An in-depth intervew on the occasion of her directorial debut
Zola Jesus is, by any measure, one of the most interesting recording artists working today. As she debuts her first self-directed music video, she speaks to Eve Barlow about depression as a creative force, her shift behind the camera and the immigrant experience in modern America.
When Nika Roza Danilova finds herself in a place of emotional turmoil and deep depression, she goes even more inward. For ten years she’s built a gothic underworld via her own synth-laden alternative electronica. As the recording artist Zola Jesus, she’s made five full-length albums, including 2017's Okovi, released to critical adulation.
The Okovi experience has been so significant to her as an expulsion of personal pain and survival (some of the songs are about a relative who was attempting suicide), that while she continues to tour the record, she’ll also put out a b-sides accompanying album, Okovi:Additions.
That features a brand new track, Ash To Bone, which has been remixed by Johnny Jewel, for which Nika has directed her first ever music video.
Over Skype, the 28-year-old explains why she’s chosen to take on another artistic outlet in video direction at such an already manically busy creative time for her.
“It's something I’ve always wanted to do and I thought it was now or never,” she says. Ash To Bone was written two years ago and the short number is a little vignette, a moment that captures Nika at a distance from everyone and everything surrounding her.
“I was pretty depressed,” she says. “When you’re depressed, you feel in your own world. You’re in a haze. I felt like I was pushing everybody away.”
As sometimes happens in her compositions, she didn’t intend to write such a starkly despairing track as Ash To Bone, it just started to pour out of her. “It’s hard to write songs about suicide or sing about your own struggles because you’re admitting defeat in one way or another,” she says. “But for me my anxiety has made me stronger because it’s forced me to confront every aspect of life.”
The song may have been unplanned but Nika definitely planned when she set out to conceive of a video for the track after Johnny Jewel remixed it. “The first time I heard the remix I was on a train going from Manhattan to Upstate New York,” she recalls. “I laughed it was so good. I was giddy. The song transformed in a way I wasn’t expecting.”
Even today, Nika finds it difficult to sum Ash To Bone up in a sentence but its second life has forced her to reconsider its purpose. The beauty of her brazen honesty when writing at her most vulnerable is that the messages are often fuzzy.
“It was definitely written with the intention of being a cathartic experiment,” she expands. “It’s just about being disconnected from the outside of yourself, being in the void looking out and you can kind of see what’s happening, but you can’t connect with people or be connected with.”
Nika is currently living in a house in Merrill, Wisconsin, which she built on the same land she grew up on. This feeling of being removed from buzzy society is something she’s constantly contending with, and often because she’s put herself in that place.
Her emotional state hasn’t lifted, which is why this video was an especially exciting project for her to dig herself into. She wanted to extend that catharsis. “Even though I’ve gotten better throughout my depression, my life is very tumultuous,” she says. The triggers aren't the same as they were two years ago, but her reactions to them are. “I needed to purge through the video,” she laughs.
The video is a portrait of Nika in Chinatown, New York City at night around the Chinese New Year parade. It was filmed over the course of two evenings – both outside and in a studio space. Shooting went on until 4am. “I was crawling through fish bile in the markets at night and chasing after garbage trucks, rolling around in the streets, rubbing up against strangers and stuff,” she says. The initial concept started with the color red – “Red lights, Chinatown, feeling like the id, like the subconscious was on the outside instead of being buried deep underneath inside of you.”
Your inner id is usually something nobody sees, but Nika wanted to ask – what if it came out? “What would your id look like? I wanted to wear mine on the outside. When you’re depressed, life feels somehow unfamiliar or horrifying. Everything becomes exaggerated. That’s what I needed to expel.”
Nika’s id – according to the video – is a monochromatic ink-splattered alien, who’s in awe of the things we otherwise take for granted: buildings, signs, infrastructures. “That idea fell out of me,” she says. “Then it was about figuring out how to make it happen from a practical standpoint.”
Her long experience of working with director Jacqueline Castel gave her the confidence when stepping up to the plate herself. With Jacqueline busy on other projects, Nika asked her friend Jenni Hensler to co-direct having also teamed up with her in the past. “I knew I could trust her to be my eyes when I couldn’t because I was in it,” she says.
On set the energy was “psychic.” Everything ran smoothly, largely as a result of Nika’s communication skills from being her own studio producer and band leader for so many years.
“The biggest part of being a director is making sure that you’re communicating to everybody in their own language,” she says, pointing to the editors and the light department, hair people and makeup artists. “It’s something I’m naturally good at, because I’m constantly having to explain my vision to people. It’s so second nature to me,” she says.
This is just the first step for Zola Jesus’ own video direction. Nika has a taste for it now, and found it remarkably “easy.” Well, apart from being the person in front of and behind the camera. That takes some multi-tasking she’s still trying to finesse. With the action of her performance being such an exorcism, it was difficult to flit between that emotional state and the far more managerial head of organizing everything.
“It’s hard to be able to lose yourself 100%, especially if you have some sort of responsibility on-stage or in a project. You always have to have one corner of your eye on the whole scene,” she says. “The performance was me having to shed my ego, shed my awareness of my body and of the people around me. But then I had to be like, ok, cut.”
The intense experience hasn’t put her off adding even more feathers to her cap in the future. Quite the opposite. She’s keen to expand her editing skills and eventually she’d like to learn how to actually shoot. The visual aspect of things is such a relieving outlet for Nika because it’s so much less direct than her music.
“Visually I can become more abstract and try to fulfil an expression that’s more pulled apart or esoteric,” she explains. “With music I need to have some structure. My visual inspiration is usually more subconscious. I don’t second guess it or think about it too much. With music it’s my craft and I’m always conscious of that.”
Expanding the Okovi era has had Nika ruminating on its relevance to America in 2018. “Okovi” translates as “shackles” and is very much a record that explores a return to roots (Nika’s are Slovenian and Russian-German).
It’s made her contemplate her place in America, particularly during the current Trump administration and the President’s alienation of immigrants. “All Americans come from somewhere,” she says. “I think about it every single day – where my family came from. I feel an incredible debt and responsibility to honor that. The immigration issues are pretty outrageous.”
The b-sides album and video aside, Nika is also gearing up to go on tour with the equally gothic and compelling Alice Glass, who’s become a good friend of hers amid all the loneliness and uncertainty. “It’s been a blessing getting to know her,” she says. “It’s cool to have a new friend who I can talk about comics and horror movies with. She’s of the same breed as me.”
Photography by Laura June Kirsch