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- Posted on Mar 11th 2010 9:30AM by Sydnie Taylor
Describe your sound in your own words.
I try to create songs that are really massive and intense, but at the same time remaining honest and raw. I love the feeling when you hear a song that is so overwhelming and powerful it makes your veins hurt. I'd like to write one of those songs one day. I keep the lyrics simple, no nonsense. I've always enjoyed the way old folk songs say what they need to say without becoming convoluted or ostentatious. Just words of wisdom straight from the heart of a little midwestern girl.
What is the story behind your name?
I was in high school, and I really liked Emile Zola at the time. And Jesus, why not Jesus?
At what age did you start performing?
I started performing opera when I was 10 years old. I didn't perform as Zola Jesus until I was probably 18. It took me a long time to feel comfortable with putting myself out there on stage again. I faced a lot of anxiety and self-criticism while studying opera, and after awhile I just couldn't handle it anymore. I would too often lose my voice before performances due to anxiety, and was so hard on myself. I would beat myself up about any imperfections or flaws in my voice. I was such a perfectionist, and my voice was still so young so it couldn't do everything I wanted it to, and I resented myself for that. But since performing as Zola Jesus it's been getting easier.
What is the greatest benefit of being a solo performer vs. being part of a group?
The greatest benefit of being a solo performer is that it is seriously frightening, but at the same time very empowering. It's just you and the audience. All the weight is on you to deliver the songs. It's like when you're driving down the freeway and you think to yourself ,"I could jerk the wheel right now and drive off the road if I wanted." It's that personal freedom of knowing you can kill yourself at any moment, but every moment you stay alive you're accomplishing something bigger than yourself. Those sets where I play alone are like choosing to stay alive no matter how terrifying it is. Totally cathartic experience.
Having a band is really satisfying in its own right because you have the opportunity of witnessing your songs take on a new life in different hands. My live band is so brilliantly talented; and they play my songs through themselves and not through me, and that's really exciting to see. That brings much more human energy in the songs, too.
What are your musical influences?
Singers with big voices, like Diamanda Galas and Tina Turner. Divas. Film scores from the '70s and '80s. Industrial and power electronics. BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Opera, Philip K. Dick.
To date, what is your greatest musical accomplishment?
Everything so far has been a huge accomplishment. I am so proud of having battled whatever I had to in order to push myself into my passion. I am so thankful for all the opportunities I've been given, and I just want to be able to do this forever.
What is your musical guilty pleasure?
There are no guilty pleasures, only guilty people! I listen to anything that stands out. I guess something people wouldn't expect me to listen to are artists like Alicia Keys. But she is so incredibly talented. She has this huge voice and great work ethic, which I really respect in an artist. She is also very humble and gracious and devoted to her skill.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
I remember being way into James Lipton in high school.
What is your favorite venue you've ever played, and why?
I suppose I'd have to say Empty Bottle in Chicago. I've played there the most and have always had good sound. The people there are always really supportive and enthusiastic, too.
What is your biggest vice?
Chocolate. I can't go a day without it. It is really severe.
Who is your all-time favorite musical performer or composer?
The Residents. Their catalogue is one of the few of any artist where I never know what to expect with each album. [They're] constantly changing and experimenting in their art, as any great performer should. As far as a composer, I'd have to say Karlheinz Stockhausen -- absolutely out of control brilliant.
Have you played SXSW before?
Yes, I played a couple shows last year.
Any expectations for SXSW this year?
I'm trying not to have any. But because I'm at university and haven't been able to go on tour, I feel like this is going to be my opportunity to play for a lot of different people all at once. I'm really excited.
Anything specific you are looking forward to this year at SXSW?
Seeing a lot of old friends, running around the city, and trying to make myself as busy and productive as possible while I'm down there!
What's in your festival survival kit?
Patience! And nauseating amounts of perfume.
What is the craziest thing you have seen or experienced while on tour?
I have experienced a lot of strange fans, albeit very loyal and supportive.
Sydnie Taylor is a contributor from Seed.com. Learn how you can contribute here.