Considering that her latest album is titled “Taiga” (Russian for “boreal forest” or “snow forest”), an album she wrote and recorded in Seattle, surrounded by all those Douglas firs, it’s obvious singer-songwriter Zola Jesus is all about being one with nature.
The Phoenix-born singer-songwriter (real name: Mika Roza Danilova) moved to Seattle in 2012 after living in Los Angeles for a brief, uninspiring spell. “I just felt like I didn’t really like Los Angeles,” says Jesus, 25, on the phone from Seattle. “I didn’t feel like it was home. I mean, I like it but I could never live there forever, and I wanted to move somewhere where I felt like I could live forever.”
After her move, she started writing material for “Taiga,” eventually collaborating with producer/engineer Dean Hurley (who has worked extensively with David Lynch on his albums and films) in creating a natural sound – working with brass instruments, live drums, etc. – for the album. Jesus riffs about simpler, unfettered times in her lyrics. The title track alone has her repeating the line “Do you wish you could go back to it all?”
“The line, ‘Do you wish you could go back to it all?’ is about human sort of tensions for building on the top of the world and obliterating kind of the entire, natural world,” she explains, “and thinking about how we’ve created this infrastructure for civilization that’s become more and more advanced. But, at the same time, it’s made us more and more unchanged. I feel like we’ve built this steel world around us to protect us from the natural world, but we’re not in line to deal with the natural world.”
Personal, existential introspection is also a running theme in “Taiga.” It pops up in tunes like “Hunger,” which sounds at first like Jesus declaring how far she wants to take her career. “‘Hunger’ is about not career ambition, but it’s about the feeling of staying alive and ... having the sort of existentialist take on life,” she says. “So, you’re going, ‘Why am I even here?’ and trying to figure out how you can make yourself useful to the world in the time that you’re alive, because you’re only alive for so long.
“So, it’s just about that anxiety that stems from, you know, trying and tripping and running and sprinting to try to figure out your purpose and to fulfill that purpose while you’re alive.”
Officially five albums in, Jesus knows what her purpose is as a performer, even when it seems people don’t generally have an idea what sort of performer she is. Her music is often referred to as “goth pop,” which of course drives her up the wall.
“Basically, if you ask a musician or tell them that they sound a certain way or, like, you’re just making this certain kind of music, no matter who you say that to, they’re going to be irked,” she says. “Because no one wants to feel like what they’re doing is being reduced into a one-word tag, you know, that you can just throw in the corner with all the other tags … So, you know, of course, naturally, I don’t think that I would want even to be considered anything. You just want your music to stand out on its own.”
Being the unpredictable artist she is, Jesus enjoys branching out and doing other things, like coming up with a fragrance to go along with her latest album.
“When I was writing ‘Taiga,’ I became really interested in scent and how scent can transport you instantly to memories, to a different place in time,” she says.
Unable to find a scent that took her to those places, she got together with perfume company Blackbird and created her own unisex fragrance, filled with firewood, ash, dry moss and mineral. She’s selling this at her shows. (Local folks can buy it when Jesus performs Friday night in Durham.)
“I just liked finding scents that reminded me of things and that brought back memories,” she said.