“I have been through the gamut of what this industry can offer, and I’ve learned that nothing is more stable than deep family and community.”
In June of 2022, Zola Jesus (aka Nika Roza Danilova) released a ten-track album following an intense period of writer’s block, called Arkhon, an ancient Greek word for “power” or “ruler.” For the first time in her career, Danilova waded into the murky waters of the unknown: by involving other musicians into her creative process, she relinquished control of the outcome.
This newfound – or rediscovered – sense of community recharged Zola Jesus as an artist, and as a human. A change of scenery – literally – also led to unearthing another treasure within herself. During the video shoot in Turkey for Lost, the lead single from Arkhon, Danilova and director Mu Tunc also shot and recorded a live album and performance film in the stunning chapel of Bezirhane: Alive In Cappadocia. The history of Bezirhane spans nearly two thousand years: initially used to produce linseed oil, it has also served as a monastery, and as a caravansary frequented by Silk Road travelers.
The poetic simplicity of the four-song album features three key elements: the powerful vocals of Zola Jesus, a piano, and the incredible acoustics, echoes, and energy of the ancient sacred space. She performs Desire and Into the Wild from Arkhon, as well as two previous songs, Skin and Siphon.
The footage from this performance is nothing short of mesmerizing. Surrounded by candles, beams of sunlight, and centuries-old ghosts, Danilova transcends space and time. She sits calmly at the piano dressed in a veil, with interspersed footage of her wandering the wintry landscape in a woolen cloak. With this strong imagery, she embodies the experience of our common ancestors, echoing and amplifying their voices.
The spiritual reawakening Danilova experienced during the creation of Arkhon also manifested as a passionate battle against the suffocating influence of capitalist technology in the music industry. As she grappled with the personal aspects that fueled the poetry of Arkhon, she also took to social media to lash out at the exploitation and sanitization of a deeply flawed industry that favours algorithms over artistry; capitalism over collaboration.
During an NPR interview at NYC’s Rough Trade in July, Danilova doubled down on asserting her independence and determination to maintain her autonomy in a world rife with global and societal crise. She strongly asserted that all artists have a collective need for honest, authentic artistic catharsis. This David and Goliath battle against Big Tech against highlights the active silencing of veracity in favour of a numbers game for advertising. Gone are the days of Top-40 protest songs, politically-charged lyrics, and the celebration of nonconformity in music. So what is possible with these bleak prospects? With Zola Jesus, Danilova continues to set a firm example of navigating artistic independence during the glossy Neo-Gilded Age of late capitalism.
In this interview, we discuss Arkhon, Alive In Cappadocia, her process, and more insight about the pitfalls of a technocratic music industry.
Arkhon was a change from your previous albums as far as the writing process goes – you’ve said you were able to push through creative block through new kinds of collaboration. What have you discovered about your own artistry, reflected off what others bring to the table?
It got to a point in my writing where I felt like I was stuck in a pattern that I couldn’t get myself out of. I felt limited by my own sense of expression. I had so, so much I needed to get out but the way in which I was used to working wasn’t channeling it properly. I had to collaborate in an effort to break myself open and renew my perspective. It was so helpful, because I was finally able to see the ways in which I was holding myself back as a writer. It’s been a long process of trying to get back to the beginning, to writing like a child again. But I’m finally getting there, and seeing just how much is possible with this newfound sense of melody and experimentation! Making Arkhon has really led me to where I am now in that process.
“Arkhon” means ruler in ancient Greek. How do you connect with that word, or have come to connect with it?
I named the record “Arkhon” after the term used in Gnosticism. The archons are malevolent rulers which force humanity astray from total union. I wrote the record between 2018-2021, which was an incredibly tense time not only in my personal life, but nationally and globally. It felt as though I was in a constant battle against these archons who were pushing me towards madness.
With each undertaking, artists generally undergo a kind of spiritual rebirth during the process of creation. What did Arkhon reveal to you?
More than most records I’ve made, Arkhon was like a mirror held in front of my own shadow. Because the record is the outcome of so much personal pain, it wasn’t easy to make. For that reason, it’s quite a tender piece of work. But at the end of the day, it revealed how much I cherish music as a means of self-acceptance and understanding. It allowed me to take control of my own narrative, while at the same time making peace with all the things that are simply out of my control. Making music for me is always this awkward experience of getting to know myself, whether it’s through who I want to be or who I am… at the end of the song I will find a deeper connection to myself and the world. There is a humility to sharing that journey with others, but that’s the part that feels like the service.
