Musicians typically get started on a new record by writing some songs. Nika Danilova, who performs as Zola Jesus, started by building a house.
She worked on it with her family in the woods of northern Wisconsin, where she grew up. She says the experience was a lot like making music.
"To build a house, I had to design it, I created it, and then I make all these decisions about what it is," she says. "I have full control over this thing, this object. It fed me in the way making a record does."
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Danilova hadn’t made a record in a while. She struggled with writer’s block for a year because of turmoil in her personal life. A loved one had attempted suicide, and another was diagnosed with cancer.
"I would try to write music and nothing would come out," she says. "Or I’d hate it or I'd just start crying. I just had no self value. I didn't feel like anything I was doing was good enough."
But Danilova found relief building her new home. She felt motivated again. And her new home in the woods was the perfect place to get back to Zola Jesus.
She started with what became the song “Wiseblood.” She says it was one of the most important moments of her career.
"That was my reckoning with myself and my own inner turmoil. That was the groundbreaking a little bit. I felt like I had it back. And I started to climb back to safety."
“Wiseblood” became the centerpiece of the new Zola Jesus album.
The record, called “Okovi,” marks a big departure from her previous album, where she wrote structured pop songs.
This time she let the music come out intuitively.
"I needed this record," she says. "And I needed it to sound emotional. I didn't care if it was pop or not. The songs came and that's what they are."
"Okovi" can be an uncomfortable listen. It features frightening cello parts, intense drums and songs about serial killers. It’s a return to the experimental vibe of Danilova’s first releases as Zola Jesus.
"I missed how exciting it was to write way in the beginning," she says. "It's like the more you learn, the less creative you can be."
Zola Jesus got back to its roots -- both physically and musically -- on "Okovi." That’s exactly what Danilova needed.
"For this record and for future records I’m really trying to preserve that naivety that I had in the beginning," she says. "Because that's the soul of my music. It was there before I knew anything. And that's what I need to return to."
And this time, she’s there to stay.