The artistry of Zola Jesus engages all the senses. Nika Danilova has long used distinct visuals to compliment her music, and now with her own fragrance and incense, she’s capturing yet another sense. She even displays them on a swatch of fur, engaging her fans with tactile pleasures alongside the rest of the merch. Were she to package her next album with a limited edition textural art piece, it would simply continue her trajectory.
Danilova’s earlier shows featured her as a platinum blonde with a flowing white cape. Her current manifestation is sculptural, with architectural black jacket and flowing dark hair, her corporeal visuals are evolving in parallel to her albums. For Stridulum, she performed with abstract colors projected onto her and the set, blurring the line between person and environment. Visually, it echoed her filtered vocals and the album’s all-encompassing electronica. Mirroring the shrouded ethos of Conatus, she adopted glowing, translucent cubes, shifting the focus away from the artist herself. At her Guggenheim Museum performance with JG Thirlwell and a full string section, she pulled glowing elements to her body as the focus on her vocals grew stronger. The illuminated artwork wrapped around her just as the orchestral additions wrap around Versions‘ songs.
Now, with jagged, glowing, iceberg pyramids littering the stage like inorganic crystals, she visually captures the pointed horns found on Taiga. At her October 2014 Hirshhorn Museum performance, she performed outdoors with a full horn section. The circular courtyard’s architecturally stunning space was a perfect fit, brass bouncing around the hole within the Brutalist building. At Ottobar, she walks onstage cradling her incense, filling the room with its wild, woodsy scent, a perfect olfactory representation of Taiga.
Small venues suit her well; she walks out to the very edge of Ottobar’s stage to sing “Nail” a cappella, her voice barely above a whisper. Those lucky fans up front are treated to her vulnerability, and those in the back catch on as her voice soars to full power, filling the room before even picking up the mic.
She alternates between a statuesque (but tiny) powerhouse and a seizing mass of hair. She is a revelation. When she hops off the stage and wanders through the crowd she is simultaneously lost and everywhere at once, an almost magical presence. Her drummer murders his kit. The massive toms’ industrial thump and the horn player’s nearly jazzy brass are almost stylistically contradictory. Somehow, they mesh together, forming a whole almost as large as her voice.
At the filming for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert she is simply striking. The songs are stripped down to Danilova’s un-amplified vocals and an accompanying trombone. The environment is abnormal and strikingly different, but she owns every bit of it, casually smiling between songs.
Whether commanding a museum courtyard, enveloping a small club in calculated noise and ambient incense, or simply standing in an office singing by herself, Zola Jesus is an artist in every sense.
All Photos | Katherine Gaines
Ottobar, October 28, 2015, Baltimore, MD
All Photos | Katherine Gaines
NPR | Tiny Desk Concert, January 30, 2014, Washington, D.C.