Zola Jesus is still going through it. The deeply private struggles that inspired Okovi are very much still a prominent aspect of Nicole Hummel's (aka Nika Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus) daily life, so revisiting her darkest, and most personal, album yet makes perfect sense for her. Indeed, it may well have been necessary to move towards wherever she's headed next. Much more than a slapped together afterthought, Okovi: Additions reveals new sides to her strife through its new material.

She's opened up a tad more about what she went – and is still going – through, but largely persists with an understandable veil. When I chopped it up with her over the phone, we get into a bit of that, and lot of everything else.

~~~~~~

Hello?

Hey, how ya doin'?

Good, how are you?

I'm pretty good, it's the morning here.

Good morning. You're in South Korea?

Yep, I am in Korea.

That's pretty awesome, what are you doing there? Living?

Definitely that. Have you ever been?

No, I'm dying to! I'd love to go to Seoul.

I actually prefer Busan, if you know the city.

I don't, but maybe I'll go there as well!

So, anyhow, I suppose we oughta actually get to it: normally I feel like I talk to people for the release of a new LP, so this is a bit different, I don't wanna just ask you about Okovi – are you cooking?

Yeah, I am right now, I'm toasting sesame seeds. Sorry! [laughs]

No worries, just curious~ so anyway, I feel like you've surely answered a million and one questions about the album proper, I'm more interested in, since I haven't done a chat around a compilation, what went into making a remix/etc album for you?

Well, umm, I never...I had a kind of strict 'no remixes' rule for the majority of my record making career, if you wanna call it that. But I started...when I signed with Mute, they were really excited to do remixes, and so was I, I was like, 'I'll give it a shot', so, we would talk to people and ask them to make remixes, but for this album, I didn't really ask any of these people to make remixes, most of them just really connected with one song or the other and asked if they could remix it, or had an idea to remix it, so they were all pretty organic, in that way, or in other ways. So it wasn't where, 'I'm gonna make a remix album, it was kind of like...yeah, they were all organic instances, where they came to life.

Sure, so it was more people coming to you than seeking out people you were interested in having do remixes?

Yeah, for the most part. Most of these remixes it was more of that situation.

So in terms of this record, why did you decide to go with the split between the new material and the remixes, was there any thought of a remix EP and an EP of new songs?

It just...I had that amount of unreleased songs, and that amount of unreleased remixes, and it fit perfectly on an LP, so it just made sense to combine it. Instead of having all these convoluted releases of things, for it just to be like this addendum to Okovi, that had songs that were going to be on the album, but because of length – running time – I had to cut them out. Then the remixes, which I wanted to give a formal release to, as well.

Why an addendum, as you put it, to Okovi at this juncture? Was there a particular inspiration, or just a desire for the songs to be heard?

Yeah, I just wanted the songs to be heard. And I'm not done with Okovi, yet. I'm still touring it, I'm still living and breathing the ethos of the album – very much so. I needed to keep it alive, for myself. I wanted those songs to be heard, and it just felt like it was the right thing to do, it didn't take much convincing for anybody. [laughs]

[chuckles] Fair enough. I was curious, and you sort of just answered this, but in terms of Okovi being such a, if I may, dark and personal record, did you see this as a step coming out from that at all, or a continuation?

I think it's umm, especially because a lot of the songs on that album, especially the unreleased tracks that I'd written, they're all pretty umm...they're not necessarily uplifting songs [laughs dryly] so they kind of speak to the quality of what I was experiencing, and people around me at that, and continuing to experience in very different ways currently.

Would you want to elaborate on what you're going through now? No pressure if you'd rather not.

Yeah, not really. Maybe someday.

So just in terms of the material from the music, and what you're experiencing being so intimate and difficult, but sharing a portion of it on this tour, is that something you're looking forward to leaving behind?

Aesthetically, emotionally? It's hard to make that decision for myself, because not to sound, I don't know, overly metaphysical about how to make music, but it often happens because I need it to happen, emotionally. So, right now, because I am still going through a difficult time in my life, I need music in a very specific way to help me navigate those rough waters. Whether or not I'd like to make a happier record, or a darker record, whatever is gonna come out, is gonna come out in a way that will be useful for my own sort of emotional coping strategy. I guess we'll find out, in terms of what the future holds. It'll probably be something that will have to continue to be cathartic for me, because of the nature of life. [laughs]

Considering all the 'new' songs are from the same recording period as Okovi

And they were all, I'm just gonna add, mixed and co-produced by Alex DeGroot, like the record.

Ok, cool, good to know.

[laughs] Slide it in.

