I first heard Zola Jesus when she was singing backup for El-P on Conan O’Brien. They were performing a live version of “Works Every Time” from El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure, and I thought it was a pretty great take on the song. Jesus’s voice enhanced the original song to a level I wasn’t quite expecting. It put me in mind of Lissie’s cover of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” actually. Having female vocals where there were once male vocals was one trigger, but the biggest one was how the texture of the song changes when you change the gender of the vocalist. Jesus made enough of a mark on me that I wanted to see what her solo music was like.
It turns out her music sounds like nothing I’ve ever really sought out before. It’s a strange mix of electronic music, complex orchestration, and a deep-throated vocalist. It sounds like the kind of music that you can only record in a derelict church after midnight, in the secret basement that the founders put into the building 300 years ago. It feels like the soundtrack to a mass in a movie, and that’s real fascinating to me.
I asked around on Tumblr, I think it was, and got some music video recommendations. I backtracked from there to find her album Conatus, and was pleased to find that it was just as good as I was expecting, even though it doesn’t sound like anything I own. It sounds genuinely new to me, and it’s nice to break out of my comfort zone of old punk, ancient pop, your grandparents’ rock, and rap music.
I find myself in a weird situation when listening to Zola Jesus. I grew up with rap, and I’m used to thinking that people who think rappers rap too fast actually just listen too slow. “What do you mean you don’t understand ‘bing, boggledy, dong?'” type of elitism. But there are a few lyrics on this album I can’t quite catch. I could look them up, of course. I’m sure someone online has figured it out. But I like appreciating Jesus without knowing exactly what she’s saying at the same time. It’s weird and sounds kinda art school-y maybe, but it’s all about the way her voice complements or contradicts the music. I like French singer Camille for similar reasons, even though I don’t speak French. It’s that I like how her voice sounds.
It’s not that she sings too fast. It’s the opposite, really. She stretches syllables, bending them around several turns before finishing the sound. It’s not a wail — it’s not as desperate as that — but it is something I don’t come across too often. It’s a marriage of a child hyper-enunciating something (“But Moooooooom!”), a diva vamping as hard as she can, and the extremes that opera sings go to in search of that perfect note.
I think it’s cool that her videos match up with exactly how her music feels like it should look. It’s a little creepy, but never commits to going full horror. Unsettling is the word, maybe. A quiet itch at the back of your head that things aren’t quite as right as you thought they were.
I keep wanting to describe her music as “full,” as if that wasn’t as vague as anything ever. But it kinda fits, too. Jesus isn’t making speaker box music, not any type I’m familiar with, but I feel like her songs would still give your speakers a workout. It probably sounds great in a car with the windows and system turned all the way up.
Half the time I listen to Conatus, I do it one and a half times in a row. A side effect of the lyrics being fuzzy is that I can’t quite recognize when I’ve heard a song twice, so I let the album loop until I realize what I’m doing. That sounds like a complaint, like the album is a blur of same-y material, but it’s more like… I don’t have the ear for this yet. I’m still figuring out how these songs work, versus how rap songs work or whatever, and my own ignorance results in the loop. Or I just like the album enough to where I don’t really pay attention to how long it’s been on. One of the two. Maybe both.
It’s good, though. So I don’t mind the repeats.