Nika Roza Danilova grew up a loner in rural Wisconsin. Having musicians and artists she could identify with was her link to a world beyond the farmland of the American Midwest. Here, the proudly and immodestly renamed Zola Jesus explains how her icon, David Cronenberg, exposes the alien in the concept of alienation, and how understanding horror takes sensitivity.
I’m a perfectionist and a controlfreak, but I know what I do isn’t perfect, because music can’t be perfect. Nevertheless, I still find myself confronting fears of imperfection—mostly in art, but also in controlling life’s general parameters. Being a perfectionist has been alienating for me in the past and David Cronenberg’s films offer some of the most insightful interpretations of solitude, alienation, and human behavior around. The concept of alienation itself always has some physical manifestation in his work—usually a really visceral one; characters who feel alienated literally become aliens; or they remain human but are surrounded by dripping, slimy, and threatening creatures.
My first Cronenberg film was Videodrome, and I can honestly say it forced me to view the world and myself differently. Musically, almost everything I do is influenced by a Cronenberg-lens of recognizing the alien in the everyday. You see, when you’re alone, you’re free from the influence of society. And when you really insulate yourself, you become a society of one. I’m a bit of a loner, and that’s what helps me maintain a healthy skepticism to my surroundings—which, at the moment, are constantly changing. This skepticism is something I’ve learned from Cronenberg, especially from the films he’s both written and directed, like Scanners or eXistenZ. His surreality exposes how animalistic everyday rituals can be, and there’s always some thinly veiled philosophical motive or ambition embedded in the story. These are also the stories I like to tell.
Sometimes when I mention how much I respect Cronenberg, people go, “Oh, he’s OK, I guess . . .” I think most people don’t understand how sensitive you have to be to communicate such multifaceted ideas of horror and estrangement, which is something I personally relate to performing onstage—on a heightened platform. I often ask myself, “What do I do with this power?” Sometimes I wish I could direct it more.
I studied classical voice and thought about pursuing a career in opera, but I think that would have meant giving in to a perfectionism that doesn’t allow for error or messiness. Studying opera nearly destroyed me mentally. At a certain point I had to admit to myself that I’d never be the best opera singer in the world. Instead, I had to combine the naturalist in me—Zola—with the spiritualist in me—Jesus. It’s a dichotomy between mind and body, reality and illusion that I embrace and that Cronenberg showed me. ~