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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fair
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Zola Jesus' anxious minimalism to shine at SXSW
Zola Jesus wants to be the gothic Barbra Streisand.
Zola Jesus wants to be the gothic Barbra Streisand.
Credit:Sharon Vanorny

For one-woman home-recording powerhouse Zola Jesus - a.k.a. Madison's Nika Danilova, 19 - being an enigma isn't just an amusing side effect of being a performer, it's a necessity.

Danilova's face is so pixelated on the cover of her Poor Sons EP that it's hard to tell if she's even human. Then there's the music itself, minimalist masterpieces streaked with spooky, distorted vocals, evaporating keyboards and long, looming shadows of '80s goth-pop. It's the kind of stuff that truly earns the label of "experimental" - and that's a good thing.

"I want to be the next gothic Barbra Streisand," she jokes. "Well, it is gothic in that post-punk, Joy Division sort of way, but weirder, too."

Meanwhile, Danilova explains all of this spotlight-dodging in a very practical way: She's got performance anxiety. Lots of it. Zola Jesus is a way of confronting this fear and integrating it into the music rather than burying it in the recesses of her mind.

The struggle began during her childhood, when she was training to be an opera singer.

"Every time I'd perform, I'd lose my voice," she recalls. "I finally just gave up and decided I'd study business."

The plan was going swimmingly. Danilova graduated high school early and enrolled at UW-Milwaukee feeling focused. But then something strange happened: She found herself missing the very thing she sought to avoid. Not the anxiety specifically, but the other part - the emotional core of musical performance.

"I decided to get over my anxieties and start again with music, or at least start the process of getting over all of these things that were holding me back," she says.

Danilova started the process slowly, creating simple melodies in her apartment and channeling her earliest and most positive memories of singing.

"As a kid, I lived on 150 acres of woods near Wausau, way up in the country. It gave me a lot of time and space to experiment with my voice because I couldn't go hang out with other people that easily," she says.

This spirit of experimentation - and her memories of listening to noise bands with her brother, local folk musician Max Elliott - soon took shape in Zola Jesus.

By the time she transferred to Madison a year and a half ago, she had finished a sizable catalog of recordings, which, through a series of personal associations, sparked the interest of two labels: Brooklyn's Sacred Bones and New Jersey's Troubleman Unlimited.

These East Coast connections have helped Danilova and the group of friends that play backup at her live shows - synth player Dead Luke, bassist Lindsay Mikkola and drummer Elliot - gain a larger following in places like New York and Boston than they have at home.

The buzz has gotten so strong, in fact, that New York University's student radio station, WNYU, and New Jersey indie station WFMU tapped Zola Jesus to do a recent on-air set. WNYU also invited the band to play the station's 35th anniversary bash at the Knitting Factory on Dec. 15.

Meanwhile, Sacred Bones invited Zola Jesus and two local labelmates to play its showcase at this March's South by Southwest festival in Austin.

It's a lot of face time for a girl who's used to hiding behind her four-track, but she's also got more home-recorded gems - an EP called Tsar Bomba, as well as a new LP - waiting in the wings, ready to chill and mystify.

"I want the music to scare people a bit," she says. "It shakes them up, then wakes them up. Like therapy."

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