Author: Zach Adams
Before she was Zola Jesus, she was Nika Denilova, a student at UW-Madison and a DJ right here at WSUM. Recording her debut album in her Madison apartment, Zola Jesus has become a whirlwind force of pop – exposing both her light and dark sides to her listeners. Her performance on the second day of Pitchfork Music Festival served as an open door into her soul, with her bright red shawl contrasting the deep, dark nature of her music. The WSUM alumna sat down with WSUM just before her late-afternoon set, reminiscing about her first show on the station, the recording process for Okovi, and why she prefers the woods of Northern Wisconsin to New York or Los Angeles.
How’re you doing Nika? You excited?
Zola Jesus: I’m good, really excited. I’m glad to be talking to you.
In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that you’re not necessarily a festival person. Do you see Pitchfork as kind of different, or do you still have the same sort of fears or worries about it?
Zola Jesus: Well, yeah. I think I always have worries because my music isn’t always, like, “party music,” and so sometimes I feel like it’s not the right atmosphere. But, you know, I’ve always enjoyed playing Pitchfork and I think people here “get it” more than most places.
So, you’re a WSUM alumna. Can you tell us some of your favorite moments from being at WSUM, or some favorite memories from the station?
Zola Jesus: Yeah! Just, I mean, just generally having a show there, you know, and being at the old studio when it was on State Street. And then, you know, I had a show when it moved to the new building – the fancy building. And just generally, I met a lot of friends there, I met a lot of people that had shared music tastes. And that’s kind of how I got to know Madison and the people that I would eventually associate with, so yeah.
What was the recording process for your newest album, Okovi, like? Was it also a healing process for you?
Zola Jesus: Definitely, yeah. Because it was a really difficult record to write. And so, when I put it all together […] I worked with my live bandmate who’s also an engineer and a producer – and he helped me kind of finish it. He’s, like, the only person I could’ve trusted with that. His name is Alex Degrote – I met him in Madison, and here we are. And so that was really important that I was working with people that I felt knew what I was going for. And they weren’t gonna try to push it in a direction that I didn’t want it to go in.
Many artists and celebrities end up moving to these big cities like LA or NYC – and you were in Seattle for many years. What keeps drawing you back to Merrill, Wisconsin, the woods? Is it a sort of sentimental value to you? Do you feel it’s peaceful? Or some sort of combination between the two?
Zola Jesus: It’s just home. I lived in LA for three years, then I lived in Seattle for three years, and I had some friends there, but I never felt like I needed to be there. And I travel so much, that when I’m home, I wanna feel like I’m at home. Like, I’m around people that I really wanna spend my time seeing, because I see people so rarely because I’m always on the move. And so, I was just like, “screw it.” My parents have a bunch of land that I grew up on and I went and built a house. Wisconsin’s also super cheap, which is great! So, I can survive being an independent artist, you know, living in Wisconsin. I couldn’t do that in LA or Seattle. Also, I just kinda felt, like…I don’t know, I’m proud to be from Wisconsin. And I think that instead of just moving to LA or moving to New York, you know, I think that for me I’d rather support the place where I came from.
Your influences range from the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright to the opera of Maria Callas. Would you call yourself more of a visual artist or more of a recording artist? Or some sort of fluid combination of the two?
Zola Jesus: I’m definitely a musician, but when I make music I don’t like to be necessarily influenced by other music. I’d rather interpret something out of context and try to make, like a musical version or […] an interpretation of it.
I have here your very first playlist from your show “Jerkwave” that you played in 2007. Are there any songs that still ring any bells?
Blank Dogs – Leaving the Light On
Zola Jesus: Blank Dogs! Ok, first of all, Blank Dogs was one of the first artists that released on Sacred Bones. He now runs the label Captured Tracks – his name is Mike Sniper. So that’s like a little a relic in history. He’s still bumpin’ around the scene, but in a different way.
Black Dice – Trip Dude Delay
Zola Jesus: Black Dice! I still love them, still miss them.
Demon’s Claws – Wrong Side of Town
Glass Candy – Miss Broadway
Zola Jesus: Glass Candy is really funny because now I work with Johnny Jewel, who was in Glass Candy. He remixed one of my songs and we’ve been working together a bunch.
Sightings – Castle Moat
Excepter – PunJab
Electric Eels – Agitated
Zola Jesus: Electric Eels, still so good.
Les George Leningrad – Akufen Soutien-Georges (Remix)
Dragibus – A Crocodile in an Aquarium
Still Going – Still Going Theme
Jandek – They Told Me I Was A Foot
Zola Jesus: Aww, Yawn-dek, Jandek, whatever.
Tyvek – Frustration Rock
Liquid Liquid – Optimo
Zola Jesus: Liquid Liquid, yeah. This is stuff I still bump.
Lamps – Now That I’m Dead
DJ Mehdi – Lucky Boy (Outlines Remix)
Zola Jesus: I still love that 2007 French electro scene.