Zola Jesus Returns With Pop Ambitions: 'I Want To Be Number 1'

(Photo: Jeff Elstone)

Zola Jesus

The experimental singer-songwriter discusses her brave new album "Taiga," leaving her longtime label and why she's never been more excited than right now.

"I want to be No. 1 on Billboard," declares Nika Roza Danilova, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter behind the ethereal pop project Zola Jesus. "I've always wanted that, my whole entire life, since I was very young, so I can't pretend that's not true. My goals as a musician are very clear-cut."

In the five years since Zola Jesus' 2009 debut "The Spoils," Danilova's emotive electronica music has earned her praise from the Pitchfork and Fader crowds, collaborations with M83 and Orbital, and opening spots on tours by the xx and Fever Ray. Sitting in a New York office on her first press day supporting new album "Taiga" earlier this week, however, Danilova -- an artist that has yet to crack the Billboard Hot 100 chart, much less top it -- makes it clear that those past accomplishments are just prelude to what she has coming up next.

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"Taiga," due out Oct. 7, is Zola Jesus' most profound, accessible release to date, and will be her first release on new label Mute Records after spending the entirety of her career on Sacred Bones Records. Listen to sweeping first single "Dangerous Days" -- which has cracked the Top 20 on our Billboard Twitter Emerging Artists chart -- below:

After releasing and supporting her best-selling album to date, "Conatus," in 2011 (21,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan), Danilova retreated to Vashon Island, Wash. in mid-2012 to begin writing a follow-up. The word "taiga" is the Russian name for a boreal forest, and most of Zola Jesus' next album focuses on human interaction with land.

"I grew up on a hundred acres of forest, and my family built a house there, but at the same time I felt like we were living within the forest while creating this microcosm on the land," says the Wisconsin native. "In some ways, I feel like humans struggle with feeling like they're part of the world, but at the same time, they're alienated from it. I think that humans feel like they need to conquer the world in their own way, in a very artificial way, and they're afraid of the natural world."

On much of "Taiga," Danilova sounds as if she also has something to conquer: the album's 11 songs are marked by wide-ranging synthesizers, twitchy percussion and vocals more crisply rendered than anything Zola Jesus has previously released. Wanting the album to be "very clean," Danilova worked with a co-producer, Dean Hurley (David Lynch, Danger Mouse), for the first time, traveling down from Vashon Island to Los Angeles for three months to finish the album.

Danilova describes the decision to leave longtime label Sacred Bones as a painful one, but says that Mute has been "wonderful so far" in facilitating a necessary move for her career. "It came to a point where I wanted to be challenged more than I thought Sacred Bones could challenge me," Danilova says, adding that Mute's legacy and roster (which includes Depeche Mode, Liars and Goldfrapp) sealed the deal for her.

Zola Jesus' live setup is also evolving, with a brand new band behind Danilova and an expansive light show in the works. With first single "Dangerous Days" released, performances being finalized and a press run commenced, Danilova admits that the months leading up to "Taiga's" released will be hectic -- and she wouldn't accept anything less.

"You know when you're doing everything so DIY in the beginning, and making things work with what you've got?" Danilova asks. "I feel like I'm at a place where I can start fulfilling my vision, and that is the most exciting thing I've ever felt."