Photography: Kate Owen
Director: Sam Shannon
Director of Photography: Arthur Woo
Styling: Jenni Hensler
Hair: Kat Zemtsova
Makeup: Jenny Atwood-Smith using NARS
Studio: The Nine Studios Brooklyn
It’s safe to say a lot of pop has lost its soul—hell, most artists don’t even write their own songs anymore. But that’s not the case for Zola Jesus, who pours every ounce of her emotional trauma into each and every track. With her latest album, Okovi, the 28-year-old singer dives head first into suicide, murder and isolation—you know, just the easy stuff. But unlike a lot of her electro-pop peers, Zola brings a refreshing honesty and uncontrived depth to all of her work. Okovi reads like a poetic diary, each song piercing a darker layer of her anxiety-fueled world. And that’s the beauty of it. Through atmospheric electronics and experimental harmonies, Zola turns chaos into reverb-soaked catharsis—the Winsconsin-based artist needs music just as much as we need her.
BULLETT caught up with the singer to talk therapy, transcendence and true crime. Read our interview, below.
Tell me about the new album. What inspired it?
I was really depressed actually and feeling like I couldn’t write—I was hating everything I was doing. I needed to find roots, so I moved back to Wisconsin where I grew up and decided to build a house on the land. I was building this house and starting to feel better, and as I was starting to feel better, everyone around me was going through their own trauma. So this record is a synopsis of my own sadness and the struggles of the people I love around me.
How do you think the new record compares to your previous releases?
I think it’s different than Taiga, my last record, in that it’s more raw and personal, and the production is a little bit more distorted or low-fi. It’s still more polished than my earlier records. So it really feels like a collection of all the different stages of my music together in one place.
How do you think you’ve changed as a musician from Taiga to now?
With Taiga, I was really concerned about mastering technical skills and being proficient as a songwriter, vocalist and producer. So it was really more about proving to myself that I could actually make a slick record, and that my music wasn’t compromised because of my lack of ability. With this record I wasn’t so concerned about that—it was much more cathartic and I didn’t really think about anything when making this record. I just did it.
What do you mean you were concerned with your skills as a musician? How did you get into music?
I got into music very young. I studied piano when I was like, six, and by the time I was eight, I started studying opera—I thought I was destined to be an opera singer. So music has always been in my life, one way or another.
When did you make the transition from studying opera to actually writing music?
After I stopped studying opera, I started getting really into punk and experimental noise and industrial music, and that really reinvigorated my desire for music because I was able to see that there’s beauty in flaws, and there’s a larger spectrum of what music can actually be. When I started making music as Zola Jesus, it just felt more liberating because one, I could decide what’s right and wrong about it, and two—I wasn’t so concerned with technical proficiency.
Coming from two such distinct backgrounds—opera and punk—how does that affect your songwriting?
I try not to overthink anything because I think, when it becomes too overly analytical, the emotion gets stripped from it. Especially with this record—I wanted it to be more automatic and not so cerebral with regards to my process, so it could be more of a visceral and cathartic experience. That’s what I loved about punk music—it was about being messy. In a mess or in chaos, there’s real beauty, and it’s just a distillation of pure emotion—that’s what I’m trying to maintain when I’m making music.
What do you think you were able to accomplish on this record that you haven’t been able to with previous work?
With Okovi, I needed this music personally, whereas before, I wrote songs because I love to write. I’m still always writing, but there are times when I need to get things out with music, and times when I don’t. For this record, I desperately needed to get things out. So I felt like I was able to use it as a tool to explore the chaos and to forge through it and make sense of it, rather than whatever the other option is.
Going crazy? That seems like the alternative to getting things out. Music is your form of release.
Yeah. Take “Witness” for example—I wrote that song while I was stranded at a cabin. I was doing this writing retreat where I’d go to a cabin and I wasn’t able to leave, didn’t have a car. So I was stuck in this cabin and I got a call from someone that told me that a mutual friend had attempted suicide. I care very much about this person, so it was extremely horrific to feel so powerless that I couldn’t be there for them. So I wrote a song, which was really just a means to work through their trauma and to try to reach out to them at a time when I couldn’t physically be there.
Is it hard sharing your music when it comes from such a personal place?
Yeah it’s just—it’s the kind of record I can’t think about strangers hearing because it’s so personal, and it was written from such a dark moment in my life. Writing it was useful for me because it was my way of working through things. But it wasn’t necessarily written for public consumption.
Does that make it difficult to perform the songs? Like you have to return to that dark space every time you play?
Some of the songs are really awkward to sing live because they’re about people or specific situations which, to me, feel very literal when I’m singing about them—it feels like reading from a diary.
That’s a lot of people’s worst nightmare.
