Rapper Jay Prince (@loungeinparis) is East London through and through. He was raised here, has family here, got an education here. But his music is far from the grime-inflected tracks the city prides itself on. In truth, it’s more in tune with a stateside sound — his production and flow marked by a New York-heavy rhythm filled with soulful horns, electric pianos and a direct, syncopated flow.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I get that quite a lot,” says Jay, about being compared to US hip-hop. “I understand why — I have had a lot of American influences. I didn’t grow up on UK hip-hop heavily … I listened to grime when I was a kid, but I was like 50-50. I liked a lot of Lil Jon, Jay Z, Kanye, Common, Mos Def, some R&B and neo-soul.”
While his musical influences may be easily traceable, less so are his visual cues, which he shares in the way of portraits and city photos from his travels at home and abroad. Jay has spent time crafting a look and image through his photography — including the pictures he takes and the ones his friends take of him. Still, he admits to experimenting with his style, continually searching for one that fits.
“I am still trying to find it out myself,” he says. “Usually I am about a dark tone. It depends a lot on where I live. London is not always sunny, so you have to use the light that you have. Whereas when I went to Barcelona, it was so bright.”
Though music is Jay’s primary passion, photography plays an important role in his life as well. His goal is to combine both areas into a diverse, creative portfolio. That’s why he devotes time getting better at each — writing rhymes, making beats, investing in cameras. For the pictures, Jay began developing his skills while on tour in the States, where he connected with some photographers. They began to meet up in different cities to take each other’s portrait.
As for the music, Jay started rapping when he was 14. While East London has a rough-and-tumble reputation, he managed to side-step most of it by focusing on hip-hop. And though he wasn’t involved in drugs or gangs, he was certainly aware of what was going on.
“I had friends who were kind of involved and would have fights and stuff,” he says. “Growing up in East London, it was fun at first — you try to understand yourself a little more, you try to build friendships. As I got older, it was bad — people started getting hurt. I started questioning a lot of things. And you have to kind of look out for yourself and be careful. It was about watching your back.”
Instead of putting his energy into the streets, Jay would put it into his music. He had a voice and he wanted to use it. (As he says in his track “1993” off his EP, BeFor Our Time, “This is all I know.”) And it all came from the opportunity given to him by his parents, who immigrated to the UK from Africa before Jay was born.
“I remember my mom always taught me, ‘When we came here, we gave you an opportunity.’ And I never understood. Like, I was born here. I wasn’t born in Africa. What type of opportunity?” he says. “As I got older I started realizing and appreciating it. If it’s really true that there is an opportunity here, then I am going to test it. That’s when I got into music. And I was like, I love this. And I know I got that opportunity because of my parents. It was for me to build myself and have my own platform to build my own future and build my own career. And now I am a musician. I have worked and built my own world.”
Around the Community
#**Searching for Beauty in Dance Music and Industrial L.A. with Young Adults Co-Founder @deepbody**
David Fisher (@deepbody) is a man with many responsibilities. He’s a father to a 20-month-old daughter named Hazel; president of Astro Tools, a Los Angeles-based automotive company his grandfather started four decades ago; and co-founder of the dance-music label Young Adults, which he runs with his high school friend Leeor Brown.
“Young Adults captured the spirit of what we were going after — growing older while still trying to be young,” David says of the label, the name of which also doubles as the moniker for his and Leeor’s DJ duo (as a performer, he goes by “Deep Body,” a phrase he coined for the music he likes, as well as a play on his first and middle names, David and Benjamin).
The underlying current of David’s pursuits, from Young Adults and DJing to his photography of sparse Los Angeles locales, is a search for something deeper and taking time to appreciate things that are barely there. “It originally came out of a love for graffiti and street art, then the deconstruction of that or looking for decay,” he says. “It’s like a scavenger hunt for me now. I like finding odd little cuts and crevices and back alleys and seeing what kind of hidden treasures are going on in there.”
