Arkhon, the title of Nika Roza Danilova’s sixth album as Zola Jesus, means ruler in Ancient Greek. It is also a relevant term in Gnosticism, a mystical sect of Christianity that the Slavic-American artist was drawn to during the making of the record; the Gnostics believed in the idea of “flawed gods” who gained power and influence by corrupting human civilization. For Danilova, who has become increasingly more vocal about the technocratic, exploitative systems that constrict modern society, its resonance is more pertinent than ever. The inspirations she cites for Arkhon – psychoanalytic texts, early civilizations, Egyptian deities, mystics and shamans – may seem too abstract and conceptual on the surface, but are all inextricably tied to the same sense of purpose: a desire to break free from the limitations of the material world and embrace a boundless, collective spirit.
Existential angst, fear, uncertainty: these are all forces that have crept into Danilova’s gothic art-pop in the past, particularly on 2017’s crushingly beautiful Okovi. On Arkhon, which emerged from a period of intense reckoning and growth, she channels them with a similar combination of empathy and conviction, but the struggles that pervade it feel personal as well as political, intimate and vast, urgent and ancient. The musician is known for transforming her sound with each release, but her latest, a collaboration with co-producer Randall Dunn and percussionist/drummer Matt Chamberlain, is one of the most gripping, fully-realized, and transcendent efforts of her career; a fearless dive into the unknown that never settles in one place. It makes liberation and healing sound less like a distant dream than goals worth pursuing, creating a space where no form of darkness is suppressed. It’s all connected, necessary, and profoundly, viscerally real.
We caught up with Nika Roza Danilova to talk about the inspirations behind her new Zola Jesus album, Arkhon. Read the interview and stream the record below.
The Red Book by C.G. Jung
When I turned 30, I bought myself a copy of The Red Book. I had just gone through a really difficult period of my life, just immense amount of growth in a short period of time, and a lot of change happened in my personal life. That forced me to have to confront a lot of the parts of myself that weren’t serving me or weren’t healthy for me, and in doing that, I really got interested in Jungian analysis and Carl Jung in general. The way he approaches the human mind – it makes sense to me because I grew up really loving my dreams. In fact, while I was an angsty teen, I would consider my dream life to be my, like, main life, and then my secondary life is the waking life. There’s something about dreams that’s so potent, and it feels like you’re really accessing other realms when you’re dreaming. Through all of that, I got really interested in Jungian analysis, but his mystical bent as well – I was very curious to learn more about that.
Do you tend to extract meaning from your own dreams in the same way now, or has reading his work changed how you see that world?
Yeah, definitely. Jung has a whole system for dream analysis that really is heavy on the use of intrinsic symbols – symbols that are not only not just universal symbols, but personal symbols. So every dream is so idiosyncratic and unique to the person dreaming it. Now I think about my dreams from a more symbolic standpoint than literal, and that’s been really interesting.
In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung described The Red Book as an attempt to find meaning in “an incessant stream of fantasies [that] had been released.” Does the creative process ever feel that way to you, or is that too much of an exaggeration?
No, not at all. I mean, that’s the way that I write. For me, writing, especially this record, it felt more like divination, where ideas would come to me – instead of trying to feign control over the ideas, I let them pass through me as this kind of unconscious flow of inspiration. And that was really interesting, because when you open yourself up to – I don’t know how to explain it, it’s so abstract, but when you open yourself up to the creative muse, there’s aspects of it that don’t make sense to you. And it can just feel like a delusion of confusing symbols or whatever, but becoming a conduit for the unconscious has been, for me, the most rewarding realization about the power of writing. Owning that process, of letting my unconscious write for me, in a way, and then to step back, and, instead of judging everything and being really analytical and trying to make everything perfect, instead honouring the inspiration and honouring the creative moment. Because sometimes, I feel like my unconscious knows more than my conscious mind does. I have to trust that my skills as a musician, as a conduit for this thing, are apt enough to be able to handle it and not question everything all the time. And that’s been just really liberating and empowering, to just let myself be more of a vessel for the music instead of trying to control it.
