A little over halfway through her performance at the Black Cat on Thursday, the petite Nika Roza Danilova climbed a mountain of speakers to her left and lounged upon the very top of them like a cat watching down from somewhere high as she continued to sing.
The song she was singing was “Lawless,” which starts as a slowly drifting number marked by its percussion until it erupts into a soaring chorus about making it on your own.
Of course Ms. Danilova is better known as Zola Jesus, she typically quickly and rather inaccurately labeled “goth” or “gloompop,” and of course she’s known for having a good stage presence. But seeing is believing, and Zola Jesus throws herself, literally, into her songs as she sweeps across the stage, disappears into an interpretive dance or climbs speakers to sit, cat-like, along the ceiling.
Her next song “Nail” is also from her new album, Taiga (released October 2014), and a damn fine album it is. After “Lawless,” she progressed into new song “Nail,” which she begins with a light a capella opening, sans microphone. It was amazing to hear as it became clearer (which took a moment for me as the audience Thursday night was just loud and rude — what the hell, guys?) It’s a song about being trapped, pinned if you will, and Danilova’s plaintive voice really delivers the song, conveying a yearning for freedom.
She sticks to the wonderful new album, and two songs later she’s into “Hollow,” a song about emptiness, which builds up and up in typical Zola Jesus fashion. When the song is launching into a crescendo toward the end, Danilova stands starkly in the middle of a stage and her arms arch and twitch upward as if she’s signifying a launch, or perhaps the growth of a tree.
She could have stuck to the new album all night and made me happy, but she did acknowledge the best of her previous efforts, closing her set with “Night” from second album Stridulum II, which quite put her on the map for many folks, and visiting third album Conatus in the encore with the selections “Skin” and “Vessel.”
Just as Zola Jesus defies expectations, so does her band. She comes accompanied by a drummer, synthplayer and – trombonist? Seriously, trombonist Daniel Eaton adds both majesty and melody in a manner no other instrumentalist could have for many of the new compositions. He leaves his mark in numbers such as opener “Taiga,” which begins solemnly enough before tumbling into an EDM whirlwind punctuated by brass.
This was my first time seeing Zola Jesus, and I’m eager to see her again. But goth? Gloompop? Melancholy perhaps! but occasionally uplifting and always introspective. And much more trip hop or orchestral in her approach to music than any “goth music” I’ve ever heard. She’s been to DC a number of times, most recently to perform an artistic show at the Hirshhorn Museum in October (a show she hailed as a tremendous opportunity and great experience from the stage Thursday), so hopefully she’ll return soon.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see her sooner than I, although her U.S. tour ends in about a week. Between now and then, she’s in Durham, NC, tonight and down along the Gulf Coast through Texas, Las Vegas and on to Santa Ana, Calif. Then she’s in Europe for a few months!
Whatever you do, don’t miss her when she performs near you.