David usually finds time to take his pictures during lunch breaks. It started with him exploring areas around his work. Some days, he would take a different route just to see if there was something he hadn’t yet stumbled across. One recent detour took him to two straw-hatted garden figures next to a piece of plywood and a hose hanging from a small tree, a site he now drives by every day. “It’s part of a little apartment community,” he says. “There are all these little odd and quirky nuances of the neighborhood. There’s a lot of warehouses and a lot of houses tucked between them, so you get this weird intersection of humanity and industry. That’s kind of what I’m grappling with at my day job.”
Quirky encounters aside, David’s photos reflect his curiosity to look past facades. As a radio DJ at University of California, Berkeley, he was into underground hip-hop and early electronic-rock hybrids like Four Tet, before he grew to appreciate the subtleties of dance music. “I don’t think it’s for everyone, but I also hope that if you’re able to kind of dig one level deeper, it might reveal some stuff. It doesn’t look like much at first glance but maybe just a little extra focus might bring out some nuance that shows the subtleties of whatever the composition is capturing.”
That’s part of David’s concerted effort to not get sucked into the “quick scroll-through” multimedia world. “Today’s culture feels like everything has to hit you right off the bat. Most people, when they listen to new music flip through the track, like, ‘Am I going to like this?’ You want to get more snippets of what it’s about instead of just listening from beginning to end and seeing how it develops. Nothing lasts, you know? It feels like everything is just temporary now.”
Not one to rush, David is looking forward to another album later this year for Young Adults, with few concrete plans for the label’s future. “I find the more I try to make things happen, it feels forced,” he says. “Part of the beauty of Young Adults is allowing it to take its own time and develop in a natural state instead of feeling like I have to be tied to a release schedule or a certain style of music. I’m excited to see where it goes. I have a lot of hope that it’ll keep growing and the reach will keep expanding, but I also don’t want it to be something that I try to make happen, instead of it happening because of the product and the sounds we’re putting out.”
—Dan Reilly for Instagram @music
For 100 consecutive days between April and July, @elleluna painted her dreams. Simultaneously, @kingcholo drew faces of Texan strangers on the insides of matchbooks. @katrinamchugh layered song lyrics over natural science diagrams, while @thejellyologist mixed up daily flavor experiments like coconut water and lavender into exquisite little jelly molds. What connects them all, and the more than 270,000 images posted to the hashtag #the100dayproject, is the challenge to participate in 100 days of making, initiated by San Francisco–based author and artist Elle Luna. Inspired by an assignment given to design students at the Yale School of Art, “the 100-Day Project is not about fetishizing finished products,” says Elle. “It’s about celebrating the process.” Elle believes the great gift of the practice comes through surrender: “You show up day after day, even when you’re tired or sick or on vacation,” she says. True to the spirit of creating versus finalizing, the 100-Day Project didn’t exactly end on July 14, the original date Elle set for completion. “What’s amazing is that there are people who are just now discovering the project and beginning their own journey, while others have decided to continue their projects beyond Day 100,” says Elle. In the words of one inspired participant, “These 100 days have been like rocket fuel and I am ready to launch.”
To see more of Raffael’s in-vogue adventures, follow @lionheaded on Instagram.
(This interview was conducted in German.)
In secondary school, it was Dr. Martens working-class, rebel-punk boots, and later on, the severe silhouettes of Helmut Lang that made Raffael Payr’s (@lionheaded) heart beat faster. Today, the Viennese fashion lover says he has found his calling with his lifestyle and fashion blog, The Lionheaded.
“I love the feeling of being on the cutting edge — to stand up front, like a train driver, and witness everything first hand,” says Raffael, who counts traveling, shopping and posing as his job duties. With his wife Marion (@ladyvenom) acting as the photographer on most productions, Raffael feels comfortable expressing himself freely in front of the camera. “At times, I have the best ideas shortly before shooting,” says Raffael. “My plan is to not have a plan.”
