A nymph, a specter, a diva. Though these could all be used to describe Zola Jesus, hers is a presence one can only really experience firsthand. Barely breaking a height of five feet, she may be missed offstage, but when she pranced onstage to start her set at San Francisco’s The Independent, all eyes were immediately captivated. As a venue, The Independent is different than any other I’ve experienced in San Francisco. The acts it bills are small, and the crowd may be even smaller, but there is still a sense that these are the fans following the most avant-garde music in the scene.
Zola Jesus is an example of this. She endeavors to represent art through her life and her music — a philosophy called Situationism. From her method of dressing in a white, flowing sheath that trails at her every move and reflects the lights that compose her show, to her erratic dancing and the way she reaches out to the crowd during moments of passionate reverie, she has meticulously contemplated every aspect of her image and her performance, allowing it to grow and evolve as she herself matures and changes. At the age of 22, she possesses an ambitious, creative drive, having already produced three EPs and three studio albums, including her latest release, Conatus. Deeply influenced by existentialist and aesthetic philosophy, the themes and the sound of her music are layered, at once penetrating our deepest, most harrowing feelings as human beings, while also representing the way that beauty can emerge despite this.
Zola started her set with “Avalanche” and “Hikikomori”, two standout tracks from Conatus. She immediately impressed the crowd with the way her voice catapults outward from her lithe frame. She was the physical depiction of a dove, of delicate deliverance, paired with the strength of determination and purpose fixated in her sound. She was able to take these inspired, empowering tracks and then move easily to the fourth song of the set, “Collapse”, which she started crouched on the ground like a wounded child. She looked like a ghost, troubled, wracking back and forth, the physical depiction of her song’s meaning. And this is what Zola Jesus has mastered with her music and indeed what she means by making her life “art”; her lyrics are just words until they become articulated through every movement of her performance. She has a rather unsettling effect at times, as you can tell that her art and her music are her life, just as the motivations and experiences of her life become infused in her art; she feels it so deeply that even during her performance her eyes traverse from evidencing true emotional pain to becoming almost glazed over, as if she’s in her own world. Her goal is to take us there, to this world she visualizes and yearns to create. In this way, her image and her music are about the future, the impossible, the dreamt, rather than the present.
The set’s eighth song, “Seekir”, is perhaps the most accessible song she has produced. It integrates fervent electronic beats with Zola’s eruptive, feminine roar. The set’s ending song, “Vessel”, was a highlight; featuring a heavy electronic beat, it was the best song of the night, with precise and deliberate attention to the instrumentals. At the end of the song, she and the band expended all remaining energy, with Zola dancing like a possessed being and the band’s instruments collectively culminating into an indecipherable climax.
What makes Zola most interesting, even more than the unique music she produces, is who she is, where she came from, what she believes — and these influences are exerted, unbridled, in her sound. Even with three LPs behind her, Zola still has just a small, selective fan base. Though her fans in no way lack devotion, Zola still has a long way to go to achieve the sort of fame and influence she is capable of. She possesses no shortage of creative or intellectual potential, making her career a promising and intriguing one to follow.
In Your Nature
Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake
Run Me Out