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Nika Roza Danilova, better known as the darkly atmospheric goth-pop musician Zola Jesus, lives on 150 acres of breathtaking wooded forest in her native Wisconsin. But she doesn’t do this for purposes of mystique or elusiveness. Danilova moved back to the land simply for her pets, Nadja (a German Shepherd) and Kosha (a barn cat). Because without them, she feels incomplete.
“They’re my companions. I talk to them all day long,” she says. “They provide me so much comfort through hard times and through fun times.” They were also there during the making of her latest album, Arkhon (Greek for “ruler”), a stunning journey from the avant-garde to gutting ballads that navigate the often-arduous human experience. We spoke with Danilova about how her pets, at times loving and hilarious, are essential in counterbalancing the weightiness of her work.
Usually there are dog people, and there are cat people. I kind of love that you are both.
I could get into this, but I feel like the true unity is having a female dog and a male cat. That’s, like, the best combination of all the pets. The cat, the feline, is a very feminine animal, and the dog is a very masculine one. So I like to flip that. I think it evens out all the yin-yang energy.
Do they get along? What’s their chemistry like?
I got Kosha first and then Nadia. Introducing them was a challenge. I was very, very worried because I’ve heard that German Shepherds can be really predatory with cats. I was very careful, but now they’re like… I wouldn’t say best buds, but they love each other. They’re definitely roommates that chill together, which is pretty cute.
In which ways does being in nature around animals inspire you and make you a better musician?
Well, it really allows me to just connect to my most relaxed state of being. I grew up in the woods and being in nature is very restorative. The sort of the anxieties of society are not present in the woods. Pets have always been a huge part of my life. When I started making music and touring a lot, I felt like, “Oh, I can’t have pets, because I’m always traveling.” That was a big reason I moved back to Wisconsin. I was living in LA, and for a while, in Seattle. I now live on the land where I grew up, so my parents, who have four dogs, could take care of my animals when I was gone.
I’m guessing your cat is also an outdoor cat?
He demands it! He would not shut up until I let him go outside. So I got him a little whistle, because I was so afraid of him running off. That’s how I got him: He was found just near a creek somewhere random. But he just kind of sticks around the house.
I’m guessing when the predatory instinct kicks in, he wants to exorcise that demon in the woods.
I don’t support it, but he is a killer, you know, and he will kill for no reason other than the pure joy of killing. So he’s a real sick man. [laughs]
You are around countless wild critters and creatures. What do Kosha and Nadia like to chase?
Oh man, everything! I mean, turkeys are a big one. When they’re around, everyone’s all excited. Kosh is into birds as well. Squirrels. These little tiny mice — they’re called voles. That’s like Kosh’s snack. It’s really, really sick. It’s a sick life that he lives! Nadia will chase after deer and bark at them if she sees them. Yeah, there’s always something out the window [laughs].
Do you let them hang out when you’re making music?
It’s actually kind of frustrating, because they’re not very patient with my singing. If I start singing, Nadia will start howling and then Kosha will start meowing. Nadia once wanted to go outside while I was working on a song, and she got so excited when she saw something out the window that she knocked over my monitors — my speakers — and broke them! Sometimes it’s even hard to practice opera [Danilova is a classically trained opera singer] or play piano. They don’t like it. They think I’m in pain or something.They both take up a lot of space in my house, energetically, which is always funny.
What inspired Arkhon?
I was more inspired by this mystical Christian group called the Gnostics. Well, they’re not necessarily Christian, but they thought the Arkons were these malevolent forces that were leading humanity astray from their intended goodwill. I feel like we’re living in times that are being driven by the Arkons, these invisible rulers that are lording over us and turning us to towards evil.
That’s interesting. I would say some of your songs almost sound like ballads.
Songs end up taking a certain tempo. I think I ended up writing more ballads, because that just comes more naturally to me. That tempo works for my words, my body, my mind, and everything in my heart.
I really do love how you’ll have these otherworldy pictures of yourself in the woods on Instagram, and Nadia will be there with her tongue hanging out, totally smiling.
[Laughs] She is there, wherever I am — with her tongue hanging out, all excited. It’s really funny, because I would have her in every photo if I could, but she never looks at the camera! She’s looking at me.
It says a lot about how she’s very connected to you. Do either Kosha or Nadia ever find their ways into your songs?
I had a vocal take on one of my songs where, at the end, Nadia was barking. But I think it ended up getting cut. But yeah, they do end up making it into recordings for no other reason than they won’t stop making noise when I’m recording. They just give me so much love and security that they definitely inspire me in many ways, but not directly in my lyrics. A song like “Desire,” which is one of my singles, is about feeling really supported. There’s a song, “Into the Wild,” which tries to capture a moment of being outside in the woods in winter while having a panic attack. Basically, just feeling the safety of knowing that it is going to be okay.
Did your pets ease your mental health, in particular, during the pandemic?
1,000% — such a game-changer! I cannot live without having relationships with animals like that. It’s so easy to get caught up in things that don’t matter. But like, when you have to take care of a dog… Nadia needs to go out no matter what’s going on in your life. You gotta go throw a stick for her. She needs her sticks! She needs her rocks. You know what I mean? They’re both such grounding presences. The dog and cat have been domesticated to be companions of humans for a reason: They provide us a lot of things that humans just can’t.
“She’s been to my shows where I was trying to focus on my witchy mood, but I also wanted to just laugh because she was doing her head tilt.”
“He’s my support system when I’m making a beat. He’s kind of like my A&R — he listens to all my music and tells me if it’s good or not.”
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Nisha Gopalan has been a writer/editor for The New York Times, New York magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and NYLON magazines. She currently resides in Los Angeles.