Getting to know someone is hard. Family, friends, lovers — you can spend your whole life with someone and still not know them utterly and completely. People are intricate beings, a whir of emotions and experiences constantly churning and taking on new meanings. Perhaps it’s so hard to really know someone because to let oneself be known is an act that requires the utmost bravery. It’s akin to standing naked in a glass box, surrounded by a constant, invasive gaze. Standing there, baring all, you can be seen but can’t see out. This is the intrinsic plight of the artists who want to make themselves known to the world through their work. How much of yourself do you give to the unknowable world at large? How much of yourself can you give?
Nika Danilova, otherwise known as Zola Jesus, understands this plight very well. Growing up in the isolated backwoods of Wisconsin, far from the cultural touchstones of city life, Danilova was left to construct her own identity. In high school, she gave birth to Zola Jesus, insisting that people call her by that name as a way of weirding out her peers and thus distancing herself from being known. Obviously being a “goth girl” interested in Throbbing Gristle and Dostoevsky isn’t exactly conducive to being popular in high school, but thankfully Danilova was existing the only way she could: as herself.
Now 20 and studying philosophy at a university, Danilova has truly stepped out into the world, all the isolation and individualistic pursuits giving a definite shape to the burgeoning phoenix that has taken flight as Zola Jesus. After releasing two LPs and one EP (with The Spoils garnering particularly high praise across the board), the Stridulum EP marks her fourth substantial release in the past year — not a bad output for a person who admits to being extremely self-critical. This high output coupled with Danilova’s participation in Former Ghosts (alongside Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart and This Song Is A Mess And So Am I’s Freddie Rupert) has led to a surprisingly quick maturation. Previous Zola Jesus material was bathed in dense, rich distortion, sheathing, to a degree, Danilova’s immensely powerful voice. Past production values would allow her to be placed in the Best Coast/Vivian Girls lo-fi camp, but Stridulum marks a major turning point for Zola Jesus, where Danilova throws off the shackles of hazy, obscuring production and really spreads her wings.
Stridulum is a body of work best enjoyed LOUD: sacrifice your eardrums and save your soul; allow yourself to be swept away by Danilova’s blustery, operatic bellow. Having sung opera from an early age and possessing a love of dark sirens such as Diamanda Galás and Jarboe has made the voice of Zola Jesus truly formidable. In fact, it’s this penchant for standing-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff dramatics that makes Danilova’s work so alluring, so utterly affecting. It is honest, confrontational, and it’s clear that she “means it all over her insides.” In fact, most of the songs on Stridulum are stark and visceral, given an incredible weight by the undeniable sincerity of both her words and her inflection.
“Night” opens the record with a swathe of foreboding synth that brings to mind the opening seconds of — yes — Kanye West’s “Welcome to Heartbreak.” Like all songs offered on Stridulum, it is a slow-burner, continually gathering heft as Danilova intones straightforward, truthful laments like “In the end of the night, you’re in my arms.” Her words exude a longing that conveys a love so real and honest that the feelings only need to be expressed in such terms, where flowery words are rendered superfluous. “Trust Me” follows in a similar vein: “When you’re lost, never look down/ When you’re lost, know I’ll be around” — at only two minutes, it’s a powerful vignette. Meanwhile, “I Can’t Stand” and “Stridulum” are both exemplary meditations on the basic feelings of love, combining determined drums and gauzy, layered synths that provide a vehicle for Danilova to intone simple yet strong lines like “It’s not easy to fall in love/ But if you’re lucky, you just might find someone.”
For an artist who admittedly has problems with the glare of attention, Stridulum is an especially brave, confident step into the spotlight. It’s a focused, naked statement of both Danilova’s intent as an artist and her acceptance of being known, inside and out, by the world at large. The cleaned-up production and pretenseless songs about love and longing suggest that Zola Jesus’ next record will be of mammoth proportion. Whether she becomes the next Kate Bush or the next Tara Cross is of little importance. What matters most is for Danilova to keep putting herself and her art out there, because it is completely enamoring.