The album cover for Arkhon is a remarkable photo. Can you tell us about it?
After I finished final mixes for the record, I listened to it in headphones in the dark and tried to see the visual world. This usually happens more during the making of the record, but this time I didn’t want to let myself get in the way, so I left this part for last. Upon listening I saw a cave in my inner vision. I imagined the cave as my home… the tunneling dark crystalline world in which the music was made. I remembered there was an ancient limestone cave not far from where I live, so I decided to go there with my mom and my sister-in-law to take photos. I didn’t want it to be highly stylized, as I wanted it to feel as authentic and realistic as possible. I asked my friend Katie Martin of Graceland, who’s an amazing costume designer, if she had any sort of red robe or dress I could wear for the photo, which miraculously she did. It was perfect. Shooting the cover in that cave after spending so much time in the realm of the songs felt like it was all meant to be. I felt as though that cave really was my womb.
Alive In Cappadocia gave me chills. Your voice fills that sacred space so perfectly – you give the space such reverence. It’s just you, that piano, and 2000 years of history. Wearing a veil and surrounding yourself with candles – it’s almost like witnessing Hildegard Von Bingen herself spring to life. What did you feel, hearing your music filling that space?
It was such a special opportunity to be able to record something live in that amazing space. The history that is literally buried in Cappadocia is so immense. Hearing my voice resonate against the walls felt very strange, as if I was combining with the millennia of history.
How did you find yourself drawn to Bezirhane? What did you come away with from the experience?
While making Arkhon, I became very interested in time. The resilience of humanity is reflected in our own survival, yet we should never forget how much perseverance it took others for us to get here. Cappadocia is a relic of history, in that it has captured the essence of survival and faith. Many people were drawn to Cappadocia in an effort to hide and practice their spirituality in freedom. I wanted to feel this strong, sacred energy for myself.
You’ve been passionately vocal about the importance of artistic autonomy in the music industry, and wrote “Lost” about the uphill battles these fights for independence mean to us. What advice can you give indie artists who are navigating these waters?
Ugh, this is so hard. Hard because I don’t really have an answer. By nature, I’m quite anti-authoritarian, so all of the corporate consolidation that’s been happening has gotten under my nerves in a deep way. I think the only way through it out, honestly. I think the more we divorce ourselves from these corrupt services and companies, the more control and autonomy we’ll have both as musicians and music fans. It’s a really difficult time, because listeners have become trained by the convenience of these services and musicians have been coerced into agreeing to really pitiful terms. The only change will come from awareness and conscious choices. Spotify isn’t going anywhere until we do.
One thing you mention over and over – regardless of whether it’s society, the music industry or artists’ struggles – is that change happens from the bottom up. How have you done this with your music, and what are some steps we can all take to accomplish this?
I started a Patreon a couple years ago, which still isn’t perfect, as it’s another VC-funded company mediating between artist and fan, but at least it gives me more control over my value. That’s helped me see that alternative models are possible. I tried to do the NFT thing, which of course isn’t ideal in the very least either, but it was another way to experiment with operating outside of the paradigm. I continue to work with my label Sacred Bones, which at this point is family to me. I have no interest in working with anyone else. I have been making music as Zola Jesus for almost 15 years. I have been through the gamut of what this industry can offer and I’ve learned that nothing is more stable than deep family and community. Belonging to a group of likeminded people who work together to accomplish each others’ artistic goals is not only successful, but it’s rewarding to a level that nothing else can compare to. If anything is here to stay, it’s that. And if anything will get us through this hellishly isolating, alienating individualist black hole, it’s that. So I would recommend anyone reading this to find their crew and ride or die.
Arkhon is available on special edition coloured vinyl through Sacred Bones, Bandcamp, and various independent retailers, as well as on CD and cassette. You can stream and purchase the Alive In Cappadocia album below:
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Photos for Post-Punk.com: Alice Teeple
Makeup: Jenny Atwood Smith for NARS
Wardrobe: Brittany Anjou