Zola Jesus Will Be Your Scream on ‘Okovi': Interview
If you've had the chance to see Zola Jesus live, then you've witnessed an artist truly throw herself into a performance. Whether she's jumping around the crowd or lying on the stage during music breaks, no one can knock the Wisconsin-based singer-songwriter for putting on a low-energy show. On her latest album, Okovi, she takes us to the deep dark woods of her memories with a set of tracks that will make you feel many things all at once.
"I wanted to throw some event to celebrate the record, like an album release party," Zola shared before performing at a special light and sound experience in Manhattan in September. "But I wanted to do something a little more abstract. So I just randomly came up with this idea about having a forest in a warehouse in the middle of New York. I like the juxtaposition, and then it started to morph. And a bunch of collaborators came on like visual artists, scent artists makers. And everything came together."
Below, Zola opens up about her new record, planting roots and why she's so "intense."
What’s the premise behind the new album?
This record took a long time to make. I was in Seattle. I just got done with Taiga, and I was so depressed. I was really sad. I couldn’t really write because I was so… I don’t know, I just felt really meaningless or something. When you feel depressed, you don’t really know why [but] just feel like nothing can come out of you. It took a while.
But I should back up. So, I was living in Seattle, and then I moved to Wisconsin, where I grew up. I decided to build a house on that land because I felt the only way to ground myself was to literally ground myself. I had to return to roots in a very permanent way. So I built a house on that land. And as that process was happening, I was starting to get healthier, being at home. But at the same time, a lot of people around me were struggling. A family member attempted suicide twice last summer, and that was kind of a huge part of my life and my time because I trying to rehabilitate them to convince them to stay alive. Another family member was diagnosed with terminal cancer. So there were a lot of people who were feeling lost. It really forced me to really ground myself and make myself healthier in order to help them. So that’s how the record was born in a really roundabout way... [The songs are] like snapshots of time and what I was going through and the people around me were going through.
What about moving back to Wisconsin and being in the place where you grew up made it easier to create Okovi?
Definitely just being home. I grew up on 200 acres of forest. And so returning there, I could feel like I was the only person existing in the world. It’s more liberating. I’m not thinking about what I did before. I’m not thinking about what I’ll do next. I’m thinking about what’s around me. I felt intuitive. I just felt more free.
You may have felt free on this record, but there were probably some songs that were harder to write than others. What were some of the songs that were a challenge to work on?
Well, all of them in one way or another. “Witness” was written about the family member that attempted suicide, the first time that they did it. It was emotionally hard. It wasn’t hard on the practical level. But then there are others, like “Exhumed,” that felt like releases—great, cathartic releases. But they were kind of stuck for a long time. So it was a matter of digging in there and figuring out what the song wanted be. That became very exhausting. Spending hours and even years on a song. But yeah, I could go on…
Speaking of “Exhumed,” I know you have had a hand in all aspects of your art. But for that video in particular, where did the idea come form?
Well, I wanted to shoot on my land, and I wanted to shoot with my good friend, Jacqueline Castel. I worked with her many, many times over the last few years, and she understands me almost non-verbally, which makes it much more innate. And I just felt like this song was so precious that I trusted her. And I wanted it to be as raw and cathartic as the song. Together, we discussed the things we were both passionate about and interested in. It was just her and [me] up there in the woods. And there wasn’t a solid plan. We just went out into my woods and shot stuff. We just both knew we wanted to make it look really messed up and really raw. And so that was basically the objective: loosely reinterpreting the exhumation.
One of the things I’ve noticed when you perform is that you get into this intense and deep space. How do you get into that mindset?
Well, I’m an intense person. [Laughs] So I’m naturally very intense. It’s just kind of a way to concentrate that intensity. When I’m on tour and offstage, I’m very subdued because I concentrate all of that intensity into the performance. So it’s truly a vehicle to release that energy. I don’t think about it so much.
A lot of your fans have related to this record in some way, shape or form. And although these are your experiences, they may have had similar moments. What advice would give to help them get through the dark times?
Well, there was a period when I couldn’t write music either. I was going through a very dark haze. I couldn't write or get it out. So I used to watch a lot of movies. I read a lot of books, and I listened to a lot of music. And it was all very aggressive, and it all kind of spoke for me when I couldn’t speak for myself. I couldn’t express that confusion and grief and depression that I was going through. So I would say to find a friend at that time to be that scream for you, and eventually you’ll find your own scream and let it all out.
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