A classically trained opera singer with an ear for industrial electronics and sweeping gothic-pop, Nika Roza Danilova has released five studio albums as Zola Jesus along with numerous EPs and collaborations since 2009. From lo-fi grandeur to crystalline pop, her songs have taken her from basement venues to festivals and concert halls around the world, including a show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York alongside a string quartet conducted by industrial icon JG Thirlwell.
After moving back to her native Wisconsin, Danilova released her Okovi album on Sacred Bones in 2017, channelling her soaring voice and thundering electronics into a candid and personal exploration of mortality and loss. Recently she’s also devoted herself to nurturing a virtual community of supporters through her Patreon, where she offers her fans new songs, mixes, reading lists and other special content.
Zola Jesus’ sketch is a thunderous war cry based around taiko drumming, an ancient Japanese form of percussion using huge drums, sometimes as big as a car. Underpinned by a steady marching beat, the sketch swells to a roaring crescendo that threatens to collapse under its own weight.
Listen to the sketch below, then read on to learn how it was made.
Tell us a bit about how you made the sketch
Many times when writing a song, the first thing I’ll do in order to brainstorm is to go into Reaktor and play around with the instruments in there. For this piece I found a preset in Rounds that inspired me, then I went into Polyplex and layered several of their kicks. I put the kicks through Supercharger to rough them up and give them some air.
After that, I sang into my microphone and ran the audio through Guitar Rig. I love using Guitar Rig for vocal effects – there are so many different ways to mangle sound! Then I went into Kontakt’s Action Strikes to add some martial, taiko-sounding drums. I also used the String Ensemble and a sample from Rise & Hit to contribute to the build. I really wanted the end to swell into a climax, so I found some great SFX in Polyplex to layer into the crescendo.
Can you tell us what “sketching” means to you?
It’s usually how new songs are born! It’s an important part of the process in learning about how a new piece of gear or software works, and finding out what it’s capable of.
So what did you want to achieve with this sketch?
I wanted to make use of the amazing sounds and samples within Komplete. I’ve really been into the more theatrical instruments, like Action Strikes and Rise & Hit. It was fun to create a piece that illustrated how they could be used in a cinematic way.
What’s your favorite element of the sketch?
The taiko drums! I love taiko, so to have access to really great samples felt like a treat.
Do you have a go-to process for taking an idea from sketch to finished track?
Usually the sketch starts out small, with a lot of ideas happening all at once. I end up unpacking it and moving things around to expand the piece and give each new idea its own section.
What’s the best production advice you’ve ever been given?
Well, one of my mottos is: “If the song isn’t good, no amount of production will make it better.”
What are some of your favorite resources for production knowledge?
Honestly, I don’t have very many! Usually when learning a new piece of gear, I read the manual, figure out how it works, and then Google random questions should they arise. Google searches usually take me to Gearslutz, which has always been a helpful resource for troubleshooting hardware and software.
Support Zola Jesus on Patreon to get access to new and unreleased material.
Who do you want to hear next?
We’ve already got a stacked lineup of producers heading your way, but we want to know who you’d like to see on Sketches. Know an up-and-coming producer with a unique sound? A cutting-edge sound design talent? Drop us a comment on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
In the meantime, check out a full playlist of all the sketches so far over on our Soundcloud.
Words: Chal Ravens