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Breaking Out: Zola Jesus


From an early age, Nika Danilova wasn’t interested in making things easy. “Right before my freshman year of high school,” recalls the Wisconsin-raised singer, who performs her disturbingly catchy midnight gloom tunes under the name Zola Jesus, “I was in a meeting with people who wanted to be on the school newspaper. When it came time for everyone to introduce themselves, I said I wanted to be called Zola Jesus. I don’t know why. I’ve always been really quick to alienate myself.”

Quick, maybe, but not always effective. Trained as an opera singer and inspired by experimental musicians like wailing art-vampire Diamanda Galás and the bleak existential philo-sophers she studied at the University of Wisconsin, Danilova, 21, has stepped her small, pale frame into the spotlight with her romantic (in the Mary Shelley, not Sandra Bullock, sense) vocal melodies and absorbingly creepy goth soundscapes, full of icy synths and echoing drums. Black gems such as the tragic, windswept “I Can’t Stand” from Stridulum, the cover of which features her face covered in obsidian ooze, and the piano dirge “Lightsick” from Valusia (both aforementioned EPs were released by Sacred Bones) showcase a musician unafraid to face some harsh truths. “It’s important to make music that is unsettling,” she says. “People join bands because they want to party and be famous. I’m not interested in that. I’ve never done drugs and I don’t drink. I’m only interested in putting something novel and affective into the world.”

To that end, the now L.A.-based Danilova supported fellow techno-witch Fever Ray on a European tour in September, then continued across the continent for her first overseas headlining shows. U.S. gigs with Mercury Prize — winners the xx followed last month, and an as-yet-untitled full-length is due in the spring. “I know I’m a strange person,” she admits. “So it’s encouraging to see people respond to my music so positively.”

Could it be that things are looking (eek!) bright? “Sure,” Danilova says slyly. “I’m from Wisconsin. I can only indulge the bleak stereotype so much.”