Zola Jesus has her finger on the cultural pulse, if that's still possible these days. We're in a stimulating age of hyper-connectedness – of rapid, constant evolution. There’s no telling what each new day will bring in terms of that progress, and music can especially benefit from the crossbreeding and collaboration facilitated by our modern tools.
So like most musical acts worth watching out for in 2012, Zola Jesus, who goes by Nika Roza Danilova offstage, is both smart and trendy enough to defy classification. She was raised in an isolated area of Northern Wisconsin and trained as an opera singer for 10 years before stopping due to crippling performance anxiety. That's when she started experimenting with alternative forms of music.
The strength of Danilova's pervasive, haunting mezzo voice may have operatic roots, but nothing else about her does. In some ways, her music can be likened to urban scenery; she starts with haunting, ethereal soundscapes then builds cities of industrial synth-pop and movement-inducing bass. Finally, she adds the living bodies of a violinist and a drummer, and sings. Boy, does she sing.
The goth-industrial-rock-indie feel of Zola’s music fit right in at Lincoln Hall. Like the music itself, the interior was dark, polished and acoustically phenomenal. Most of the venue's light was provided by several cubes randomly placed onstage, emitting a soft blue glow. Some lighting was also synchronized with the music – flares of brightness on downbeats, for example – that heightened the already-phenomenal visual experience.
Despite the gripping music, Zola Jesus’ act was what truly won the crowd. She certainly quenched the audience’s thirst for crazy – about halfway through one of her songs, she began krumping, eliciting whoops and hollers from my fellow concert goers. At one point she jumped into the crowd and sang to small groups (I swear she looked at me a few times). She hijacked the drum set for half a song as well, pounding cymbals with a level of ferocity that was almost inappropriate.
Danilova's antics were acceptable because she's talented and damn cute. On Tuesday night she wore a cotton dress with leggings on her 4-foot-11 frame, and her shock of shaggy blonde hair covered her face endearingly as she sang. I was almost fooled into thinking she was shy several times, but then she’d catwalk up and down the tiny stage and my sympathy would turn to awe at her total badassery.
When I picked my tickets up for Zola Jesus at the Lincoln Hall will call, I was expecting a mellow, introspective kind of show from a notable new artist. What I got instead was a crazy platinum blonde pounding on drums and jamming with her audience. And if the obnoxious dude repeating “Hell yeah!” during and after every song was any indication of the performance’s overall reception, the crowd dug it.