformed intentions – a bit abstract. "We build these cities to protect ourselves, and insulate ourselves from the real world. What does that mean in terms of our future, and in terms of our past?" 

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