This is a story about a Welsh witch. Her name was Bonnie. She wafted and roared her way through the pop charts of yore, searching for a lost hero, under the cover of darkness. She sang of doomed teenage love and, despite a touch of Wagnerian pomp, boy could she sing. Sadly time passed and this bouffant vixen’s love of theatre turned into campy nostalgia.
What does this have to do with Zola Jesus, the stage name of Nika Roza Danilova, you ask? Watching her magnificent performance last night was both spiritually cleansing and a touch duff. Just like our Bonnie.
The show, at the relatively unknown Toynbee Studios, was a calculated risk – an all-seated set-up within a community theatre. The music she creates is an art form but at times in performance it almost lapsed into pantomime, like watching the Asian girl from Donnie Darko doing her talent show segment, only even more earnest. While she admitted to being nervous, she treated the rapt hall to a set of tracks from both this year’s Conatus and last year’s superb Stridulum. Both albums feature titles relating to the world of psychology and the self, and while she’s certainly self-obsessed there is no arrogance. Instead, with her new album released on the day of the show, she displays a new found confidence.
Danilova’s voice was perfectly placed within the elegiac thunder of her percussive numbers. Her work over the years both as a solo artist and her collaborations with assorted fierce innovators – most recently on M83‘s new album – has strengthened her vocals and, despite her tiny frame, she commands the attention of all around her. Her backing band are not session musicians but friends, and you get a sense they are there as much for moral support as for their musical prowess.
Her performance of Sea Talk, from Stridulum, was a highlight. As she crouched at the front of the stage, all necks were arched in mawkish fascination as Danilova seemed to dissolve away with every line she sang. The newer tracks sounded cleaner and more heartfelt than previous efforts; Vessel’s propulsive beats had heads nodding. Coming towards the end of the evening, the popular Night drew the biggest crowd reaction but seemed to drain some of her power and, during the final number, she seemed to experience a moment of panic and ran off stage, followed sharply by her band. An unexpected encore was a rare treat.
It’s hard to say how much longer she’ll be lumped in with the goth/witch house tags that have dogged her in the past. She’s getting poppier and more refined, and tonight her voice often drowned out the industrial sounds around it. There’s no denying that Danilova lives for the music she makes; she certainly feels it. Watching her stalk the stage and come crashing to her knees with defiant resignation, repeating her pleas for forgiveness and love, is like watching an exorcism of personal demons. That she goes through such pain every night is a revelation. This girl doesn’t fake it.