While recording Okovi, her sixth album as Zola Jesus, Nika Roza Danilova was emotionally buried. There was the big-city noise of life in Seattle, which left her feeling cut off from nature; a close friend's suicide attempt; and both physical illness and death experienced by people close to her. Because of this, she calls the recording process an exercise in letting her emotional muscles work while her analytical side felt frozen in place by depression. The ghosts of her experience feel present in the album's DNA, from her haunted, opera-trained soprano to the dense instrumentation — equal parts electronic and orchestral.
To gain some distance from her emotional entanglements, Danilova turned to books. Given her proclivity for polysyllabic words, it comes as no surprise that the singer-songwriter is a voracious reader. But while recording her latest album, books became all the more important, as she looked for meaning and reason in her own struggle.
"Reading is a way to dip out of reality and sink into something outside yourself," Danilova explains from her new home in Wisconsin. "When I'm really depressed, I read nonfiction. It helps get me through darker moments just knowing that there's someone else that's sharing the sentiments of what I'm going through."
The books that kept Danilova company during the recording of Okovi had subjects as varied as nihilistic philosophy, a brokenhearted Japanese minor, and zombies (yes, zombies). Here's a sampling from her reading list.
Conspiracy Against the Human Race, by Thomas Ligotti
When I was writing Okovi, I was feeling very lost. Being an artist, you wonder what impact you're really serving in society. When I'm feeling that sort of existential grief, I turn to philosophy or nonfiction, trying to find other people who agree with me or who will challenge my thoughts.
A lot of the themes on the record have to do with legacy and other existential themes. In Ligotti's book, he grapples with the brick wall that we've reached as a species. It's extremely nihilistic and very depressing, but in some ways, I felt very vindicated by it. These [themes] are things that I've been thinking for so long. I was reading it on a plane and I almost did a "Yes!" out loud when he was talking about how human evolution is almost like devolution. It's almost like our incredible sense of self-analysis and consciousness is self-defeating. Reading that and knowing that other people have thought this as well, it felt very validating.
The Miner, by Natsume Soseki
I found this book at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. The thing that I love about it is that the protagonist is a very nihilistic, depressed young boy in a stupor. He just goes through life feeling like an empty vessel. At the same time, it's such a dynamic story. He flips. It's the inner journey of finding yourself and seeing the world. The world exists around you in one way, but how you perceive it can change. That's really all that matters: your perception of life and how it can completely change your sensory experience of the world.
I really felt my own emotions mirrored in this book. For better or worse, I see how my own development or lack thereof colored how the album turned out. I always think, Oh, man, if my perception of the world were different, would this album have been different? So much of making Okovi was about turning my brain off and letting the stupor work for me. It's so much about bringing the unspeakable or the unconscious outward. Sometimes you can't let the mind get in the way.