Weekend Hashtag Project is a series featuring designated themes and hashtags chosen by Instagram’s Community Team. For a chance to be featured on the Instagram blog, follow @instagram and look for a post announcing the weekend’s project every Friday.
The goal this weekend is to photograph imperfections in your surroundings to show how mistakes and flaws can in fact be photographed in a beautiful way. Some tips to get you started:
PROJECT RULES: Please add the #WHPimperfections hashtag only to photos taken over this weekend and only submit your own photographs to the project. Any tagged image taken over the weekend is eligible to be featured Monday morning.
Monthly Hashtag Project is a series featuring designated themes and hashtags chosen by Instagram’s Community Team. For a chance to be featured on the Instagram blog, follow @music on Instagram.
This month’s prompt was #MHPmusicmuse, which asked participants to make portraits of people in their life who inspire them musically, taking inspiration from guest curator Rambo (@rambo). We selected some of our favorite submissions from the project, but be sure to check out the rest here.
For more photos and videos of Melanie’s life on the ranch, follow @bluemountainlife on Instagram.
Melanie Hamblin (@bluemountainlife) shares images of her daily life on a ranch in Central Queensland, Australia, where more than 5,000 heads of cattle are bred surrounded by green hills and mountains. “My family started breeding wagyu cattle, a Japanese breed, about 14 years ago,” says the rancher and mother of four. Their cattle operation includes a biannual artificial insemination program, meticulous record keeping of the calves, mustering the cattle on horseback and an annual 9-mile (15-kilometer) walk of the cows between the family’s two properties. While Melanie admits that the work is extremely labor intensive, she still enjoys the rich natural environment as well as handling her horses every day — whether it’s for driving cattle or for campdrafting, a uniquely Australian horse sport. “People all over the world and from different cultural backgrounds seem to be drawn to the strength and beauty of horses,” she says. “There is nothing more relaxing than wandering around their paddocks with them early in the morning as the sun comes over the mountain.”
For more of Julie’s photos and videos, follow @julie_weaves on Instagram.
There are certain fabrics — cotton muslin, shiny silk, natural wool — that move Julie Robert (@julie_weaves). “When I touch fabrics, a lot of things appear in my head, like ideas and combinations with other fabrics to create a piece,” says Julie, a textile designer who taught herself to weave on the Internet two years ago. For six months, she practiced every day, undoing and redoing every line to push herself to learn new techniques. Now she makes large, contemporary wall hangings on a loom and teaches weaving classes in Hyères, her small coastal town in the South of France, and in other parts of the country. “I get to meet other creative minds and learn a lot myself,” she says. “I’m very shy and it’s a great way to get out of this feeling.”
“We’re gonna burn this stage to the motherf—ing ground!”
Even in the muddy farm fields of England you can feel it. Killer Mike (@killermike), one-half of the American rap group Run the Jewels, issues the battle cry, and the crowd reacts in kind. He is standing next to his friend and fellow band member, El-P (@thereallyrealelp). Both are sweating, stoned and sporting enormous grins over the sight in front of them: thousands of hands formed in the shape of a clenched fist and pistol, the group’s official logo and calling card.
A Run the Jewels (RTJ) show is fueled by adrenaline — a barrage of mosh pits and sprawled out crowd surfers. However, those moments come and go. What stays put is the symbol — always prevalent, always popping up in the audience or on stage. Jay Z may have his diamonds and Wu-Tang their W’s. But in 2015, that logo love is being thrown at a comparatively new hip-hop duo with only two albums to their name.
“People are inspired by the music and symbolism,” says El-P, while sitting next to Mike in the back of a trailer at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, a few weeks after their barnburner of a set in the UK. In two hours, they will turn it back on again, this time for their stateside fans. “Every single day someone is doing something. From 10-year-old kids drawing us in school, to advanced artists painting or sculpting. There’s so much s—.”
And don’t forget the tattoos.
“Tattoos out the a–!” he shouts.