There ya go. So, for myself, often when I listen to a compilation that follows a proper LP, the collected songs might be nice, but I can usually tell, 'Ok, I understand why this was cut.' In this case, I honestly didn't feel that way, how did you choose which songs made the cut?

At the end...the process was kinda difficult, and there was some back and forth between people involved in the record, in terms of what songs they felt should be on the album or not, which is helpful, because as a solo artist, it's important to have feedback, so I was really taking all that into consideration. But at the end of the process, I needed to go, 'Ok, what is this record to me? And in terms of the track listing, when does it feel done? How little needs to be on the album for it to feel done?' Because an album needs to fit on a record, of course, and it can't be any more than 40 minutes or something, so, I needed to be quite, like, conscious of the song choices. So I basically whittled it down to the songs that absolutely need to be on the album. Like, if one was missing, I'd be, I'd feel, like there was an empty cavern in the tracklist.

Sure.

And so while all these songs were written, and are a part of that same very, like, umm intense catharsis and all that, and have the same weight, and they needed to be on the album...they didn't need to be there as much as the songs that made it. But they were all contenders, they have a special place in my heart of course, but the people who were involved in putting the record together, such as Alex DeGroot, or Sacred Bones, my manager, they all had their opinions, and a lot of the songs on Additions were songs they wanted to be on the album. At the end of the day, I had to be like, 'I want them too, but we need to keep the tracklist short,' so I just picked the ones that absolutely needed to be on, knowing that I could release some later in this way. And I feel like they split into twos, 'Pilot Light' and 'Bitten Wool' have a certain mood, and 'Vacant' and 'Bound' have very specific moods, where they could be on the record, but also could stand alone in different ways. Whereas I thought some songs on Okovi needed the rest of the album for context. It ends up being like a puzzle, but you figure it out pretty intuitively.

Since we're already going into it, out of curiosity, when you were shaping the album itself, as well as the new songs I suppose, what went into ordering the songs? I think a listener will always be curious, because we just receive the final product and think, 'It was always meant to flow like this', but you had to choose track 1, 2, etc – did you have a sense of what the order should be, or did it shift throughout the process?

On Okovi it shifted. At first I wanted, I really wanted, to open with 'Exhumed', and then, once the idea came to open with 'Doma', I couldn't unsee that, or unhear that, so that had to stay the same, and it needed to end with 'Half Life'. And then 'NMO', which is sort of a little brief vignette, and 'Ash to Bone', were placed in ways that gave breathing room between songs that needed it. You know? You kind of end up building a narrative with the songs that you...because I don't necessarily think about the songs talking to each other, but when you're coming up with the tracklist and the order, you need to tell a story, and it needs to feel like a journey. There is an arc to making a really good tracklist. If the tracklist is long, or if its too bloated, or if there's not enough...it's such a delicate balance. There was a lot of consideration as to the tracklisting, and by the time it was done, I felt like it couldn't be any different. That's why it's hard to even perform live, wanting to change my setlist every night, because it's the same way, all the songs talk to each other in a really specific way where there's this domino effect, and so once you change a song around, it messes up that flow that we spent so long to curate. It's something that kind of goes unnoticed, but it should go unnoticed, and it should just feel right, and that's what you hope for.

I haven't been able to catch you on this tour, so as to the shows, are you trying to play the tracklist in order, or still mixing it up?

I try not to....I try not to play just the tracklist, but umm, there are some songs I think, now I'm thinking about what the setlist is, but there are some songs that I feel like mimic the tracklisting in a way, just in terms of, that's where they feel right. So I try to keep the setlist the same every night, too, as an aid for my anxiety, it helps me. [laughs] There needs to be as little variable as possible to make me feel safe.

So have you been playing the songs from Additions at all yet?

I haven't yet, I would like to play 'Bound' live, that would be fun. 'Pilot Light' would be fun. You know, these are songs that I've written with the intention of playing live, because they were intended to be on the record. I can already see them being played, and I'm excited to add them. Sprinkle them into the setlist.

I think 'Vacan't would make a good setlist opener –

Totally.

The little intro, and this is goofy, but it reminds me of old school Toho Godzilla.

Woah, what is that?

Like the original run of Japanese Godzilla films, before the relative American fails. Just the loud intro took me there.

Ohhh, that's awesome. I love it, and I agree. Now that I see it, I agree.

So, with what you were talking about before, with the limitations in terms of the format, with length – if you weren't limited by that, would Okovi have been a longer album?

