“I used to be very scared of failure, of the responsibility of doing the one thing I knew I was born to do...” Zola Jesus, whose given name is Nika, proclaims. “This record was...Expand
“I used to be very scared of failure, of the responsibility of doing the one thing I knew I was born to do...” Zola Jesus, whose given name is Nika, proclaims. “This record was made in an effort to try to make the most massive record I could, shunning all fear and any sense of smallness I ever once had.”
Nika is the 25-year-old behind this project’s creative incarnations: sole singer and songwriter. Her new album Taiga is at once challenging and accessible, and is undeniably branded with what Nika terms a “piercing ambition.” Such encompassing purpose, she explains, would be impossible without a newfound sense of personal and artistic self. The album is a declaration of that purpose; one laced with jarring clarity in both its content and production. “For me, it feels like my true debut, because it is the first time I have felt so open and liberated,” she explains.
For Nika, Taiga is a leap that reflects a fearlessness to be earnest and open, an approach that is immediately evidenced in the album’s track “Dangerous Days,” an undeniably hook ridden four-on-the-floor smash in which she sings, “It’s dangerous to know… and when it comes, are you going to throw your bite into the game? Know what’s right for your name?”
Still, inherent in this self is a sense of searching and complicated impulses. The track “Go” is a manifesto of sorts but also a journey, echoing: “And I say no one can stop me now. I go downtown where they don’t know my name.”
Successfully petitioning her parents at an extremely young age to be trained as an opera singer, Nika has always been committed and enveloped by her craft. At the age of 10 she tried applying to the Juilliard School of Music. She was too young to be admitted, but the devotion to her craft continued. Less than a decade later she was recording EPs in her north woods Wisconsin basement as Zola Jesus. These efforts proved successful and enduring, perpetually renewed as each new release reflected a growing musician and a burgeoning personal identity. Nika has always pushed boundaries: her boundaries; the boundaries of a diverse and loyal fan base; and the boundaries of any musical or genre expectation.
Her previous release – Versions, a widely celebrated collaboration with legendary electronic pioneer JG Thirlwell (Foetus) – was a Greatest Hits of sorts. Thirlwell composed classical arrangements of tracks from Nika’s previous albums, Conatus and Stridulum. Along with a string quartet, they performed these songs in the fall of 2013 in a handful of carefully curated venues and museums in Europe and the United States. Nika’s confidence as a performer and an artist transitioned greatly during the tour promoting Versions. A new sense of grounding emerged to surpass the trademark vulnerability that had driven previous Zola Jesus releases.
It is fitting that an album introducing this newly liberated self would be immersed in Nika’s personal history and strong sense of place. “Taiga is the Russian name for the boreal forest. For me it feels very alive… very expansive. It represents a feral, untapped world that could happily exist without us. There are taiga forests in Northern Wisconsin where I was raised, and also in Russia where my ancestors are from, so it also feels very native.”
These settings provide a place for Taiga to play. Nika wrote the album on Vashon Island, a densely-wooded enclave in Puget Sound with no bridges connecting it to the mainland. It is easy to imagine the sonic enormity of these songs co-mingling with the isolated nature of these settings, flying through the forest, filling hidden spaces, soaring upward. The surging energy of “Hollow” is constrained by tactful arrangement and finished with melodic vocals that carry you along the interplay of these elements..
Nika was also influenced by her time in Iceland, Vermont, and British Columbia and the album conjures these places while creating a unique sonic space of its own that each listener can travel to, explore, hide in, and celebrate. After leaving Vashon, Nika mixed the album in Los Angeles with engineer and co-producer Dean Hurley who helped bring her vision into sharp focus.
Liberated in the present and connected to the past, this album is a transition for Zola Jesus. Masterful layers of composition are bathed in familiar atmospheric vocals, but a new sensibility is deeply present. On “Dangerous Days” we are entranced by the seductive beat and arresting vocals while the music elevates and elates us—but with a pensive message: “It’s a dark, dark day and it’s dangerous to go and listen to what they say.”
“The music itself on the record is massive, with big brass and beats, crystal clear vocals…,” Zola adds. “It’s the most accessible music I’ve ever made, but also the most earnest and passionate. I gave everything for this record, more than ever before.”
The feelings in the minds of those who listen to Taiga could include co-conspiracy and victory. Co-conspiracy because we become implicit in the moves the album makes; victory because it is rewarding to celebrate and be a part of this creative existence.