Zola Jesus: Into The Wild

A move back to rural Wisconsin from Seattle has brought renewed faith to Zola Jesus

Contrary to author Thomas Wolfe’s theory that you can’t go home again, Nika Roza Danilova—who records and performs as symphonic artist Zola Jesus—not only returned last year to the forested, 200-acre estate where she grew up in Merrill, Wisc., she and her husband constructed a 36-by-36-foot house there that became a rustic retreat from bustling Seattle society. It’s where she pondered imposing existential issues, like friends battling terminal cancer and others attempting suicide, and funneled her conclusions into her most elegiac, cathedral-reverent work to date, Okovi, which is Slavic for “shackles.”

“I think Thoreau figured it out, but it’s so easy to forget the importance of nature and the importance of solitude within nature,” she says. “So I was just focusing on the transcendental nature of music, and it awakened me in a really special way.”

The singer’s childhood study of opera left her with an anxiety disorder that persists to this day. She always felt that vocal perfection was unattainable, and the feeling has worsened over the past two years. Disappearing into the womb-like woods was her only recourse. “I wanted to create a space that was truly the outside of my inside, a place that felt sacred in some way,” she says of her Walden-remote abode. “I couldn’t just buy someone else’s sacred space—I had to build my own. Being in the forest is the most natural feeling for me because that’s how I was raised—feeling like I’m a part of the ecosystem.”

Her daily routine begins with coffee, and can include chopping wood, sitting on the front porch with her cat Kosha and trying to identify exotic bird calls or long nature walks, where she often stumbles across wild turkeys, which are as surprised by her presence as she is theirs. “I got really into archery, too, so I’ve been shooting a bow,” she says.

Okovi (Sacred Bones) is as lush and verdant as those surroundings. It opens with “Doma,” with vocals wafting in gentle, snowy layers, then gets practically monastic on the synth-jagged “Exhumed,” a catacomb-echoed “Ash To Bone,” the buzzsawing “Remains,” a cascading instrumental called “Half Life” and the stomping, radiator-hissing “Siphon,” a study of the often inexplicable motivations for suicide. Some of the material was fueled by her own insecurity. Starting with 2009’s The Spoils, she’d released five gorgeous albums that she was beginning to think had fallen on deaf ears.

“I felt like my music wasn’t impacting anyone, and I wasn’t really confident that what I was doing was actually important,” she says. “So I was struggling against the meaninglessness of life and coming to terms with the fact that maybe life has no purpose.”

Now, in her quiescent cabin, this happy hermit is no longer contemplating the big picture, the immensity of being alive. “It’s easy to become overwhelmed, so I’ve been focusing on the tiniest moments of life—like seeing what new plants are growing—and just holding on to those and seeing their beauty,” she says. “Living in the countryside just feeds me.”

Tom Lanham