But I think, at some point, you have to figure out how to emotionally deal with that. I haven’t performed the songs enough yet where I’m able to create that partition, but eventually, you get some distance and you have to learn to move on.
But even just releasing the songs, and then having to do interviews and tell people all about them—it’s almost like you’re letting the world into a scrapbook of your traumatic experiences. That must be really strange, and difficult.
It’s one thing to be a musician—you kind of relinquish a lot of yourself and your privacy. I’ve lost control of so much anonymity that I wish I still had. But that’s just part of it—you give yourself. That’s the whole point of being an artist—becoming completely vulnerable.
I’m a huge true crime fan and I know one of the songs on the record, “Soak,” is written from the perspective of a serial killer’s victim. What made you decide to take on that role?
The thing with serial killers is—when someone’s not into True Crime or not into learning about the stories of horrific crimes, they don’t understand why you’d be interested in that kind of stuff. They think it’s macabre or exploitative. But it’s really just a defense mechanism. My whole life I’ve struggled with a debilitating anxiety disorder, so the more that I know about all the ways in which humans can be evil, and all the ways in which I could be threatened, the more protected I feel because I’m more prepared. I’m constantly doing thought experiments and constantly putting myself in the mind of someone that’s in danger because, for me, it’s a way to train myself. A lot of “Soak” and putting myself into the mind of victims—it’s just another thought experiment. I’m preparing myself if that ever happens to me, I can handle it more. 90% of my interest in darkness is just a way for me to mentally or emotionally work through things before I get there.
You have this specific aesthetic when it comes to your style and the way your album covers look, and then you have a song about serial killers’ victims—do you ever feel like people think, ‘Oh she’s the dark singer.’ Like, you couldn’t write in a different way because people have come to expect a certain thing from you?
I think that’s why I wrote Taiga—because it was like, I can still make music that isn’t completely embroiled in trauma or sadness. To me, it was much more extroverted because I wanted to prove to myself that I’m not just a dark person. We’re all very multidimensional, so it’s hard, because my music is a concentration of my fears and a way for me to work through things—it’s therapeutic. So I’m usually going through the darker edges of myself. But I’ve been doing this long enough where I’m kind of desensitized when it comes to pigeonholing—if people listen to my music and like it, you can call it whatever you want.
What does Okovi mean?
Okovi is a Slavic word for shackles. I chose it because it unites different parts of myself as a Slovenian, Russian, Ukrainian person, and it also is one of the few things that binds all of us together—no matter our race, gender, ethnicity, we’re all bound by something. We’re all prisoners to life or death. And that’s what I felt like the record was about—what I had in common with everyone around me this year—sadness, and feeling like we were prisoners to one thing or another.
In a way, writing a record is a document of that experience. But it’s also a way to sort of break free from it.
In a sense—but I think a lot of it is trying to find transcendence. I’ve found that transcendence—and true happiness—can only be found in the depths of pain, so I’m trying to embrace my suffering and difficulty in life because everything is a spectrum—you can only feel immense joy if you’ve felt immense pain. So I’ve always tried to embrace feeling and emotion in life, what life hands you. But this past year, I’ve had to remind myself that suffering is just another experience you have to go through especially if you want to feel happy.
Do you think being totally isolated in the middle of the woods played any part in your suffering, or at least, your writing?
I feel very liberated in isolation—it doesn’t work against me, it works for me. So living where I live, and being able to write here—I was able to tap into myself on a deeper level and be less concerned about the world and who’s gonna hear the music. It was so much more pure than when I wrote records living in cities and I could feel the energy of other people—that always made me really self-aware of what I was doing, and that’s a detriment to music, or any art for me.
What was the hardest part about making the record? In the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned that when you started, you hated what you were writing and that was the impetus to move and start over. How’d you get out of that initial rut?
Making music, for me, is masochistic—I always say touring is physically exhausting, but writing takes a toll emotionally. I go through so much inner turmoil and self-criticism that it’s never an easy experience. But this one was particularly hard—almost every step of the way, I didn’t feel like I had anything. Then when I stepped back and looked at what I was writing, I just kept pushing myself to do more, even if I didn’t like it. So when I was finally able to see that there was actually something there, and that the album was created through the journey—it wasn’t until I was able to step back and look at it as a whole that I realized it was done.
So what’s been harder—the process of writing it, or having to let people into such personal thoughts?
So far, it’s been pretty positive feedback. But even if I were to get a negative response to any of these songs—I just don’t think I’d respond. Making it was just so, so intense. But so necessary for me—it was food. And it’s at a point, where if anybody wants to criticize it, they just don’t have that power. It’s not about whether it’s good or bad, it’s just about what it was for me—and it’s so much more than whether or not people like it.
Editing & Sound Design: SKS Studios
Coloring: Nice Shoes
Words: Zola Jesus