Zola Jesus - alias of Wisconsinite Nika Roza Danilova, operatically-schooled gothtronica tour de force - recently surprised a heckuva lot of people with her fifth studio record, Taiga... but in the best way possible, including us:

"Fans might be a little disappointed that there's nothing like 'Night' or 'Run Me Out' on this record, but the sense of the gothic, coupled with the anxiety and vulnerability that ran through Stridulum and Conatus isn't really appropriate here and it's certainly not where Nika Danilova's head is at right now. Perhaps that will lose some fans, but Zola Jesus is more likely to gain new fans thanks to an album that revels in its ambitions. Ultimately Taiga is sonically different to its predecessors, but at heart it feels like a true continuation of Zola Jesus' story. This is what it sounds like when an artist matures, discovers a confidence they perhaps never knew they had, and return, revitalised."

We recently grabbed the chance to speak to Danilova about her directional shift, inspirations and tour. She's actually just finished her tour of the UK - though she's traipsing back to LDN for a big gig at KOKO 18 November.


Touring

"I'm very excited for it; I haven't done a proper thing there in a while," she said when we spoke. "It's different, but similar to the US as well... it feels like bizarre version of there. I feel like the UK audiences were one of the first places that responded and connected to my music, so I'm always excited to return."

Those still awaiting her London date can rest assured she packs a wallop. "I'm touring with a little bit of a production this time round. There's a visual element, which is something I've wanted to do for a long time, so it'll be cool. In general I'm confident about the performance, my musicians and these songs in being able to thrive on the stage. I can't want to communicate Taiga in the flesh. There's more context. 'Nails' is a track that certainly thrives live. I really enjoy it, and it's challenging live. 'Hunger' takes on a new life."


Taiga

'Hunger' and 'Nails' are two pretty standout efforts on an album rammed with quality. The former's a Rihannilist-type ditty with chunky dancefloor synths and devastation in droves; the latter's a haunting, trembling cut laden with despair and horror. To write them, and the rest of Taiga, Danilova sought to escape the humdrum banality of modern life. "I moved to an island off Washington, the state. It was the complete opposite of L.A., and with no bridges it was very isolated with everyone that was there completely off the grid. I was able to connect to the way I grew up and the primal way of life. Living in nature you feel so close to your roots and as a living organism on earth. It liberated me, and the stress of humanity was lifted. When I was writing I wanted to feel a sense of purity, honest and almost naivety. Something unchanged by culture or society. That idea was married to my ideas of the taiga."

The titular 'taiga' of Danilova's LP is actually a kind of desolate, tundra-y forest in North America or Siberia. "It's savage, instant, unforgiving - I thought of the taiga's expansiveness often. I had a studio setup with electricity so I could record though. I can engineer myself, and I recorded at lot of things there. In LA we recorded the strings and did some post-production."


The 'Process'

The process of writing the LP wasn't a speedy one. It's been years in creation. "Some songs are from Conatus era - 'Dangerous Days' for example. They withstood the test of time. Mostly it just sort of came to me over the two years of writing. During that time I wrote a lot. These were the strongest ones that I came up with - I wrote a few every day for two years, and these are ones that got stuck in my head and survived," and will we ever hear those hundreds of songs that litter the cutting room floor? "Definitely, I'm sure. Some need time to gestate and grow, and spend a lot of time in my head incubating before I work on them properly."

For Zola Jesus, Taiga is an intensely personal affair that deals with her leap of faith in listening to her own psyche. "It represents the freedom I crave that you can find in places like the Taiga. In the past there was so much fear about criticism and self-criticism, and I still feel vulnerable, but I am also liberated. I have pursued different styles. I think that's important as a musician or you become a caricature or chained to one thing. I find that minimising for creativity."

Musically, there are overt pop nods. It's considerably more accessible, at least on the surface, that perhaps much of her back catalogue is - but that by no means makes it happy. "I've been writing pop since day one but it's always been covered in noise," Danilova points out. "I like the juxtaposition, the dichotomy of noise and pop. I feel like in order to understand something you have to dive right in, so I just went for it - I waned to be exposed and show off this other side to my music. I wanted beats to have more wings and to groove; it's a reaction to my past that was focused on noise. Now I'm focused on the pop side as a reaction to that, but I'll probably tilt the balance again in the future as a reaction to this... Everything I do is a reaction."


Themes

This reactionary approach on Taiga has bred brightness in the timbres, but Danilova believes this has perhaps guided people down the wrong path when approaching her record's themes. "I think in terms to freely experiment, it's all very positive. But thematically it's more nihilistic and misanthropic than ever. That's emblematic in the record. I'm still finding juxtapositions interesting. I made a very negative record in a hopeful way. I didn't want to dwell, I wanted to offer challenges we should overcome, but in a way people have misunderstood it. Humanity has lost touch, we've alienated the world, and you know, I think the ideas here are more sophisticated in dealing with that. Before on my other records the ideas were huge brush strokes, and perhaps that was easier to understand."


Philosophies and the Opera

In the past Danilova's mentioned philosophical concepts as being influential on her music, things like Situationism and people like Dostoevsky, and that's continued on Taiga. "I think Nietzsche and Schopenhauer's Buddhist views on suffering are so accurate," she says with conviction. "Being alive is a mistake in general these days as we have almost no mechanisms to deal with any of it, but we're still trying to come to terms with so much we shouldn't even be aware of. I feel humans are too evolved to the point that our consciousness can understand things we shouldn't be able to, and now that's embedded in our collective anxiety. I'm obsessed with it. I'm trying to figure it all out via pop music. But, you know, I could never be a philosopher in the traditional sense because it's redundant nowadays."

Existentialist beliefs and the notion that life is what you personally make it are another grand inspirations for Danilova, galvanising her towards greatness. "Music validates my existence... It's the only thing that justifies my existence on the planet. I don't think I'd have a reason to live without it. It's probably why I'm so obnoxious! You have to be crazy to do this. It demands so much of your emotional and physical health. You do it because you have to, because it gives your purpose, because it gives your life meaning." It's heavy, but perhaps a little inspiring too.

For her next project, Danilova is unsure. "I'm just focusing on Taiga! I've spent so long recording the record that I want to give it all my attention," though there are a few indications for he next move. "I've been really excited to explore opera again... I've definitely had to come around to the idea though..."

Whether opera is where the next Zola Jesus LP lands remains to be seen. We can be sure that it'll probably be like nothing we've already heard from her though.

Zola Jesus plays KOKO in London on November 18th. Taiga is out now.