We're only 40% of the way through this year's CMJ Music Marathon so it's too early to be ranking the buzz bands just yet, but Zola Jesus' three shows in 24 hours definitely make her a prime contender. After catching her show at Williamsburg's Knitting Factory on Tuesday night, we were surprised, not 12 hours later, to turn on KEXP and hear her and her band performing live at the Ace Hotel - and she had another show at Le Poisson Rouge that night.
Backed by a six-piece band (three keyboardists, one of whom doubled on percussion, a violinist and a powerhouse drummer), Zola tore through most of the songs from her just-released third LP, "Conatus" (Sacred Bones) in concise and compact fashion: Few of the songs passed the four-minute mark and none of them outstayed their welcome. Along with recent kindred spirits like Anna Calvi and Austra, there are obvious touches of goth and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but the tribal drum beats and ever-present violin bring distinctively individual touches to the songs -- as, of course, does Zola's deep, soaring voice.
But it's her stage presence that makes the biggest impression: Fitting with her commanding vocals, Zola truly owns the stage, clad in a white, pleated robe-like garment on Tuesday night that made for dramatic, arms-outstretched gestures. And at both shows, not only did she plunge deep into the crowd (while still singing), she went all the way to the back of the room and - at the Knitting Factory - actually behind the bar, although she stopped short of serving drinks (Backbeat admits it was the first time we've seen a performer do that, although we have seen plenty of performers that might have been better off tending bar than being onstage).
Backstage at the Knit, the band was slightly giddy from the performance. Zola (aka Nika Roza Danilova) said that she hadn't initially realized the New York shows were scheduled during CMJ. Which meant, not surprisingly, the business was out in full force at her shows. Among those in the crowds were Motormouth publicist Christine Morales (for whom, since she'd flown in from LA earlier in the day on little sleep, it was approximately 30 o'clock), Jon Coombs and Darius Arman from Secretly Canadian, Jamie Dominguez of SESAC, Emusic's J Edward Keys, Ronen Givony of the Wordless Music Series, and the band's lawyer Paul Sommerstein, who mentioned that he'd gotten a few "page 6" comments after his name appeared in Backbeat a couple of weeks back.
On hand at the LPR was the NPR Music's team which live-streamed the show and included Frannie Kelley (NPR Music associate editor), Josh Rogosin (WNYC engineer), Amy Schriefer (NPR Music product manager), Eleanor Kagan (NPR Music production assistant), Mito Habe-Evans (NPR Music multi-media producer), Kevin Wait (NPR Music engineer) as well as "All Songs Considered" host Bob Boilen who made the trek up from D.C. himself to take in his first-ever Zola Jesus performance. Will the singer be making an appearance on the All Songs "Tiny Desk" show series? Nothing's on the books yet, Boilen said, but added he would "love to have her."
Boilen, known for his tireless show-going, said (while poring over his CMJ mobile app, natch) that one of his favorite new artists playing CMJ was the Falmouth, MA-based Tall Ships, who performed two Lower East Side sets the night before, with Paper Garden Records at the Living Room and Old Flame Records at the Pianos.
Before the Le Poisson Rouge gig, Backbeat spoke with Caleb Braaten and Taylor Brode, the united front that is Brooklyn-based Sacred Bones Records to chat about the sudden attention in Danilova's direction.
A wide line of mainstream press - from The FADER to The New York Times - is rallying around "Conatus" and the 22-year-old, synth-goth songstress at its helm, despite three previous EPs and two full-length albums. According to Braaten, who's been on Team Zola for more than five years now, the awareness is not at all surprising.
"We've really worked toward this for a long, long time so it feels fairly natural. We're on top of the world."
Braaten and Brode joined forces in 2007, and the label's crew of creatives functions entirely in-house, including graphic designer, David Correll; printer (and Crystal Stilts drummer) Keegan Cooke; and videographer/director, Jacqueline Castel. According to Braaten, letting the creativity flow freely goes just the same for their artists, too. Not surprisingly, given her look and stage presence, Danilova has been getting a lot of attention outside the music world as well.
"She's been getting great fashion coverage and a lot of designers are starting to pay attention, trying to dress her for events," said Brode.
"So, if she's into it, we're into it," said Braaten, "We encourage all our artists to explore the side projects and options that come their way."
Next up for Sacred Bones? Crystal Stilts drops their EP, "Radiant Door" on Nov. 15 as well as a top-secret soundtrack reissue the pair coyly eluded to with a director whom they are both huge fans.
"We put out twenty-three records this year," says brode including singles and 7 inches, and our 2012 release schedule is already finished. Our focus isn't so much on A&R or signing the next 'hot shit band' at the moment as it is developing our existing artists and really dedicating ourselves to their work."
Sacred Bones' artists continue to hit the CMJ circuit throughout this week with a joint official label showcase and Psychic Ills record release one-two punch party at St. Vitus in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn.
(Additional reporting by Devon Maloney and Andy Gensler)