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Zola Jesus on Mariah Carey’s Oversinging and the Guggenheim’s Inspiring Weirdness

Zola Jesus

Since her 2011 breakthrough Conatus, Zola Jesus‘ has built a stirring catalog on the strength of her dramatically keening vocals and icy synthesizers. She’s up to something different on her new Versions (Sacred Bones). For the album, the woman born Nika Roza Danilova enlisted a full string quartet to back her most most naked songwriting to date.

Shortly befor Versions‘ August 20 release, Danilova chatted with SPIN about some of her favorite things. 

’90s R&B
“I’ve been listening to a lot of soul, gospel and R&B, music where the vocals are really up front, and there’s a lot of movement in the vocals. That inspired me to make a recording that’s very up front and very intimate sounding. Groups like En Vogue and Brandy, and Mariah Carey, earlier to mid-’90s R&B acts, are really into over-singing vocal acrobatics. I thought it was too much, but then I got really into the idea of perfecting that part of my voice, since I’ve never really done that before. I have a newfound appreciation for it.”

Knut Hamsun
“I’ve been reading this book called Mysteries by Knut Hamsun, he’s a Norwegian author. It was very surreal, magical realism. It’s hard to explain, but it’s about this man that shows up to this small village and no one knows where he came from, but he’s just very mystifying and it follows his journey. But this book really resonated with me for the main character. This mysterious man that shows up in this town — he’s compelling, argumentative, he’s got very strong opinions, but they’re not really based in reality. He seems like he showed up from another planet. I’m drawn to characters that don’t really exist in reality.”

Science Fiction
Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick. I like the really psychedelic sci-fi writers of the ’50s and ’60s. It’s the kind of thing that makes you excited about humanity after reading it. If someone can dream up that life, if someone can dream up that world, it means that world could exist. There’s a lot of crap, though. There’s a lot of pulpy, dollar store ones. I’ve read them and I’ve been very disappointed.”

Hiroshi Teshigahara
“This record’s aesthetics were very inspired by Hiroshi Teshigahara, a Japanese filmmaker from the ’60s. He worked with this sci-fi writer Kobo Abe, who wrote these magical realism-sci fi books. And they were just very beautiful and surreal. So Teshigahara would write the screenplays, and he would also work with the cinematographer so all the shots would be very wide, minimalist, and stark. He worked with a composer and did a lot of avant-garde arrangements, so it would be these arrangements, with the landscapes telling these sci-fi leaning stories. There’s this one [film] of his called The Face of Another. It’s about a man whose face gets burned, and he has this psychologist who invents a way for him to get his face replaced. But he has to steal another person’s face so he can make a mold of it. So he asks this random guy on the street if he can buy his face to make a mold of it. So he ends up wearing this other face, and walks around as a completely different person. It’s interesting how that translates into his psychology and his identity.”

Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum
“I played a show there that actually birthed this whole record. When I played there, I hired a string quartet and an arranger, and was very inspired by it. I like how disorienting it is. When you’re in it, you feel like you’re in a different world. There are no right angles, or very few. It feels like a very different interpretation of space. I like contemporary art museums and very modern spaces. I think they represent the music well. There’s something very futuristic there.”

Frank Lloyd Wright
“I like how Frank Lloyd Wright [the architect who designed the Guggenheim] interprets space. He worked a lot in Wisconsin. I’m from Wisconsin, and I feel like I very much understand his mission—very Midwest. As an architect, it’s almost like he had a vision of architecture that’s really inspired by nature. It’s like he’s creating nests for us, human nests. I wanted Versions to feel very raw and elemental because it’s acoustic instruments. I wanted it to feel like it was happening very live. Which in most cases, it was.”