Zola Jesus' Operatic Voice Wows at Tour Kickoff

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Zola Jesus / Photo by Hannah Gregg
WRITTEN BY
Mark Lore

How does a 5'2", 22-year-old girl from rural Wisconsin become the enigmatic and bewitching Zola Jesus? Well, it has to be that mile-long voice of hers, or perhaps it's her childhood raised on the venison her father provided through hunting, or it's her steady diet of Danny Elfman's Oingo Boingo (think "Weird Science") and the books by stark-minded philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer.

Whatever it is, the singer born Nika Danilova has steadily made a name for herself over the past three years, leaving a paper trail of EPs and full-lengths that combine apocalyptic beats, icy atmospherics, plenty personality quirks -- and a voice made for opera. And Thursday night, she kept a full room inside the cozy confines of Mississippi Studios in Portland, OR, spellbound throughout her 45-minute set.

Sure, she was a little nervous -- "I'm faced with the immediacy of playing those songs in front of people, which frightens me to death," Danilova told SPIN hours before taking the stage. But it didn't show.

The young woman bold enough to name herself after the son of God strode out wearing a flowing white shawl that was reminiscent of an ABBA costume-piece (at various points she even resembled ABBA vocalist Agnetha Fältskog). Her backing band, on the other hand, wore black, and looked more like a group of heavy metal outcasts than electro scientists.

The group played a set heavy on material from her just-released Conatus album, a shimmering and spacious record that displays even more confidence than her previous work ("I'm so sick of those old songs," she said before the performance). In fact, eight of the 13 songs she performed were pulled from the new release.

By the time Zola Jesus got to "Hikikomori," one of the best tracks from Conatus, music critics' recent generosity with the "goth" descriptor in Zola's music seemed misplaced. It's emotional and there are moments of darkness (especially in the aptly titled "Night" off her Stridulum EP), but mostly Jesus' music is joyous, occasionally reaching the epic peaks of Arcade Fire or early U2. The music definitely affects Danilova, who constantly waved her hands frantically in the air. Even when her movements were awkward, it was obvious they were coming deep from within.

Danilova rarely spoke between songs, but her powerful voice was the centerpiece, no matter how tribal the beats were, or chaotic a song would become. "My music is a little compulsive," she told SPIN before the gig. "I can't write a song and say it's going to be about this or that. I find release in the things I have to deal with."

Setlist:
Avalanche
Hikikomori
Stridulum
Collapse
Sea Talk
In Your Nature
Shivers
Seekir
Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake
Night
Ixode
Vessel
Run Me Out

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