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Zola Jesus
Photograph: Angel Ceballos Zola Jesus

Zola Jesus talks proposals, anxiety and goths

The tiny singer opens up about her new album, Conatus—oh, and walking in on Steven Tyler taking a leak

By Sophie Harris
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Wearing a white druid-style robe to match her white-blond hair and pale skin, Zola Jesus takes the stage with a troupe of black-clad male musicians approximately twice her height. The force of her music—pummeling tribal drums and swirling synths—is such that one's hair might start to vibrate, Sideshow Bob-style. And then she sings: her voice at once primal and ethereal, like Siouxsie Sioux booming instructions from Heaven.

It was fairly ridiculous but equally predictable when, during the singer's CMJ Marathon show at the Knitting Factory last October, some wag in the crowd felt the urge to yell, "Marry me!" and "You're gorgeous!" at her—the logic being that if you're female and on a stage, you must be up for it. But Zola Jesus—whose real name is Nika Roza Danilova—shrugs it off.

"I don't really take it seriously," she says, laughing, on the phone from a tour stop in Florida. "I just assume that whoever was saying that was really drunk." In any case, compared with her overall fear of being onstage—and specifically of presenting her art in public—a little heckle is chickenfeed: "It's very intimidating to put yourself out there in front of people and to try to present something that means everything to you—to face that vulnerability is incredibly stark."

A classically trained musician who asked for opera-singing lessons at age eight, Danilova has struggled with anxiety for most of her life. Yet her attitude toward fear is remarkably robust. "No matter what you do, if there's something you're afraid of, you need to break through it," she says. "Whatever you want, you need to just face it and get it; otherwise, it's never going to happen. You're going to cut yourself off from opportunity."

She means it, too. The successes of the past year are dizzying—not least for a kid who grew up in rural Wisconsin with a penchant for industrial music. Zola Jesus's third album, Conatus, won rave reviews. A song from the album, "In Your Nature," has been remixed by David Lynch, one of Danilova's heroes; another, "Skin," featured in an episode of Grey's Anatomy. That her artistic circle is markedly changed became clear when she recently walked in on Steven Tyler taking a leak at a studio in L.A. "He didn't lock the door, so I just walked in on him!" she giggles. "He obviously did not care at all. It's like, yep, that's what you get for rehearsing in Hollywood."

How does Danilova feel about the fact that her dark, stormy music has made it to the mainstream? "I think I'm making music that's pretty universal," she says brightly. "I'm not terribly surprised." For all the desolation in her work, she's no mope: She says she'd love to play Saturday Night Live ("just to have that thing you cross off your list before you die, you know?"), and has a soft spot for silliness.

"People don't really understand who I am," Danilova says. "They always think that I'm very dark or depressed, but it couldn't be further from the truth! I love comedy, Louis C.K. Growing up, I loved pop music—I was a little girl, you know?" (For the record, Danilova is still only 22.) "I was very energetic and filled with ideas and loved everything. I'm a very—I don't know how to say it [Laughs]—I'm a very normal person!"

When I start to say that yes, goths have fun too, Danilova is quick to point out that she is not One of Them. "I don't know why people think I'm a goth—that's a misconception," she asserts, though an understandable one, judging by old pics of the singer with black hair and kohl—a mini Lydia in Beetlejuice, rolling her eyes and saying, "I myself am strange and unusual." And when Danilova describes the isolation she felt as a teen, it's hard not to get a whiff of patchouli: "Growing up, I didn't even have friends, let alone friends that were into anything like that," she says. "I was so far removed from it, in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin."

Still, there's something very romantic about Danilova's story. She was raised by Russian-American parents, including a dad who hunted. While she didn't join him, she agrees that she'd probably do pretty well in an action-movie survival scenario. How about a zombie apocalypse? "Well, I think it's pretty easy to kill zombies anyway," she says, "so I don't think anyone would have a problem." Cheerfully, casually courageous—very Zola Jesus.

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