String Theory

Published August 20, 2013

ABOVE: ZOLA JESUS. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANGEL CEBALLOS.

When Nika Roza Danilova, who performs as Zola Jesus, was asked to play the Guggenheim Museum last year, she initially planned to reimagine some of her moody electronic songs for a string quartet, and figured she’d do it herself. “I was talking to my husband and he was like, ‘You know you could hire a string arranger. That’s a job—people study to do that,’ ” Danilova says. She eventually recruited experimental-music icon J.G. Thirlwell (Foetus, Manorexia) to rearrange 10 songs for her to perform with the Mivos Quartet. This month, the new interpretations find release as Versions (Sacred Bones). Thirlwell’s string arrangements—lush, sometimes frenetic, and entirely fresh—bolster Danilova’s haunting alto vocals with expansive new energy. The pair will tour together this fall. —Alexandria Symonds

J.G. THIRLWELL: Are you West, Nika?

NIKA DANILOVA: Actually, I just packed everything in storage, and right now I’m visiting my parents’ house in northern Wisconsin.

THIRLWELL: Oh, are you moving?

DANILOVA: Technically. I’m just becoming a nomad for an indefinite period of time. We’ll see what happens with that.

THIRLWELL: Because you’re going to be traveling?

DANILOVA: Yeah, I’m going to be traveling and working on the new record. We’re going to be touring and I just didn’t feel like having a home base for a while. I kind of like that freedom.

THIRLWELL: I’m always curious about why you chose to live out on that island [off the coast of Seattle] anyway.

DANILOVA: Because it was amazing. [laughs] I got to wake up every day and look at the ocean. Just to have a scenario where you can really be introspective and not have to worry about everything else around you. I think you even said that once when I was at your new studio—you were saying how you needed to be quiet so you can hear everything going on in your head.

THIRLWELL: I could be in the middle of a metropolis at the same time.

DANILOVA: [laughs] I don’t know how you could do it, seriously.

THIRLWELL: I need quiet in my immediate vicinity, but I also need to be able to go out every night into a city with at least 10 million people.

DANILOVA: There’s culture there—and inspiration. Living out on the island for about nine months, it made me realize how much an artist needs culture and needs other cultural and artistic people around them, because it creates this zeitgeist. Not having that, it’s really interesting—you learn how to be creative in a very isolated way.

THIRLWELL: Yeah, I can do the isolated thing just for a little while. I find isolation a little unhealthy for me. I also have really bad tinnitus, so when I’m in a quiet environment, I hear the tinnitus really loudly. If I’m in the city, because I live 100 feet from the BQE—and that’s my white noise generator, so I don’t hear the whining in my head as much.

DANILOVA: How did you make the transition from where you started, which was very deeply seated in the underground, to now making more symphonic or avant-garde work?

THIRLWELL: I don’t think you ever think, “Yeah, I’m in the underground, I’m in the over-ground.” I’m where I am and making music with the means that I have. If you look back on a lot of my early work, there are a lot of symphonic elements in it; there were parts that were really informed by classical music and contemporary classical 20th-century composers, but also filtered through a whole lot of other things. I think there’s just been an evolution to what I have gotten better at achieving—what I’ve got in my head. I’ve meandered all over the place, and I continue to meander.

DANILOVA: So what are you working on now?

THIRLWELL: I’m finishing up two albums at the moment. There’s a Foetus album, which is the companion to the previous album that I did. I’m just working on the sleeve now, and mastering it next week. I’m also mixing a soundtrack of a film that I scored a couple of years ago called the Blue Eyes. That’s kind of a chamber soundtrack with contrabass, tuba, French horn, cello, violin, viola, and a bit of percussion on it. I think when you come to release something that was a score, you have to mix it up differently. It has to stand up to scrutiny as a piece of music, so I’m able to exaggerate the dynamics a bit and make things fly around.

DANILOVA: You’re busy!

THIRLWELL: Oh, yeah. You are too.

DANILOVA: Yeah, I get too overwhelmed if I have my fingers in that many pies. I start to lose track of what’s what.

THIRLWELL: I like to work on five things in a day. How’s the work on your new album been coming along?

DANILOVA: It’s been good; it’s been really interesting. I’ve been influenced by working with strings and live instruments, and so I’ve barely touched my computer in a way other than using orchestral samples. It’s exciting because it allows songs to stand on their own without having to rely on an electronic element. It’s been good, but it also really leaves no wiggle room—the song has to be solid or it won’t withstand. So it’s been tricky, but exciting.

