Zola Jesus

In conversation with Anca Macavei.

“As a forest dweller I feel more magickal, more natural, more connected. And that is more important to me than anything ephemeral a society could provide.” Visions in the dark of musician Zola Jesus, photographed on film by Jenni Hensler, interview by Anca Macavei.

You once asked rhetorically in an interview: “What does it mean to be alive? Is it a curse or a gift?”. I am wondering how would you answer this question.

I struggle to decide on either side of the coin. I think it’s a bit of both. It’s a curse because of the insurmountable yet insignificant responsibility of essentially strengthening or propagating our species. But being alive can feel so strange and bizarre and beautiful and intense… that is the gift. Sometimes I feel like that is my payment for being a human, to be able to feel and experience existence in such a vivid way.

Your Instagram description reads “Forest dweller” among others. This is also a concept in Hindu traditions, “Vanaprastha”, representing the third of four stages of the human life, meaning “giving up worldly life”, a transition phase from the emphasis on wealth, security, pleasure and sexual pursuits to one more connected to a spiritual liberation. In which way are you relating to that?

I grew up in the woods, so it’s very much where my feeling of “home” is rooted. However, my decision to come back to living in the country after living in the city was made very intuitively. When I was young I was desperate to leave and never return. But living in the city was hard. It felt unnatural to me. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t hear myself through the constant static of everyone around me. I lived the city life and threw myself into society long enough to put a brave foot on the ground. Since moving back to the woods, not only can I hear myself again, but the voice is getting louder and wilder. As a “forest dweller” I feel more magickal, more natural, more connected. And that is more important to me than anything ephemeral a society could provide.

In 2017 you moved back to your seedtime of the soul, your childhood place in Wisconsin, where you built yourself a home on your family’s property. A “return to my roots and to several personal traumas”, as you stated. Was it a Freudian drive that brought you back there, were you feeling somehow imprisoned by unfinished circumstances from the past – following the law of closure?

The reasons are more practical, unfortunately. Initially, I was looking for land in Seattle, but it was way too expensive. So, my parents offered to let me build on their land. It was also a benefit for them to live so close, since I travel so much. It would be easy for them to look after my house and my pets. Also, I was able to spend more time with my family. When I’m home, I either want to be alone or with people I truly care about and love. It all just made sense.

What do you personally consider to be the most incisive moments in your life and artistic career?

BIG QUESTION! I don’t know how to even answer that. But I guess, any moment where I could feel myself grow, or change. Those are the memories I hold on to. I constantly feel like I am changing, or transforming in slow motion… but there are sharper moments where I feel like I’m being propelled through at high speed, and then I have to spend twice as long just catching up to what just happened. I love those moments. They are exciting. If not scary.

The portraits series that we are hereby presenting, photographed by your friend and collaborator Jenni Hensler, has a very strong intimate feeling but also a rather structured/prepared approach, with a fashion twist. How did these pictures come to life?

It was a really intuitive process. Jenni had a camera she’d been wanting to use, and we’d be wanting to collaborate with our friend, makeup artist Jenny Atwood-Smith, so we just got together and really let ideas flow. It all happened in good fun and curiosity. Working with Jenni Hensler has always been like that. We are connected in such an emotional or spiritual way. Barely any words are needed.

Your previous record Taiga (2014) sounds in some ways full of life, pervaded by a vital flow, while Okovi (2017) was a rather dark-themed album, vulnerable, tortured, contemplating on death, suicide, serial killers and a sense of overwhelming fear. Starting on this path of being drawn once again to the darker edges of music, what should we expect from your next release?

To be honest, it’s hard to say at this point. Though I’ve been working diligently on the next record, the inner voice hasn’t taken shape yet. It’s been a really chaotic couple years, so I’ve really just been watching the dust settle and digging through the fallout bit by bit.

As we mentioned, you are currently working on your new album, at what stage of the creative process is it?

I am currently writing it! I hope to have it out next year.

Zola Jesus

Zola Jesus / @zolajesus

Photography: Jenni Hensler / @jennihensler
Makeup/Hair: Jenny Atwood-Smith / @jennyatwoodsmith
Interview: Anca Macavei / @ancamacavei

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