Perfect Blue (dir. Satoshi Kon)
It’s such a haunting dissection of the cycle of fame and the nature of identity, and I see some parallels with Arkhon in relation to the theme of individuality and freedom in a deeply exploitative system. How do you feel they’re connected?
Some of these inspirations are much more abstract than literal, because like I said, I wrote the record without my mind. [laughs] So these are the things that I was really interested in while making the record, and I’m not going to have extremely defined answers for everything. But for Perfect Blue, I just started watching a lot of anime, or more than I used to, throughout making this record. The way in which anime can explore visual fantasy in a way that’s really beautiful and creative and magical, that was really interesting to me. I was watching the movies of Satoshi Kon, Akira, but also Musashi, which is this very magical, very soothing anime show. And I thought that the music and the movies of Satoshi Kon, especially Perfect Blue, is just so good and was so inspiring to me – this aspect of being able to put all these disparate art forms together to create something that’s otherworldly and immersive, but still really emotional and psychological.
Ancient Civilizations: Gobekli Tepe/Tarim Mummies
Gobekli Tepe is one of the oldest archaeological excavations of an early civilization from like 10,000 years ago, and that was one of the places that I considered wanting to visit to make my music video [for ‘Lost’] – I ended up choosing Cappadocia. But there’s just something for me about the history of human civilization and everything that we’ve been through up until this point – the wars, the famine, the struggles, everything – and we have not only survived, but thrive through all of it. That gives me a lot of hope in the resilience of humanity as we face our current crises in the world, which seem overwhelming, at least to me at times. But knowing that civilization is so much older than we really give it credit for, and that we’ve lasted through so much strife in order to be here at this moment in 2022, that makes me feel infinite. And I love the idea of history being this thing that’s stacked on top of each other, that our past and our future and our present all kind of happen together. All these remains give us evidence of not only our resilience, but also the things that we’ve lost – there’s so much technology that I feel like wasn’t passed through humanity. And because of that, now we’re suffering in one way or another, and we have to relearn that.
Did you get to visit Gobekli Tepe when you went to film the music video in Cappadocia?
I did not. I was not able to go, but Mu [Tunc], the director of ‘Lost’ – we definitely have plans to go and get deeper into Turkey’s archaeological sites.
In terms of the Tarim mummies, is there any specific insight that you’d like to talk about?
Yeah, so the Tarim mummies, they were these really well-preserved mummies in China and Central Asia. They’re just really fascinating and mysterious. There’s a lot of questions about where they really originated, and they’re also, for me, a really interesting preservation of humanity’s uniqueness and the ways in which culture is preserved.
In regards to Scythians, again, a really interesting culture. And they relate to something that I talk about more at length, which is the religious traditions of that area and the shamanism, something I was really into when writing the album. I’m really inspired by shamanic healing from an indigenous level and historical level. There’s just so much knowledge there that we’ve lost because we don’t consider shamanic healing as a modality of medicine. And because of that, there’s so many psychic ailments that I think especially Westerners suffer from, and they don’t really have an antidote to. In other cultures, that’s something that the shaman provides, is this service of healing, and not just therapy – it’s more primal, more physical. It’s much more foundational healing that I wish that I had access to here in the West.
And there’s the shaman sickness, and the ways in which shamans have to live in between the society and this other realm because they do straddle very dark spaces. There’s this level of having to be kind of removed from society just for the sake of protecting the rest of the people. Scythians did practice shamanism, and that’s what was really interesting to me. And they also had a lot of female leaders and priestesses, and quite a few of those roles were also discovered as mummies. I just find them really interesting and beautiful.
You said that some of these inspirations are more abstract, but I know that music plays an important role in shamanism, and there’s a lineage of contemporary artists drawing from that tradition. Is that an aspect of it you were also interested in?
