Nika Roza Danilova likes to talk about her childhood loneliness.
"When I grew up in northern Wisconsin, I didn't have any friends," says Danilova, who records alluring gothic pop under the name Zola Jesus. "I didn't have anyone who liked the things that I liked or wanted to think about the things that I thought about."
When Danilova was still small, she lashed out against that isolation by begging her parents for opera lessons, a study that continued off and on for years. Self-criticism and anxiety halted much progress.
Danilova's operatic efforts might not have made many quick friends with teenage Green Bay Packers fanatics in her native state, but her early efforts eventually allowed her to locate the likeminded outside of it. Both solo and with an evolving cast of collaborators, Danilova has released music as Zola Jesus since 2009. Her voice has always been the music's most arresting element, linking the industrial racket of her early lo-fi recordings to the sweeping strings of 2011's gripping Conatus. As the goth archetype has clawed its way back from the pits of cultural mockery (see Lorde, if only by example), she's been one of the trend's most potentially ascendant figures.And at last, she's started to find her company.
"It's cool to have art be this feeler, where you can meet all these different people that have these things in common," Danilova says. "The people that listen to you, that consume the art, are all facets of you. That's who you end up drawing in the end."
Last year, she tried to amplify that attraction. She moved from her longtime label Sacred Bones to Mute, the imprint that launched Depeche Mode 30 years ago and Goldfrapp near the start of the millennium. She wanted, it seems, to join the stars. Before releasing Taiga, she even told a Billboard interviewer, "I want to be No. 1."
Danilova now qualifies that a bit.
"One of the goals was to create an album that didn't feel sonically dark. It was lyrically dark—anxious and nervous and stressed—but not so much that it came through in the sonics," she explains. "I'd already done that. It started to get a little comfortable."
Altering her accepted sound meant taking a risk. Up to and on Conatus, her vocal power pushed through elements that conspired to create dramatic friction. Metallic echo sometimes made her sound like a solitary figure crying from the center of a vast cave. Overt vocal layering showcased her range by presenting her voice in support of itself, with slightly different versions adding up to a glowering one-woman army.
But on Taiga, Danilova sounds like a single human singer, communicating directly. Clean beats and bold brass dominate. It brings to mind not the image of a moon-bathed cliff but instead the twinkling lights of a high-end studio mixing board.
"My main instrument is voice. It's the thing I've been studying since very young and my main way of expressing myself," she says. "But even though it was my main instrument, I was so insecure of my voice. I would hide it behind all these effects. I needed to confront that."
Still, Taiga became the first Zola Jesus album to receive less glowing critical notices than its predecessor, scoring an average of 66 on the review aggregator website Metacritic, compared to a 79 for Conatus. Despite the hope for pop breakout, neither the album nor its songs climbed the lower rungs of international charts as high as Conatus. The straightforwardness banished just a bit of dark magic.
"People think there's a formula, but there's not. You think you can write a pop song, but those things just happen organically," Danilova says. "You can't think about it like that. You just want to write songs and they are what they are."
Still, it's hard to fault Danilova for grandiosity when there's proof that her work as Zola Jesus can be so profound. In 2012, she performed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York for a special set alongside an exhibition of sculptor John Chamberlain's large-scale works in jagged metal. In the middle of Frank Lloyd Wright's beaming white rotunda, she performed with a string quartet conducted by Australian industrial pioneer J.G. Thirlwell. He signaled string swells and broken drum machine beats. Dressed in an elaborately coiled cowl of angelic white Christmas lights, the singer scaled the museum's famous upward-circling railing, wailing as she climbed.
"That was definitely a life highlight," she admits.
Every show can't be that way, especially if you're not selling out arenas. Still, as with Taiga, Danilova can't help but dwell on an elusive ideal. For her, the perfect scenario would mean recording an album and then building a show from it, with lighting and sculptures and side musicians playing every perfect nuance. Even if it's not yet reality, it's an empowering fantasy.
"You take the huge vision and then you compromise until you can get as much of it as you can possibly. Not much of it is feasible in 2015, being a touring artist. But I'm very proud of the show that I have. Every day gets better and better," she says. "You still know, in the back of your mind, that you could have a choir onstage. I never have to amp up my thinking. It's always been bigger, beyond my means."
This article appeared in print with the headline "In bounds"