Waxing lyrical: Zola Jesus on her love of words

The goth siren discusses the dark love songs on her latest album, Stridulum II, and why Nick Cave is an influence

On writing songs: "Often it starts with a vocal melody, sometimes a drum beat, or even a sound texture. I usually write the lyrics afterwards, when I'm walking around – you listen to the song and slowly build on it. I edit a lot. Writing a song is a bit like putting together a puzzle."

On her album Stridulum II: "I noticed they were all love songs. I wanted them to be empathetic and compassionate. I had friends and people around me that were going through a lot of hard times, broken hearts. My grandfather died as I was writing the record, and I had just got into a really intense relationship with someone who is now my husband. I Can't Stand is the most literal. I wrote that song to try to console people around me, then I sent it to them, and said: 'Look, this is what I'm trying to say.'"

On favourite lyricists: "I love Nick Cave. He's a poet, he says things with such clarity, articulacy and beauty. I love everything he's done, from the Boys Next Door and the Birthday Party to the Bad Seeds and Grinderman."

On finding her voice: "With [2008 album] The Spoils, I didn't really have a deadline, so I had more time to write intros and outros, and it became like an opus. But lyrically, at the time, I didn't feel like I had anything worth saying to anyone. Words weren't important to me, nor was my voice. I felt like I might as well have been speaking a made-up language. Stridulum was the opposite. It was done in such a short space of time – I couldn't do anything extra to it, it was just verse, chorus, verse, chorus, end of song. But I also wanted it to be primitive – to speak about emotions in layman's terms."

On audience misunderstandings: "I notice that when I play Sea Talk, people often hold their loved ones, swaying back and forth. They don't realise it's actually a song about falling out of love. But you know, people make out to that one, it's weird."

On the perfect song: "The perfect song is one that makes you feel like your whole body is going to collapse when you listen to it. A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke. Crying by Roy Orbison. Both of those are perfect songs, with a huge amount of emotion. When you listen to them, it makes your heart hurt. They take you out of the world, it's such a surreal feeling that I can't even explain. Have I ever come close to writing the perfect song? No. That's when you stop making music. But every time I sit down to write, I try to write that song. I haven't ever come close, but one day I hope I will."


Louis Pattison

The GuardianTramp

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