THIRLWELL: There’s always wiggle room.

DANILOVA: Yeah, we’ll see. [laughs]

THIRLWELL: We should put out an album of “wiggle room.”

DANILOVA: Just “wiggle room.” [laughs] I’ve recorded so many albums and felt the wiggle. But I just get to a point where I’m like, “Okay, these songs need to be songs. They need to be strong. I just want to be able to sing them a capella and feel that they can exist in any context whatsoever.” Similar to how to the Versions record was an attempt to prove that with my past songs. I feel like the songs are very strong because they are able to transcend. And that’s exciting.

THIRLWELL: I like the idea that you can create music after there’s an apocalypse and there’s no electricity and no instruments; there’s just sheets of score paper blowing in the wind down the street, and someone grabs a piece of it and they can sit down and play it.

DANILOVA: [laughs] There’s something very primal about it. That’s what I love about singing: no matter what, as long as I’m alive, I’ll have my instrument, unless I lose my voice. That’s the biggest problem—a common problem. But it’s very empowering.

THIRLWELL: Yes. It’s the most basic instrument.

DANILOVA: Yeah. And it can get loud. I’ve been studying opera more and more, trying to tighten that part of my voice up. It just makes your brain shake. When you’re singing opera correctly, it makes you feel like everything in your face is going to shatter. I can’t believe humans have the ability to create sound with such force using no microphone—nothing. It’s just such an incredible, primal gift.

THIRLWELL: I guess we should talk about the album that we did.

DANILOVA: This would be a good time to ask you about the arrangements, since I never really got to pick your brain about them.

THIRLWELL: I think we just stared with the first one and went from there. With a project like that, you’ve got to feel it out and figure out a working pattern. I think I just did one and sent it to you to see what you thought and what direction to take. I think my approach was to really listen to it and think of the voicing of the quartet—what gets to stay in it—and adding some different harmonic content that complemented the vocal melody.  I don’t remember which one we worked on first.

DANILOVA: Me either.

THIRLWELL: I think after you liked the first one, it was just a matter of getting that for each track. It started with putting the basic melodic structure in, and then I wanted to try new things in each one, so that there was a fair bit of variation in it. You seemed to be pretty open to that.

DANILOVA: Yeah, it was really exciting—you took the songs to these strange areas. Before, I would feel too locked into the key or to the chord progression.

THIRLWELL: You’ve got to strike a balance; I know sometimes if it gets too abstract it’s going to be hard to pitch, too. There was a balance there. I think that we really managed to take some of the pieces into a whole new space: outer space.

DANILOVA: I feel like whenever I’m asked to do something like that—when I’m asked to play the role of the contractor—I feel a sense of responsibility to what the person wants and there’s a certain about of stress about trying to please the person. Did you feel that at all, or did you feel pretty confident in your intuition?

THIRLWELL: My philosophy is to do what I want. If I start laughing about something that means that it’s a stamp of approval. My philosophy is to push it as far as I want to push it and then see what the other person’s going to say and then pull back if necessary. Usually my instinct is pretty good. If it’s making me laugh, then I feel good about it.

DANILOVA: Laugh like, “Wow, this is ridiculous” or “Wow, this is really clever”?

THIRLWELL: Both.

DANILOVA: I just get so afraid of disappointing people when they’re expecting something—when they’re contracting me to sing something for a movie or something.

THIRLWELL: Well, at a certain point they’re just asking you because of what you do. You’ve just got to do what you do. If you second-guess yourself, you’re going to be stifled. You’ve got to get to a place where your internal critic is flattened and you’re following your muse.

DANILOVA: That’s pretty difficult for me sometimes, especially on this new record. The things that I want to do instinctively are surprising me. The last thing I’d want to be is a cartoon of myself—to play into what people expect. You can’t make something that feels unnatural, even if people expect it of you. Especially in this day and age, people have stronger expectations for artists. They are this one thing and they are unchangeable.

THIRLWELL: I’ve never had that problem because I change up all the time, even within one album. You can come along for the ride or you can get off the bus whenever you like.

ZOLA JESUS AND J.G. THIRLWELL’S VERSIONS IS OUT TODAY VIA SACRED BONES RECORDS. ZOLA JESUS WILL TOUR WITH A STRING QUARTET THROUGHOUT SEPTEMBER AND OCTOBER, INCLUDING AT OUR LADY OF LEBANON CATHEDRAL IN BROOKLYN ON SEPTEMBER 14. FOR MORE, PLEASE VISIT THE ARTIST’S WEBSITE.