I saw Zola Jesus perform at a music festival. Her music is not well served playing to a semi-indifferent crowd in the middle of a muddy field at two in the afternoon. At least it was drizzling slightly. But if I was semi-indifferent myself at the start of her set, I was all in by the end of it. Despite unconducive circumstances, it’s hard not to be blown away by that voice. The ice-goth aesthetic doesn’t hurt either, but it’s all about the voice. It’s music for long nights in dark places. I can’t help thinking it’s no coincidence she comes from places where the winter and the nights are long, the land of the ice and snow, if you will. A Wisconsinite of Russian descent, she knows about the long cold dark hours of the soul. Nothing comforts the wintry spirit like some otherworldly wailing, that’s for sure.
Here’s an artist you should start getting to know: Zola Jesus. Hers is both an unusual story and yet a very thoroughly modern one. To make it short and sweet, she’s a child of Russian emigres, born Nika Danilova, raised in small-town Wisconsin, who started her musical career making tapes in her bedroom and posting them on the internet. She built an audience of fans who were entranced by her otherworldly voice and ice-witch aesthetic. She’s made five albums and still lives in Wisconsin. That’s a modern-day, internet-age ascent to… not exactly fame, but the kind of niche success that outlasts mere celebrity and allows for decades of artistic growth. In pre-internet times, weirdo artists had to built their weirdo careers by locating themselves in the kind of cultural centers where weird-taste having people gather, playing and touring incessantly, and hoping for a write-up in one of a handful of influential publications. Nowadays you can do those things without leaving the comfort of your home. Word of mouth is still word of mouth, though, and self-promotion is still work, so I’m not saying that bedroom artists who make it out of their bedrooms are less deserving of acclaim. It’s just that they’re less likely to die trying. Kids these days can just network and self-promote without having to step in bigger stars’ vomit in the back hallway of the CBGB.