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Zola Jesus finds purpose in the process

"With the pandemic, with the climate crisis, the world is becoming more and more inhospitable for more and more people," Zola Jesus tells NPR. "<em>Arkhon</em> is about all of that."
Shervin Lainez
"With the pandemic, with the climate crisis, the world is becoming more and more inhospitable for more and more people," Zola Jesus tells NPR. "Arkhon is about all of that."

Fifty miles outside Madison, Wis. sits a humble monastery surrounded by seventeen acres of forest, where practitioners of the Rinzai tradition, a school of Zen Buddhism, travel to find deep clarity of mind. This past January, among them was Nika Roza Danilova, the musician who has produced gothic pop epics as Zola Jesus for over a decade. One evening, during a private meeting known as dokusan, Danilova posed a question to the head monk that had been weighing on her for months: "Is desire bad?"

In that moment, Danilova was continuing the emotional excavation that informed her colossal, time-stopping piano ballad, "Desire," from her upcoming sixth full-length, Arkhon. The song is an impassioned inquiry into the "storm of the heart," written during a time of intense self-interrogation. Desire felt like a bad thing, the root of human suffering, of greed and lust. But desire was also a lifeforce: it brought her to study meditation, to push in new directions, to stay curious. What was true? That search animates the song, too. And in a world where manufactured desire is big business, it hits: her operatic voice decimating the concept of longing, blowing the word up with the weight of gravity.

Even before 2020, Danilova had been going through a period of transformation. "I'm not the same person that I was when Okovi came out," she explains over Zoom one weekday morning — video off to strengthen the shaky internet connection in her remote home in rural Merrill, Wis. She was referencing her 2017 album Okovi, an earlier breakthrough. Since then, long term relationships have ended, including her marriage, which sent her on a quest for a sense of self outside them. The ensuing years were ones of intense healing, writing and reimagination. In March 2020, she was set to begin recording in a more collaborative process than ever, including with the producer Randall Dunn (Sunn O)))) and sought-after session drummer Matt Chamberlain, who has worked with the likes of Fiona Apple and Bob Dylan. The pandemic put those plans on hold, but the songs — and Danilova herself — continued to grow. "The things that I value changed," she says.

I think if we change the way that music is valued, and what aspects of music are encouraged and supported, culture will deepen and broaden.

If Arkhon includes stark moments of internal reckoning, they are guided by a bigger purpose, grappling with political and economic structures of power and disconnection — of which, in recent years, Danilova has emerged as an increasingly visible public critic. This is an album of sorrow and catharsis, born from a search for meaning in the music making process. It roots Zola Jesus songs in live rhythms more viscerally than ever, grooving on her industrial and neoclassical influences in new ways. Arkhon deals in matters of isolation and collectivity; the known and the unknown; chaos, control, release; fear, loss, defeat. The name comes from an ancient Greek word for ruler, specifically a Gnostic interpretation evoking flawed gods with corrupting power. She chose it, she says, while considering our technocratic, oligarchic society that refuses to put people over profit.

"Nothing in this time can be stripped from that context," she says. "With the pandemic, with the climate crisis, the world is becoming more and more inhospitable for more and more people. Arkhon is about all of that. It's about the times we're in, where there's so much exploitation and subjugation that is keeping humanity from collaborating and living in a more holistic way." How could we not want something more?

Before seeking inner fortitude at the monastery, Danilova's spiritual inquiries had already brought her across the world that year, as she oriented herself towards disorientation. In 2021, she made a trip to Turkey to visit Cappadocia, a labyrinth city with 60-million-year-old caves where people have traveled throughout history to get lost. "It feels like time isn't linear," she says. "Like histories stacking up on top of each other."

At Cappadocia, Danilova linked with filmmaker Mu Tunç to make the video for album opener "Lost." On the screen, she navigates sunless underground tunnels by candlelight, embodying the song's disarmingly astute hook: "Everyone I know is lost." With an initial beat taken from a clip of heavy breathing, "Lost" is gripping and ominous, one of the first written for Arkhon, and one that provided a north star for what the record would become.

Danilova wrote "Lost," in part, as response to watching her friends struggle to find purpose in a world increasingly hostile to the arts. "It's about feeling very lost geographically, psychologically, interpersonally, culturally," she says. "So many of my friends have so much potential and so many gifts. And they want so desperately to contribute something to the world, but their only opportunities are extractive. And so we don't ever feel like what we're doing is meaningful. It was really bothering me to see my friends all so driftless."

The song also found Danilova reflecting on her own experiences feeling lost and overwhelmed, and how moving back to the woods of Wisconsin from Seattle in 2016 had given her a profound sense of place — how standing on the forest floor, she could see the trees and trace their roots and where they interconnect. On "Lost," Danilova sings of nature's wisdom, of life cycles, and one day dying and recombining with the leaves. "As society's rewards become more meaningless to me, the divine and sacred aspects of life that are found in nature become more meaningful," she says. "When I'm in nature, I'm not lost. I know exactly where I am."

