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Yes, the government shutdown forced the Hirshhorn to cancel last year’s scheduled Zola Jesus performance. But the operatically trained artist doesn’t let something like the Congress going off the rails cramp her style. She drops a new record within a year and doubles back to the museum to perform from that one, instead. Tomorrow, the Hirshhorn will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a Zola Jesus show (with brass!) at After Hours and the opening of “Days of Endless Time” and “At the Hub of Things: New Views of the Collection.”
Nika Roza Danilova (aka Zola Jesus) grew up in Wisconsin and started performing as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she hosted an experimental music show on the campus radio station. “Nika draws from so many influences in her music—-film, visual art, fashion—-and she is so good at weaving all these elements together, which is what I think makes for a powerful live experience at an art museum.” Hirshhorn Program Manager Kevin Hull wrote in an email.
You could call Taiga the Zola Jesus pop record, but her songs’ electronic DNA is still there, as are her canyon-filling vocals. Despite Danilova’s deliberate abstraction, her music still drops some heavy emotion. She chatted with Arts Desk about integrating art and fashion into her music and why the Hirshhorn is a perfect place to play.
What will your Hirshhorn setup be like? Are you going to have a quartet with you, like you did at the Guggenheim ? I was going to initially when the show was first booked last year. Since my new record is coming out…I will be doing my record release show at the Hirshhorn, which will be with a brass ensemble.
Are you living the life you envisioned for yourself? I think so, yeah. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always made music and, yeah, this is my passion. I’m happy and very grateful that I get to do it for a living.
What compels you to make music, even though your work intersects with art and fashion? Well, I definitely define myself as a musician because that’s been my passion ever since I was very little. I’m not trained in visual arts; I’m not trained in dance. I’m not trained in anything else but…music is the thing that comes most naturally to me. It’s the nucleus. And everything that happens around it just supports the music. The visual world is just helping to communicate what I’m trying to say with the music.
I’m curious about your songwriting process. Do you start with lyrics or the melody? Is a piano involved nowadays? It depends. Sometimes I’ll be sitting down with my computer making a beat and then the vocals will come from there. Or I’ll build layers. Or I’ll sit down on piano first. Or I’ll just be walking around or a song will come to me a cappella, which is mostly what happened this record, and then I’ll have to figure out how to fit other instruments in there.
Are more museum shows in your future, or other interesting venues? I hope so. It’s kind of the goal. That’s why I’m so excited about the Hirshhorn show. It’s because that’s the ideal environment to play. It’s an amazing building. It’s Brutalist. It reflects already the environment that the music lives in, and so I feel like I have to do less in terms of stage production because I feel like the architecture already speaks so much. And I really love performing in places like that. So, I hope to. But I think on this tour, the Hirshhorn is a real special place.
Photo by Julia Comita, courtesy of the Hirshhorn