Last May, when Nika Rosa Danilova performed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City – wearing a conch shell-inspired LED encrusted collar and accompanied by the Mivos Quartet and composer JG Thirlwell – the gothic-leaning singer, who performs as Zola Jesus, was admittedly out of her element. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed room was quiet, stable; a world away from the rowdy clubs at which she normally performs.
“I was singing just as loud but I was singing with different parts of my body,” she explains to Rolling Stone of the performance for which her and Thirlwell re-imagined her swirling electro songs as graceful, orchestral arrangements. “As soon as I walked up on stage, this heaviness … I dunno, it just felt like the walls fell down. The whole relationship with the audience and the music; it just felt very powerful.”
So much did the Guggenheim performance impact her that Danilova felt she needed to continue following her muse. Late last year, the singer and Thirlwell (who performs with the experimental rock band Foetus) hit the studio. In short order the pair cut a full album’s worth of studio versions of some of Zola Jesus’s most jarring tracks, made over as lush, string-heavy concoctions.
“I just knew innately I needed to explore that and immortalize those [renditions],” she says of her principal motivation for creating Versions, due tomorrow. “When I was playing those songs live with a string quartet, it was like I could finally be just completely naked and stark and intimate, and in the some breath have dynamics. And that was really important to me. I was scared. But once I saw how it went over I felt like this was definitely something that I needed to push myself to explore even more.”
The songs that comprise Versions – the majority of which were culled from 2011’s Conatus – while re-worked with strings, are instantly recognizable: The menacing “Avalanche” is given an extra dose of uplifting heft, gentle violin trills supplanting the song’s typically synth-driven tribal beat; “Night,” off her 2010 Stridulum EP, becomes an even more manic declaration thanks to the addition of rigid-sounding strings and Nikalova’s more crystalline vocals. Others songs received more dramatic change-ups: the digitalized, throbbing “Seekir” still retains its pulsating beat, but utilizes gentle string plucks and staccato violin trills for palpable tension.
“Fall Back” marks the only new Zola Jesus song to appear on Versions. The singer originally cut the track in 2010 for a Twilight soundtrack, but it failed to make the final tracklisting. Danilova explores utter enchantment with a distant lover (“You are my only one/forever. I would do anything to be the one with you”) as the song builds from a slow-burning torch number to a full-bodied ecstatic exclamation.
The soft-spoken singer had to be convinced to include “Fall Back” on her new LP. “It came really quickly and I didn’t know if I even liked it,” she admits. “But everyone around me loved it and it just needed some juice. This is the perfect opportunity to give it that amp.”
Collaborating with another musician – let alone a classically trained one like Thirlwell – was a major adjustment for Danilova; the singer typically writes and records without assistance. Was she initially excited by the prospect of working with the composer? “Not really,” she admits, laughing. “It was scary. I’m not used to it. There were definitely some growing pains but he taught me so much. And it turned out to be a really positive experience in the end.”
Danilova says her Guggenheim performance – as well the process of recording Versions – has changed her entire artistic viewpoint. “It’s like the floodgate effect: It’s changed the way that I write music and changed the way I perform music,” she offers, adding that she plans to perform these songs with Thirlwell and a string quartet sometime in the near future.
For now, Danilova’s fully focused on penning new Zola Jesus material. She writes every day “like it’s a reflex,” but does admits the songwriting process has proved more challenging with time.
“The more that I’ve made the harder I have to think about things,” she says. “Because those reflexive songs that spill out of you… they’ve already been used up.”