Definitely. I actually really identify with the shamanic modality of music, because they use drumming and percussion and chanting. Music is a huge part of shamanism, and that’s really fascinating to me. For me, I feel like when I engage in music, and when I feel really connected, there’s this trancelike state that I enter that does feel like I’m accessing other realms sometimes, to be so in tune to this flow. I think there’s something really magical and potent about music, and there’s actually an amazing book called Healing Songs by Ted Gioia, and it’s all about music as a healing modality.
Eastern European Folk Music
This is the one musical entry on the list, and it’s quite a broad one. How does it fit into your life, especially when compared to music from other regions or eras?
I mean, I have Eastern European heritage, so one of the big things about it is that when I heard Bulgarian folk singing, like the Bulgarian women’s choir, the way that they sing and the tone of their voices and the timbre of it, it really reminds me of my own voice, because I have kind of a very strident voice. The way that I naturally sing, that feels good for me to sing, kind of echoes this very ancestral type of singing, so I became really interested in it. I love the harmonies, I love the melodies that can be so heartbreaking. But mostly, what I love about Eastern European folk music is the choral stuff and the village songs, the songs that are sung amongst a group of old women who are, you know, processing grapes for wine or peeling potatoes or doing these chores around the house or the property, and they sing together to pass the time. I just love that because it reminds me of the instinctive use of singing, which is something that I do a lot, like I’ll catch myself singing and not realize it. And I’m usually singing things that are just coming off the top of my head. It’s such a self-soothing mechanism.
I just thought about how music is used throughout history and throughout cultures, and how music is such a tribalistic activity, much more than I think it’s considered now. But I just really appreciate the way that music serves a community in Eastern European folk traditions, and in many folk traditions. That was very inspiring to me, and especially because at the time, I wasn’t listening to a lot of contemporary music. For a period of writing Arkhon, I actually hated music. [laughs] Everything sounded the same to me. I was in such a depression that I just couldn’t pull myself out of it, and so I couldn’t appreciate any music except this type of music, because there was something about it that was so soothing and comforting for me to hear. It didn’t try to be anything. It just was, you know. I feel like so much music today, it’s trying to do something and it’s trying to be something and it’s trying to fit on an algorithm and there’s all this style and everything just feels so mediated, to the point where I just missed the very primal release of music and singing and that’s found mostly in field recordings and folk songs.
Ancient Egypt, as far as we know, was much more magical and spiritual than our contemporary world is. And there was just a different way that ancient Egyptians considered existence and the purpose of existence, and that’s why things like the pyramids were built, because there wasn’t as much of this cult of individuality in Egypt. It was much more about the collective spiritual experience. And over time, I won’t get into the specifics of it, but one of the Egyptian deities, this goddess Sekhmet, who is the goddess of both war and health, she just became this totem in my life, kept reappearing in one way or another, and really guided me through this process of making this record when I was so depressed that everything sounded like static to me. The power and the grace within Sekhmet as a deity was so inspiring and empowering to me.
Once I had that relationship with a deity, I started to see and understand how potent Egyptian magic is, and magic in general, and why mythology was so popular before we had a more rational system of thinking about things. I think mythology explains everything to a similar amount, but in a different way. Because humans are naturally very symbolic animals, they think about things symbolically. Mythology just feels like a natural extension of that, and that’s when I got really into it and started being able to connect my own insights about things that didn’t make any sense in a rational way, but can only be explained through mythology. And then I started to realize just how necessary mythology is to explain some things that rationalism just can’t define.
I’m wondering – a lot of this is more rooted in symbolic thought, but when you’re talking about the goddess Sekhmet and her influence on you, this idea of the duality of destruction and health, it’s something that sounds very visceral and emotional on a personal level.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, she really speaks to me on so many levels, the first one being that she encompasses this polarity of life and death. In my life, I’ve been very self-destructive, but then also, I feel like I’m a nurturer and a caregiver, and I’m very emotional. In some ways, I love to provide healing to people that I care about. So there was always this dichotomy in me that I saw reflected in Sekhmet, and then I saw the bounty that allows me, but those two polarities need to be balanced. And that’s the thing with Sekhmet: she can destroy as much as she can heal, but there’s a point at which you kind of have to keep her balanced in the middle so she doesn’t go off to one end or the other. [laughs] She also empowered me to know that I can use my destructive tendencies, because they’re also creative – there’s just as much creativity to destruction as there is destruction to it. And that’s something that I got into studying Zen as well, non-dualism, and just seeing: everything contains its binary. And Sekhmet is such a great symbol of that.
