Once you get past the fact that what you're hearing–a massively commanding, operatic voice throbbing with a soul as big as the entirety of the Independent–is booming forth from a person smaller than the plague known as Snooki from Jersey Shore, you can start to experience Zola Jesus' primal goth-industrial pop music for what it essentially is in a live setting: a riveting sonic spectacle akin to a religious service conducted by a precocious girl from rural Wisconsin, dressed all in white.
From the very first notes, her songs seem to possess all 4'11" of Nika Roza Danilova, the Zola Jesus project's mastermind. She's constantly wide-eyed behind her veil of bleached-blond hair, while her arms and legs twist, flail and pulse to the lush orchestral synth beats and thunderous drums that swathed the entire venue in the same eerie, desolate landscape of sound that swells and undulates throughout her latest disc Conatus. She hops to either end of the stage and isn't afraid to headbang. And that voice...there isn't anything quite like it on airwaves, digital or analog, anywhere. Classically trained but lacking the irritatingly boring perfection opera singers work their entire lives to achieve, her pipes command immediate attention not with their range, but with their utter immensity and subtle flaws that give it the rustic, natural beauty found only in people born to do exactly what she's doing. The fact that her voice can stand up the barnstorming compositions her band puts forth is a startling testament to her future as force to be reckoned with.
Hands in the air like a mini Mariah (and I do mean that as a compliment), Danilova's sung the whole of Conatus, save for two tracks from previous releases, "Night" and "Sea Talk", which can both already be called Zola Jesus classics. Her songs tell tales of personal prisons–whatever or whomever may be creating them isn't always clear–and the way she performs them feel cathartic, as if she's breaking free a little more after each howled verse. "Collapse", with its repeated words "It hurts me, yes it hurts to let you in" over a bursting synth line that sounds like trilling violins is like the apex of a church sermon when divine spirits are being summoned by everyone in the room. During "Seekir"'s machine gun beats, Danilova hopped into the crowd, disappearing as she weaved through the audience, danced with several people, and sang "I wanna go-o-o-o 'till I never stop." Now I believe her everytime I hear it. Although most of the chopped-and-screwed "Shiver", as she has admitted, doesn't even contain real words, the power in her voice is still a magnet for the ears. She sings jibberish so convincingly, you'll find your brain desperately trying to fill in the blanks.
Between songs, each time the audience erupted into applause and screams of "We love you!", she looked as if she couldn't believe all these people came out just to see her sing. She's going to have to get used to it, because there are a whole mess of other people trapped in their own personal prisons who might just need the power of her music to help them break free too.
Photography by Grady Brannan