Wanted/Needed/Loved: Zola Jesus’s Natural World

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When I was young my parents built a house, almost from the ground up, on two hundred acres of woods in Northern Wisconsin. From building the house to living there I spent all my time on the land running around and exploring; and feeling like the only person who existed in the world.

The land was once logged but hadn’t been for many years. There are sloping hills through the heavily wooded forest, lots of maple trees, white birch, hemlocks, pine trees, and black ash. The woods are full of deer, bear, owls, wolves, foxes, and fishers, who are kind of savage. Wild turkeys roost close by, and they’re really loud!

Having been so isolated from other people, and having so much space to roam, I was free to run around, and scream, and sing with wild abandon. I never felt the energy of anybody else, and there was no judgment, which was extremely liberating.

I became passionate about how powerful I could make my voice. You know how parents enroll you in sports, or piano lessons, things like that? For me it was the voice I was drawn to. I first started studying opera when I was seven or eight. In the beginning I was too young to really understand the discipline aspect. But as I got older and my connection to opera grew, I became more aware of opera’s strict technique.

It’s very specific—what you have to do, what you have to sing, how you sing, which is very physiological. Some things about it drew me in. I liked the idea that it was something I could master, but at the same time I felt too limited.

I was always attracted to music that was more challenging, or experimental, stuff that was wild or intense or pushing the boundaries in some way. As a teen I got into punk, and then noise, and no wave. When I was about seventeen, I discovered Throbbing Gristle, Swans, Diamanda Galas, and other music that explored the edges of sonic possibility. I also loved early electronic music like Stockhausen and Morton Subotnick, and conceptual music like Meredith Monk.

In an attempt to rebuild the relationship I had to music, I started very naively and innocently making music on my own. People often ask me about the name “Zola Jesus,” which I adopted when I was about fourteen. I had just discovered Emile Zola, and I was also just really into being a bratty punk. [Laughs] And so I asked people at school to start calling me “Zola Jesus.” Nobody did, but when I started making music I started using it myself, and this time it stuck.

After school I moved to LA, which was the opposite of where I grew up. At first I was fascinated by the sheer contrast, but I quickly lost my footing and felt disconnected from the things that were real to me. Living in the desert felt inhospitable, and I was writing in an apartment building where I felt stacked on top of other people. Whenever I sang, I felt the ears of everyone listening. I’d go to check the mail and a neighbor would ask if I was a musician. It felt too claustrophobic.

I moved to Washington because I thought it had at least some semblance to Wisconsin. It was forested and raw and wild, but I was still too far from my family. About a year ago, I ended up returning to the land where I grew up and building a house here.

I designed it, and an architect drew up the plans. My uncle is a contractor, so he built it with help from my other uncle, who is an electrical engineer, and my parents. My dad and I even built the front door together, using Shou Sugi Ban, to make a beautiful charred cedar.

It took us about eight or nine months to finish the house, and it was really a family project. I love being here. It’s three hours from any major city, and it feels like freedom to me. The first song on my new album, “Doma,” was written up here on the land. It goes:

Trees chase the water and I stand here alone
Like a fawn without a mother
Please take me home
Please take me home to the land that I’m from.

At first there’s something sad about the song, because it’s about feeling like you’re without a base or roots. But then it’s about finding them and achieving a very calm sense of closure.

I’ve done a lot of traveling with my music. For a long time, I’ve collected pieces of bark, stones, rocks, and branches from all over the world, and I put them in a box that I moved around with me everywhere I went.

In some way, I think I was trying to stay connected to the natural world. The woods are unchanging, and that brings me a sense of peace. Knowing that I have someplace to come home to makes it easier for me to explore different places. I’ve reconnected with my roots, and it’s been restorative.

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Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.

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For over a decade, the singer-songwriter and producer Nika Roza Danilova, better known as Zola Jesus, has combined electronic, industrial, classical and goth to create a sound that’s entirely her own. Her new album, Okovi, marks a return to Sacred Bones, her longtime Brooklyn label. In Danilova’s words, Okovi is “a deeply personal snapshot of loss, reconciliation, and a sympathy for the chains that keep us all grounded to the unforgiving laws of feral nature.” Her album has received wide praise from Pitchfork, the Guardian, The Quietus, and others. She is currently on tour.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, and her own subscription-based channel, Vanishing Ink. Esme Blegvad is originally from London but is now Brooklyn-based. Her work has also appeared at Rookie and VICE. More from this author →