In terms of a lot of the occultists of that time period, I guess it’d be the turn of the century, there were a lot of really interesting movements happening at that time in theosophy, with Blavatsky and Crowley. But Dion Fortune, I feel like she just was much more cool-headed, in a way. And she wrote a lot, so she left a lot of information. And I like how she wrote – it’s very straightforward. I really appreciated the fact that she wrote fiction and nonfiction, and I feel like her fiction is actually more instructive than many other cult writers of that time. Because through the fiction, she’s able to kind of explore magical and occult concepts, but in a way that’s much more personalized because you’re getting it through this narrative.
At the time of making Arkhon, I became more interested in studying the occult, and Dion Fortune inspired me because of the way that she not only knew what she was talking about, but how she implemented it in art in a way that was sort of subliminal, for lack of a better term. And it inspired me to think about how I can do that in my own work, to insert these really magical ideas that are very instructive and practical, but to put them into a world where you can see a demonstration of how they work and how they exist. Being a musician who has a voice, I do feel like I want to put the magic that I see in the world into the music and I want that to be something that can inspire others to want to dig deeper, to want to open Pandora’s box. And I appreciate that she did that. For that reason, she’s also kind of a role model. Aleister Crowley, he could be so much of a hack sometimes because he loves to make himself a novelty. I can’t really take him seriously with the sex magic and stuff like that. Whereas Dion Fortune was just so much cooler about everything. She got it, you know.
Was it more of a conscious or unconscious effort to impart these ideas on Arkhon?
Sort of unconscious, but then as I started doing it, I just became more impassioned with a feeling of responsibility to carry a torch. As I was making this music, I started to see the power in being a torch bearer for these traditions and this knowledge, so that did become something that while making the record I was interested in trying to do.
This is an ancient religious tradition that’s still practiced today and combines pre-Buddhist mountain worship, animism, shamanistic beliefs, and various other practices. We’ve been talking about how Arkhon draws from your interest in mysticism, but how did you become familiar with Shugendo in particular as a path to healing?
Well, I spent some time in a Zen monastery, and the abbot of the monastery also practiced Shugendo. They also did Shugendo rituals at this monastery, and they did one while I was there, a Fudo Myoo ritual. And it was just really powerful. I started looking into Shugendo more and became really interested in an abstract way, where I just thought it was really interesting that these groups of people that didn’t have access to temples or any places of worship because they live in the mountains or far from villages, created this syncretic religious practice called Shugendo, which is a mix of, yeah, Shinto and Buddhism and shamanism, animism, and all these things, and all of their very indigenous beliefs.
There’s a lot of deity worship and nature worship. Shugendo rituals mostly happen in nature, in mountain sides or magical spots. They’re either very magical places, or they’ll create a magical place through performing rituals and ceremonies there, which will kind of charge the area. And then when you return there, that’s kind of where you worship. So it’s nature worship as well. And it really was inspiring to me – there’s an accessibility there, and there’s a level of understanding of how spiritual traditions serve humanity, and how they can be practiced in so many different ways. But mostly, I’m just inspired by having a really syncretic practice of indigenous shamanism, and Shinto, which is a very folkloric, beautiful, mythological kind of religion, and then Buddhism, which is also very practical and very focused on enlightenment and empowerment.
What does nature worship look like or mean in the context of your own life?
