This feature was originally published in our It's a Kind of Magic issue. Subscribe to the magazine – and get all of these excellent features delivered to your door – over here.
Hey Nika, how are you? The new album is called Taiga, which is a sort of swampy, coniferous forest. Why did you call your record this?
It just felt like it symbolised a lot of the themes that I was conceptualising on the record. It's not necessarily about taiga specifcally, it's about the natural world.
That's something that's always been close to your heart, right? Especially considering where you grew up...
Yeah, I grew up in an area that was close to a taiga forest, but it was mostly just normal forest haha. I don't know how it was very different from other people's up-bringing in that it was a standard rural upbringing, but it allowed me to seek my own entertainment and have a rich inner life because I didn't have a lot of cultural distractions.
You became interested in singing and opera at a really young age, right?
Yeah, singing is something that was just always my entertainment – I would roam around the house and just sing. It became a reflex, and now when I'm doing it I don't even really notice I'm doing it most of the time. When I'm very content, I'll start singing. It became my natural release and I just tried to focus on harnessing it a little more through opera.
It sounds like singing came naturally to you but you were really shy about performing, to the point where you gave yourself the pseudonym Zola Jesus because you thought people would find it controversial and uninviting...
Yeah. Studying opera at such a young age is actually quite difficult because there's so much discipline and criticism involved, especially self-criticism. When you're seven or eight years old you can't really handle that; it's really hard to deal with. If someone's criticising the way you sing, it's not because they think you're bad, it's because they're trying to make you better. It really affected me and I became very insecure about singing in front of people, and it's not until really recently that I've become comfortable doing it. I guess to an extent I have these layers that protect me and insulate me from failure; that's probably what the Zola Jesus thing is.
What are some of those other layers? What else do you use to insulate your true self from your performance persona?
I try to cut off my personal self off from my work. Even though my songs are so personal, there's a line because I'm naturally a very self-deprecating, very humiliated person, so it's really hard trying to create something that feels confident when you have the kind of personality that I do. So I need to cut that self-criticism off and disassociate myself from my music.
You studied business and philosophy at uni. Did any particular philosophers make a big impact on your work's themes?
I'm not sure if studying philosophy influenced my music or if that's something that's always been there and that's why I was studying philosophy, but the thing I like about the study of philosophy is that it's the study of life; it discusses all of these different discourses that I'm very interested in. I'm very curious about how the world works, so it's been really important to me ever since I was a teenager and discovered people like Nietzsche and Albert Camus. I loved existentialism, and I've grown more into nihilism. I like pessimistic and atheist philosophers because they're looking at the world in a more jaded way, which reveals things about the world that you don't think about.
Are any of those philosophers part of the process when you're thinking about what you're going to put on a new album?
Sometimes, because if I've read a philosopher and they've changed how I see the world, either directly or indirectly, that's going to affect what I write about. Of course, everything you do – whether it's art or your perspective on life – is influenced by what you read and what you learn. I actually haven't found a contemporary in the ideas I've been going through on this record, though.
What are the ideas you've explored for the album?
Some of the main themes are regarding the natural world: how did man reconcile his place in nature when he feels so disconnected from it? We build ourselves out of nature, we build these cities to insulate ourselves from the vulnerability we feel in the actual world. These were the things I was thinking about when trying to come to terms with how man views himself. All of those were the biggest themes, but there were definitely other ones about ancestry and identity, whether it's cultural identity or a communal identity that people share.
The idea of our connection to nature is particularly relevant now considering how closely connected we are to technology and how disconnected we are from the environment a lot of the time...
Definitely. It's getting more and more difficult to feel like you can be part of the world, and technology is probably the biggest reason we feel more and more distant from our roots as animals, really. It's distancing ourselves from the reality of what's true. It's frightening to watch it progress so rapidly.
What's your process like? Do you start with ideas or sounds and weave them into an album?
Well, it depends. I'll start with an idea, or with a vocal melody – a lot of the songs are written a cappella for this record. Then I'll try to figure out what the song needs on top of or around the vocal, and I'll add things as I feel the song calls for them. I was actually trying to be really reductionist on this record because I feel like all of my past records were dense to the point of suffocation. I wanted to create actual space in which you could hang out and really understand everything that's going on.
Taiga is actually really emotionally uplifting. Did you plan it to be that way?
I think sometimes when you write music that's considered sad, there's no end to it; there's no productive solution. Having done that for the past couple of records it wasn't healthy to put that out into the world again. I'm a very pessimistic person, but I still feel like it's important to have some sort of solution about how to deal with things.
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