Zola Jesus Talks Heavy New Album 'Okovi': 'It Helped Find Clarity In My Own Internal Darkness'

Zola Jesus
Tim Saccenti

Zola Jesus

For some time, Zola Jesus was living in Seattle, becoming all too aware of the depression that was consuming her. She needed a change, to reconnect with her roots. Last year, she packed up and moved to the woods of Wisconsin, where she was raised.

“I felt like the only thing that would ground me was coming back home,” the singer, born Nika Roza Danilova, tells Billboard.

Soon after her move, she began writing wherever and whenever she could. “My life was very full outside of writing,” she relates, and recalls how she was simultaneously readjusting to life in Wisconsin, spending time with family and building a house of her own. “It forces you to make these unconscious decisions in your writing, because you don’t have that much time.”

The result of such a haphazardly writing style can be heard on the singer’s forthcoming album, Okovi, out Sept. 8. Without time to second guess herself or her lyrics, the 11 tracks that make up the album are some of Danilova’s most soul-crushing and brutally honest -- often times to a point of deep sadness or discomfort -- to date.

“If I’m going to do something, I want it to be about the guts of life and nothing superficial, because there’s no time to make music for the sake of making music,” she says. “It’s got to say something and it’s got to serve a purpose. I feel like people are just craving something real, however difficult or however much it challenges people’s emotions, that’s what people need.”

The brooding album largely centers on death through the lens of suicide. The intensely vulnerable “Witness,” which includes the closing lines “Won’t let you bleed out/ Can’t let you bleed out,” was written with a specific person in mind. “I just wrote it for them to hear,” Danilova says. “But in the end, I don’t just want to say these things to one person, but to people listening to the album who might be going through something similar, because I would say the same thing to them as well. If anything, [the album] is a touchstone.”

Clocking in at 40 minutes, Okovi may be a quick listen, but it’s a heavy one. Bookend tracks “Doma” (album opener) and “Half Life” (album closer) are solely instrumental -- save for haunting howls. Their placement within the track list reveals the thoughtfulness, and awareness, that went into this record, as their goal is to seemingly comfort listeners on their way in and out. If “Doma” is the moment when someone tells you "you may want to sit down for this," then “Half Life” is the moment when you dry your eyes and embrace.

Elsewhere, Danilova’s soaring vocals shine like on the opening lines of “Ash To Bone” or the synth-driven “Remains,” the most uptempo track off the album and the only one that bares resemblance to 2014’s pop play Taiga.

“My last record was very extroverted, and I was excited about making something that felt technically proficient,” she says. “But with this record, it was so much more about emotional catharsis and it made me realize how much I need that. The more challenging or more aggressive music I was making, the more validated or heard I felt. I felt seen, and that really helped to find clarity in my own internal darkness.”

While writing Okovi -- a Slavic word for shackles -- Danilova reveals she was feeling “drawn to the darker edges of music” and found herself listening to Eastern European folk music and a lot of black metal and noise. But even with the album’s somber undertones, the singer insists the album is about connecting with one another.

“I realized that everybody is a prisoner to something,” she admits, in reference to the album title’s translation. “[This album] is about understanding that and embracing the struggles that bind us together, however disparately unique they are. [With] what’s happening in the word, there’s so much disconnection between people. More than ever, it’s important to establish and grab hold of the connections between us.”