It can be as simple as just going out into nature into the woods and feeling everything be alive around you at all times. Letting yourself connect to the land as if you are a part of it, and to revere it as such – revere the land as if it’s an extension of your own body, which it is. We’re all connected to everything. Nature worship – I don’t know if that’s a term, but I’m just saying it – I think that’s important these days, as there’s obviously a desperation to prevent ecological disaster. As we stray further from nature, and as we disassociate ourselves from the natural world, the more we feel like we’re outside of it. So then it becomes this thing that we need to conquer instead of collaborate with. And so, the more that I feel connected to the natural world as being a part of me, the more I feel there’s hope for humanity to survive the mess that we made. I think it’s our only way out – we need to worship the Earth. Otherwise, it won’t be hospitable to us for much longer.
When you think about it, there’s not nothing between me and a tree. Let’s say I’m standing next to a tree – there’s so much that I am breathing in and breathing out. We’re all connected, even though we can’t see the things that are in between us, in between the density of the object, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. When you start thinking about life like that, you start seeing and realizing how, even just walking through a space, you’re disrupting everything around it.
Anti-Oedipus by Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari
We started by talking about The Red Book, so this feels like a natural conclusion. I haven’t read it, but from what I understand, it’s basically an attack on traditional psychoanalysis. Why did it leave an impression on you?
The way in which Anti-Oedipus and Deleuze and Guattari attack, I would say, the social constructs and the structures of capitalism, were for me really inspiring. Reading people like Deleuze allowed me to be able to understand the failures in our systems. Of course, it’s a very hard read, but at the same time, it’s so rewarding, because the way that they feed you the information – it, like, punches you in the face. [laughs] In many ways, Arkhon and where I am in my life is quite anti-establishment, and that is something that I think impressed itself on the record very much, this feeling of total disillusionment with the way that our world works, the way that we conceive of the systems that were built before us, and the innate trust we put in those systems. And that’s something that reading Anti-Oedipus awakened in me so much more, this curiosity to understand how these things are actually turning against us.
We were talking about Jung, and you said that it’s kind of mystical, the way that he interprets the world, whereas Anti-Oedipus is more political in nature. And it feels like through all these inspirations, there are these two poles: this mystical, otherworldly, ancient realm, and something more practical and rooted in the modern world. For you, is there a conflict there, or does one feed into the other?
I think they’re both connected inextricably, because through mysticism, through dreams, through working with the unconscious, I feel like I’m accessing an aspect of life, or of awareness, that I feel is actively discouraged in the rational, material world. And then I see how, especially American society, a highly capitalist environment – capitalism imposes itself on every aspect of human life in America, to the extent that it is almost impossible to have mystical experiences unless they can be capitalized on. And that makes me realize that the political and the economic realities of our time are created and exacerbated by the denial of our spiritual selves. And in denying the spirit, and just calling it religion or assuming that spirituality needs Christianity, you’re denying access to the full picture of who you are and what is on offer to you as somebody that is alive right now.
And so, it makes me think about how, in regards to Anti-Oedipus, capitalist systems exploit the human desire, and there’s human desire to know the unknown; there’s a spiritual desire, but that is being capitalized on. Humans are being subjugated to these other systems that are not allowing us access to our spiritual selves, while at the same time extracting whatever spiritual bones we have left in us for some other purpose that’s more of a consumer purpose.
Many people, including yourself, have used the word “cathartic” to describe your music, but the way you talk about desire now, I’m thinking about the song ‘Desire’, the power and the feeling that your voice imbues that word, and that’s what catharsis feels like. It’s not just an abstract thing; it’s visceral.
Oh, thank you. I mean, that’s why music is so powerful, is because it allows you to mainline so many thoughts or ideas or feelings, things that, through language, require so many words. And yes, desire is a word, but it’s the way that it’s sung, where it’s more than the word – the word is a symbol for something greater that suffices. Even though desire is an incredibly complicated concept – it can be good, it can be bad, it is part of the creative force that keeps us alive. Desire is the ultimate aliveness, while at the same time, it’s the thing that keeps us human.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.