Danilova was born in 1989 in Phoenix, Arizona, but as a child her family relocated to Wisconsin. A self-described weird kid who was bullied in middle school, she "put up a lot of armor" as a teen. "I hated this place so much," she says. "I tried to send myself to boarding school. I graduated early so I could leave when I was 16." She started producing music, drawing equally from her childhood opera training and love of noise, while in college at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her debut, The Spoils, was released by Sacred Bones in 2009, when she was still a student, after which she moved to Los Angeles. After time in the Northwest and the Northeast, and four more albums later, she moved into a house she built with her two uncles, a contractor and an electrical engineer, on the land where she grew up.

Coming home was about something deeper, too — about leaving behind a specific idea of the music industry. She was barely 21 when she got to LA, still finding her place in music: "With the industry in a place like LA, everything is a caricature. They need you to commit to a bit, and I wasn't comfortable doing that. When I left LA, I let go of that a little bit. And then when I moved back to Wisconsin, I really let go. I'm so divorced from any sort of industry here. I've felt like an outsider my entire life, and I think I'll just continue to feel that way forever."

While charting her own path over the past ten years, Danilova has experienced firsthand the various ways in which music has been devalued in the streaming era, monetarily and beyond. Attempting to piece together a more reasonable living for herself, she launched a Patreon in 2018, "a response or reaction to the industry failing me as a musician," she says. She uses the platform to share recording updates, demos, Q&As and essays. ("Would I need to be eliciting financial support from these very patrons [if] Spotify was working for me?" she wrote in "MUSIC V DANIEL EK.")

Danilova acknowledges that any platform-based solution is a type of Band-Aid to systemic issues, like the growing influence of venture capital and hyper financialization of music, the pressures to flatten oneself into a social media-optimized product or the fact that music remains so tightly controlled by major labels. "I'm lucky that I have enough people that support me," she says. "But I think if we change the way that music is valued, and what aspects of music are encouraged and supported, culture will deepen and broaden, and that would really change society. It's a life or death issue for culture to revalue music."

But she also reports that experimenting with how she sustains her practice has allowed her to take new chances: "The record sounds how it does because of these changes that I've made to how I relate to the industry, and what my goals, my rewards, my motivations are. It really has nothing to do with who reviews the record, or what festivals I get, or awards. That stuff is all just carrots that they dangle in order to continue to exploit and extract your creativity for brands and corporations."

"I just don't respect the way the industry is set up at this current moment. It's extractive and exploitative," Danilova says. "I think it's siloing musicians through this auteurism where we're all supposed to be these individual islands of artistic genius. So we're not being encouraged to collaborate."

For Arkhon, the direct support of patrons allowed her to do just that — for the first time, she could put her entire Sacred Bones advance into making the record, instead of shaving from it to pay her bills. It also meant she could invite new collaborators into the process, including Dunn as co-producer. Dunn says they "relate on a lot of things" about the state of the music world, like creating a supportive studio environment with other musicians rather than "the Faustian-castle loneliness of making things alone on a computer."

"When we first started working on it, I remember there was one strong feeling I had," Dunn recalled. "That we should work directly with a drummer, a physical human being for the rhythm." Dunn felt that on the drum programming of previous Zola Jesus records, there was always an allusion to something "more feral" and "more ephemeral in the groove" that had yet to be fully realized. Danilova agreed, but though she had always wanted to work with a drummer, she previously couldn't afford it. "I was so used to having everything stuck in that quantized vacuum-sealed world where nothing can swing or move in an organic way."

The two called on Dunn's longtime collaborator, Matt Chamberlain, whose cinematic playing gives many of the songs on Arkhon a cracked-open feeling. Songs like "Undertow" and "Efemra" engage the body as much as the mind. "Sewn," co-written by the trio, is a beautiful pulsing racket of distortion and sprawling krautrock beats. The enormity of the rhythms, striking and then shuffling, make the nerves and trials of "Into The Wild" visceral.

I just don't think we can forget how important it is to have a collective spirit. Because if we lose that, then we're truly atomized.

Arkhon's closer "Do That Anymore" captures a morose feeling of mass dejection that Danilova felt all around her after the primary election in 2020. "When I say after the election, I mean after the primaries, when Biden got picked and not Bernie," Danilova says. "It felt like, no, they're not looking out for us. They're not listening, at all."

"There's a period of disillusionment that happens when you realize change cannot happen from the top down, but change will happen from the bottom up," she says. "We have to do all of this extra work, but so be it. It's kind of like beginning the big climb uphill. That's kind of what this song is, just like, alright, here we go."

Ultimately, for Danilova — someone who has spent years contemplating the spiritual quandaries of what it means to be an artist now — much of making Arkhon was about finding a sense of purpose in the process. "I just don't think we can forget how important it is to have a collective spirit," she adds. "Because if we lose that, then we're truly atomized. And then we're easier to control, because there's no solidarity between anybody, and there's no understanding. And I find that to be scarier than anything."

Letting others into the process more directly meant giving up a degree of control, and yet, her vision has never sounded more clear: "Before, when I was making music, it was like an exam, where every song that I wrote was a test: did I do it right? Was I making the kind of music that people wanted from me? Was I fulfilling the role of Zola Jesus?"

"During the pandemic, I was having a lot of writer's block, and depression and anxiety, and I had this kind of epiphany ... The beauty of what it means to be an artist is that you become a conduit for something that is totally unknown to you," Danilova says. "If I try to micromanage that process, my art will suffer. That's when I finally let go. Now I can make whatever music I want."

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Liz Pelly