I love EPs. And so, if I could, if I could put out an EP and have the same impact of an LP, I'd probably do that. Because, um, I think LP's, number one, it's 40 to 60 minutes of music, especially music that you love as the person making it, is hard. For me, it's hard. To know that I'm giving 60 minutes, or 45 minutes, of something that I slaved over for at least 3 years, So, an EP feels like it's concise, 4 or 5 songs, and they're all great. You can kind of focus, you take out the fat, it's lean and easy to digest...and you release music more, potentially. You're just focusing on several songs, they're like short stories. So I prefer that, but no one usually cares about EPs, or they're not consumed in the same way as full albums.

They should be, I love a good EP.

Me too.

You might not overly enjoy the music, but you might be interested in the way the music industry works here. Are you up on K-pop “mini albums”?

Yeah, that's essentially like an EP, yeah?

Yep, but the way they do it, artists release – depending on how popular they are, 3 or even 4 mini-albums a year, a 4 song or whatever statement, take a few months off, then another. It's important here to keep your audience constantly....

Engaged.

Or at least always curious. [laughs] You'd probably enjoy the way they release music.

Man, I love K-pop! I might...if I start doing that, I will credit you as the...uh, delivery of the inspiration.

There ya go. [We chat K-pop recommendations for a bit, comparing Heize to current Western R&B favorites] So, anyway, I think the narrative behind Okovi is pretty known at this point, but what were you listening to during the process?

I was listening to a lot of black metal, a lot of primitive, early black metal; one man black metal. A lot of Scarlotti, harpsichord music, and classical, baroque classical. And...ambient. Dark ambient, regular, Arctic. [laughs]

Gotta love ambient.

Gotta love ambient.

Anything in particular you'd wanna shout out?

Biosphere is great. There's a project called Northaunt. You know, stuff on Kranky, Stars of the Lid.

Are you familiar with SleepResearch_Facility?

Yes! So good. That as well. Love it. [We discuss Nostromo for longer than most are likely to care to read] So, that's basically it. Oh yeah, and opera. A lot of opera.

Such as?

Mostly just Maria Callas, she did mostly Italian stuff, so just listened to her arias.

What were you reading?

What was I reading? Lemme look at my bookshelf. This was like 2016, it's coming back. Bulgakov, Master and Margarita. Looking at my things...a lot of philosophy, about nature and man. Kierkegaard's essays on despair [warm laugh] because I was feeling it. Looking at my bookshelffff – but things like that, for sure. Russian literature in general, a little bit of Tolstoy, but mostly Dostoevsky, his Demons.

I've been re-reading War and Peace, that is not...slim.

Hoof. That is a dense piece of literature. Oh, and a lot of true crime, so not necessarily books, but I was really into it, a lot of...stuff. A lot of serial killer interviews and stuff. [laughs] Some light reading before bed.

[laughs] Back to the tunes, the eternal question: does it tend to be the music or the lyrics first, for you?

Music. The lyrics always come second, usually. The words usually come right away, I'll come up with a chord progression, or a beat, and then I'll try to sing over it, and then as I'm singing, things will start to – ideas, concepts, or emotional expulsions will begin to shape. 'This is what the song needs to be', or, 'This is what's on my mind', that I need to try and put into words. It usually happens almost at the same time, but the music comes first, one way or another.

So, I'm jumpin' all over the place, but back to touring: you mentioned this one still being ongoing, and several years ago, I was working the festival circuit, and I felt like you were everywhere. [Zola laughs] East coast to West coast – do you feel like you're always on the go?

It ebbs and flows. You know, this time right now I have a little bit of a winter...break. But, yeah, once spring comes around, summer comes around, I'll be touring a lot. It's because, you know, if I'm not writing a record, I'm touring. It's either I'm gonna be writing or touring, and if I'm not doing one or the other, I should get another job.

With the time since recording Okovi, what are you listening to lately? A different space, or similar things?

Oh, man. It's pretty rough around these parts. I've been listening to hip hop. So, I don't know, I don't know why, for some reason it's just doin' the trick for me these days. So, a lot of that 21 Savage, and Cardi B...umm, but yeah, love 21. I'm trying to think of what else I've been listening to...I love that record Without Warning or something, that he did with Offset and Metro Boomin. Phewww it's so good. So good. So I've mostly been listening to that. And I got into PARTYNEXTDOOR, so I've been listening to PND incessantly. Basically like just R&B and hip hop.

Which entry into the PARTYNEXTDOOR 'trilogy' do you prefer?

