On her third time as a headliner in Washington, DC, Zola Jesus played to a sold out crowd of approximately 500 people at U Street Music Hall. This was certainly the best possible location in the neighborhood for her to showcase her incredibly strong and compelling singing voice. At just under two years old, it’s the youngest venue in the bustling U Street Corridor, and offers acoustics superior to the nearby aging rock clubs.
Zola Jesus, the stage name of 22-year-old Nika Roza Danilova, performs with a backing trio consisting of synthesizers, electric violin, and drums. However, the synths and violins were almost completely drowned out when Danilova’s wailing voice and the thundering waves of drums synced up. Her voice was mixed very high, and it eerily carried over just about everything else – at least, when she wanted it to. She seemed to have two modes of singing: loud and whisper-quiet, both of which gripped the audience.
Zola Jesus plays a creepy mixture of electronic industrial pop mixed with classical aria singing. Much of the music seems to reflect on a disturbing and lonely childhood. Danilova was raised on a remote 100-acre plot of Wisconsin forest, far removed from any peers except her brother. Her father was a survivalist hunter, and she has described experiences such as having to duck to avoid the deer heads he would hang from trees as an offering to scavengers. It’s easy to see why her music bears such a consistently disturbing aesthetic.
Her stage presence was interesting. The pale-skinned, bleach blonde Danilova was dressed all in white, illuminated almost exclusively by glowing blue cubes on stage, framed by a fog machine, appearing ghost-like. Her movements on stage at times seemed choreographed, but sometimes appeared as if she was dancing alone at home in her room with no one was watching — these moves felt the most honest and authentic. At times during the performance, she curled up on to the stage into the fetal position, as if suddenly possessed mid-song by a memory of the traumas that inspired the music. At the end of the final song, a fantastic performance of her single “Vessel,” Danilova grabbed a drumstick and started violently bashing a cymbal, in what was clearly a cathartic release. The enthusiastic crowd rapidly demanded the two-song encore that followed.
The problems Zola Jesus encountered are somewhat inherent to the sound. First, Zola Jesus is not a band, but rather a solo artist backed up by a band, and there were moments when this lack of cohesion became apparent. As a touring act, Zola Jesus is rapidly approaching maturity, but still developing. However, overall, Zola Jesus is a compelling live act worth the price of admission for anyone desiring to hear creepy electronic music and an expressive female vocalist.