Welcome to the Wilderness

Taiga is the Russian name for the snowforest, an evergreen landscape of unbound wilderness. It’s also the title of Zola Jesus’ ambitious new album, where humanity’s relationship with the natural world is carefully and cleverly translated into her most accessible compilation of dark pop to date. Written from the core of her voice alone, Taiga builds its narrative on the intimacy of a limitless skyline.

The woman behind Zola Jesus is Nika Roza Danilova, philosophy graduate and opera singer by training. Known for her experimental juxtaposition of moods and sounds, she twists simple lyrics and minimalist compositions into stormy rhythms of rising intensity. Taiga follows a similar path of sharp dualism, but with this album something has changed. No longer submerged in the shadows of electronic effects, her voice shines brightly against a sunless backdrop.

An arresting image: as a child Nika occasionally stumbled upon deer heads dangling from the trees, an eerie trail le behind by her hunter father. The surreal sceneries of her childhood still ring loud through her music. She wrote Taiga while staying on Vashon Island, a large piece of wilderness cut off from the rest of Washington state.

“Nature to me means freedom, home, a deep sense of life, but I think a lot of people feel incriminated by it, threatened. And it’s strange because we’re just as much a part of nature as nature is,” she says. “Being on Vashon Island allowed me to regain perspective of the weird dichotomy that humans live with, where they create these synthesised versions of the world and remove themselves from nature, feeling somehow disparate from it.”

Cleansed from the reverb and vocal eff ects of her previous work—whether the darkly crackling sound of her debut The Spoils or the metallic echo of 2011’s Conatus—Taiga questions the premise of the modern world with a new-found musical transparency. The record was written a capella, with instruments applied scarcely thereafter, blending organic and electronic sounds, and enabling Nika’s voice to stand out among them, stronger than ever before.

“I stopped using reverb on my voice, which meant that everything needed to be more refined,” she says. “Writing songs a capella changed the flow of the music and the way I’m singing and it called for different instruments. For the past five records, I was using a lot of crutches, hiding behind reverb and ideas. I needed to push myself past my comfort zone, so I got rid of the effects. I started to sing differently.”

It’s a courageous step to strip her singing to its core. Still, there was something intriguing about an opera singer’s booming voice deliberately obscured by harsh drums and reverb. Without it, Taiga sometimes falls into a clean pop-song formula, where the elements are neatly arranged in the right order. Zola Jesus’ earlier murky experimentalism is scarce. The ideas, thankfully, are still there. Nika describes the single Dangerous Days as a political pop song made for mainstream radio. Although the lyrics are poetically abstract (“No word’s right for your name / Lose all that gold, it’s all the same”), the idea is nevertheless curiously radical and ties in with the arc of human detachment.

Nika has a complex relationship with her voice that goes back to her first staggering arias. Drawn to opera at the age of seven, she trained intensively. “I loved the sound of opera singing and how it felt, before I liked the idea of opera. It’s just such an incredibly efficient use of your body. But you have to go through so much training to get there,” she explains. Performing as Zola Jesus has been a way for Nika to free her voice from the bounds of her operatic past and the self-inflicted pressure it has entailed.

Its immense sound, though, is reminiscent of those unhinged landscapes she replicates on her new album. “Opera is boundless. The sound comes from everywhere, all angles. It’s multidimensional, the sound of something infinite, which applies to the natural world as well. You look at the taiga and you see a vast, infinite expanse. I like the idea of the world being big and things being big, because it often seems like the world is getting smaller.”

The album ponders our lost connection with the world. Can you remove yourself completely from your natural habitat, your source of life? How do you find a way back? Perhaps the answer lies in the medium. Nika’s inner landscapes entwine with those around her through the great tract of her vocals. An idea is lost without a strong and clear voice to carry it into the world. Is that what drew her to opera singing? “If you’re in the presence of an opera singer they can blow you away, break glass,” she reflects. ”The sounds that can come out of your body are just incredibly powerful. And I’m petite, I’m actually very small, so I like that it makes you feel bigger, larger than life.”

This interview was originally published in issue 22 of Oh Comely.