Zola Jesus, so deep yet somehow simple

Zola Jesus performed Friday night at Union Transfer with electric violin, keyboardist, and drummer.
Zola Jesus performed Friday night at Union Transfer with electric violin, keyboardist, and drummer. (ANGEL CEBALLOS)
Posted: February 20, 2012

The press on Zola Jesus makes her out to be quite the complex being.

The 22-year-old Wisconsin-raised Russian American singer/songwriter born Nika Roza Danilova studied opera during her childhood, considered herself a student of philosophy and Situationism, was a high school fan of challenging avant-garde female artists (Diamanda Galás, Lydia Lunch) and titled her latest album, Conatus, Latin for "endeavor."

That Danilova's stage name is a mashup of Emile Zola and Jesus Christ certainly tells you something about her dualities before you've even listened to her EPs and albums. Yet for a multifaceted artist with such labyrinthine tastes, Zola Jesus made it all sound so simple during her Friday night performance at Union Transfer.

The platinum blond vocalist was surrounded by faux-fog with little else but backlighting to halo her tiny loosely clothed frame. That alone seemed to state that she was there for serious business, to show off a clarion-clear and booming voice and a lyrical éclat engulfed in rage and shame.

"I feel my hold on the ground / Take me under / Take me down," announced Jesus during "Poor Animal." She continued sadly but confidently: "I am bold but I don't matter / What my name is / Where I rise / It's the same when I leave and when I arrive / I'm not allowed to feel all right."

Accompanied by a sturdy band - an electric violinist, a keyboardist heavy on the steely synths, a drummer with nothing but tom-toms and cymbals - Zola Jesus' sound wasn't exactly spare, but it was coldly Euro-romantic in a manner reminiscent of Depeche Mode at its starkest. With gear-shifting noise behind her, Jesus turned "Shivers," a lonely tale of going to war, into a soft industrial shuffle. The vibrant whine of a violin helped make "Night" a chilly one.

For all the layered synthesizers, hammered drums, and hollered vocals, it was the stripped-down moodiness of "Skin," with Jesus accompanying herself on piano, that was the night's shining moment. "Safety net, don't hold me now / In this hole I've fallen down," sang Jesus with a single spotlight shining upon her.

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