I distinctly remember my first experience with Zola Jesus. She was a side effect of my obsession with trying to see every Canadian band. It was July of 2010, and I was set to enjoy Wolf Parade, not knowing that they would be splitting not long later. Zola Jesus was the first of two support acts, and a most surprising one before a rock band. Zola Jesus, the nom de plumb of Nika Roza Danilova, was the most unassuming frontperson. She was backed by a pair of synth players, and simply stood their and let her voice handle all of her performance duties. It was fantastic and beautiful, and very brave. I enjoyed the set immensely, and, somehow, forgot about her a few months later.
Fast forward to three years later. She releases a record called Versions. This record features re-arrangements of tracks of earlier albums for string quartet. The arrangements were done by JG Thirwell, a pioneer of industrial music that goes by Foetus at his day job. The strings were played by the amazing New York based Mivos Quartet. It’s a beautiful and powerful album, and when I saw that they were touring it, I decided that this was a mandatory performance.
Palace Of Fine Arts of one of the most perfect venues in San Francisco. It’s on a beautiful part of town, one of the few spaces with parking (!), and is both acoustically perfect, and there isn’t a single bad seat in the house. The stage set was amazingly sparse: There were four stools with sheet music on stage for Magik*Magik String Quartet. (Sadly, Mivos Quartet were unable to make the trip west, so they called upon San Francisco’s go to indie rock string players to fill in the void) In the middle of the quartet, there was a laptop and a baton set up. There were no props. There was hardly any stage lights, even. The sparsity of the staging was, however, the perfect companion to the performance we were about to enjoy.
The music started out subtle. Thirwell put on a pair of headphones and picked up his baton. The string players sat down, and Zola Jesus was center stage. They opened with “Avalanche,” a track of the 2010 record Conatus that was rearranged for Versions. However, this was not the rearrangement for the record, but a new string arrangement of the track. Thirwell was pulling double duty by both conducting the ensemble and triggering beats from his laptop. He was, essentially, a one man rhythm machine without physically hitting a single drum.
The hour long set took us on a wonderful journey. It was, essentially, an evening of 21st Century Chamber music, bringing in subtle elements of electronic and pop music, while the sound still centered around the string quartet. The electronic rhythm tracks would gradually increase in intensity throughout the set, with the most intense beats in the middle of the set, and then slowly calming down. Her voice is a one of the most potent devices in popular music. She has the soul of Siouxsie Sioux and Tori Amos, with a tenderness that neither of them can quite reach. Zola Jesus is a force to be reckoned with in the current musical landscape, and has been sorely missing for a while.