Honestly, I would have to say the best is the record with...it must 3! Because, this is the thing, though, I love early, early PARTYNEXTDOOR because it's more atmospheric, in the quality of it, but as he puts out more and more records, his songwriting has strengthened and clarified in a way that I love. And then he did an EP recently, which I've just lost the name of, but it has that song with Halsey on it, which is kind of skippable, but there's a song called 'Love Me Again', which is so unimpeachably good, it's the most beautiful R&B song I've heard in the past 10 years. So, yeah. But I would honestly listen to any of it.

And, of course, Cardi is basically the icon for 2018.

Yeah, she's just kind of...and I don't even know if she has a record out, I just listen to the singles, but she's an artist where, like, you listen to it, and you think, 'Yeah, this is fine,' and then you look at her presence, you see her in interviews, you see her in Instagram videos, and then you're just sort of on her side. You're done. Her charisma, and her karma, is so good, that it just like, 'I don't care. I'm on her side for whatever she does.' She's a beautiful soul.

In terms of moving forward, it sounds like you're not quite in space for that, but are you thinking about the next record at all?

I've been writing a lot. I really wanna put out a record next year. Just because...I feel very active right now, just emotionally active. I feel like I need to do that. Just to have closure, emotionally, on everything that's been going on. So, I would love to act really quick, but I'm not used to that anymore, so we'll see what I do. I'm working on it.

So not in terms of stuff for keeps, but are you toying in the studio, or just focusing on writing?

Right now I've just been writing, but, umm, I'm gonna try and get into the studio properly. I've been trying to not even open up my computer, and just write on a piano, because I feel like I get into a Ableton k-hole, where, like, I'm kind of just making beats for an hour, or playing on my machine, and I'm like, 'Wait a minute, I'm not making track, that's not what I'm doing.' [Laughs] So I've just been on the piano. Gotta flex those muscles.

Realizing that it's far, far away from the place you've been in, and are in, now, but have you ever been curious to try a “bright” album, or something radically different from the sound you've established?

Yeah, no, no – I tried that with Taiga. I was like, 'I'm not gonna...I wanna prove to myself that I don't need to be melancholic to write.' So, you know, when I wrote Taiga, I wrote it with the intention of saying, 'I'm gonna make something that's like, not necessarily uplifting, but that's pragmatic. 'We're gonna get through this.' That's about overcoming, and stepping on top of the weight, instead of pushing into it. So, I tried that, and I liked it, but...umm, you know, again, I kind of let my emotions dictate what I do. So, I tend to be kind of a melancholic person. [laughing] Yeah.

After Taiga with Mute, how has it been coming home to Sacred Bones?

It's great. Mute was good, Mute was great, too. But they were...there was never any misconception about whether or not they were my family, Sacred Bones has always been my family. And so, those...the blood runs deep. Returning to Sacred Bones just felt like, why wouldn't I? Why wouldn't I work with people that genuinely love and support me until death do us part? And I stand by them forever, as well. I think now the only other way I would not be on Sacred Bones is if I would start self-releasing, but why when I know that Sacred Bones could do a better job [laughs] than I ever could?

Kind of a random throw in, aware that you must have answered all the intimate things about Okovi, and I'm probably just thick, but who are the 'we' on 'Siphon'?

'We' is my family. Someone in my family attempted suicide, and, we as a very large family kind of banded together and made sure that person didn't succeed at attempting suicide, or, you know, committing suicide. A lot of the song is a little too literal for my family's liking. But, yeah, 'we' is my family. I was not the one that cleaned the blood, but my family.

[pause] Well, that seems like a dark note to go out on.

Yeahhh. [laughs] It's ok. I'm used to it. I'm gonna go listen to Heize and keep toasting black sesame seeds.

You gotta check out YESEO, too.

Definitely send me something you like. I only know the stuff that kind of permeates into American culture. So...hook it up. I just watched a really cool Korean film, called The Handmaiden?

I love that one.

It's so good! I just saw Oldboy like two weeks ago. Classic.

For sure. The way Handmaiden offers the love story, the twists, and the historical perspective of the Japanese occupation, which I've learned a lot more about living here.

I'm up a bit on that, only because my friend is South Korean, and she's wondered how much Japanese she has in her, due to the occupation. That's it.

It's all pretty awful. Another bright note to go out on! That's pretty much wrapped up, I'll send you some favorite K-pop stuff, and I want to hear a Zola Jesus x TWICE collaboration. They've got a hit literally called 'Cheer Up', you need to come in on that, just like, “Noooooo.”

[Laughs] I'm working on it, believe me. I'm gonna like slow it down, it's gonna be chopped n screwed.

I'd pay money for that. Well, have a good night, enjoy your sesame seeds!

Yep, sesame seeds, that's it. As usual. [Laughs]