“The tattoo movement tripped me out the first time I started seeing it on the road,” adds Mike, as he leans back on the couch. “I just figured it was drunk white guys. And then it got to number 15. I was like, this is dope! Oh s—, this is wild!”
Coincidentally, El-P, an underground rapper from Brooklyn, and Mike, an Atlanta-based emcee best known for his work with Outkast, began Run the Jewels as a one-off. But then came two critically acclaimed records in two years, dozens of sold-out shows and, to paraphrase one of Mike’s rhymes, oodles of fan art, all based on the rappers’ faces and symbol.
Both artists noticed the effect immediately. It started at a show in Nashville, soon after their first album came out. Up toward the front were a couple of friends, one white, one black, holding up giant heads of the rappers on sticks. Months later, they saw a woman with repurposed Hulk hands in the shape of the fist-and-gun logo. Things took off from there.
“It’s going fourth dimension,” says Mike. “It’s like the comic book character, when they look over the other character’s shoulder and acknowledge the audience, like, I know you out there. This cool thing that we created, that we became, has become this living, breathing expression of art. For the artists and audience to give back to us, to inspire us, is abso-f—ing amazing.”
Adds, El-P: “It’s turned into this art project that’s bigger than me and Mike.”
He’s not joking. Just this month, fans put together their own Run the Jewels art exhibit in San Francisco. And last January, Marvel went and created two covers for Deadpool and Howard the Duck, which incorporated the logo. (According to Rolling Stone, the idea came to Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso after he heard his son and his friends yelling “Run them jewels fast!” — a nod to the group’s song “Close Your Eyes (And Count to F—)” — after scoring a touchdown at a football game.)
Both Mike and El-P are amazed yet slightly dumbfounded by all the attention, particularly for a symbol that was borne out of El-P just messing around with his hands and sending ideas to his designer friend, Nick Gazin, who would eventually turn the rapper’s picture into the logo we know today. A lot of the art the two emcees now find comes to them online, when fans tag their Instagram accounts. The two even went so far as to hire one of the artists they found, Ian Klarer, to design their Blade Runner-inspired fall tour poster.
“I really think there’s something so overtly cool about them,” says Ian, who’s based in Louisville, Kentucky. “They are legitimate. They are not contrived.”
Creating fan art is a commitment. It is getting a rap group’s logo tattooed on your legs. It’s spending days carving a sculpture of your favorite band. It’s tagging walls as part of a graffiti campaign. It’s repurposing and sampling famous imagery — the Kool-Aid Man, Star Wars — and combining it with the calling card of an emcee. It’s a young kid riding by himself in an amusement park ride, throwing up a fist and a pistol, screaming, “Run them jewels fast!”
There has been a tremendous amount of love shown to both members — so much so that it’s hard for them to express their true feelings about it.
“Me and Mike are sort of in this constant state of not really knowing what to say,” says El-P. “You don’t even know if you could say something that would express the humility that it brings on you. It’s like, wow.”
He thinks on it for a second, and continues.
“You say thank you. Beyond that, even thank you doesn’t make much sense. Thank you is saying you did this for us. And really, I think people are doing it for themselves. I think people have connected with an idea and we just handed them some symbolism to play with and to expand and to make theirs.”
“There is a secret code amongst this audience that they take everywhere they go. That’s how I felt with Wu-Tang when I was a kid,” says Mike.
“And you know what, real s—, we have a very mixed audience,” El-P chimes in. “And that’s one of the most beautiful things about it. It’s very easy to find yourself in front of just one race of people when you do this music.
Mike cuts in: “And class of people!”
It’s always been impossible to decipher what will and won’t go popular. But the Run the Jewels model provides some clarity. Both artists were already established cult favorites beforehand, both brought along disparate though dedicated fan bases and both went on to release two critically acclaimed records as a group. Most importantly, though, they have an existing relationship. El-P and Mike are more than members in the same band. They are brothers, bonded through a love of hip-hop and pop culture, and dedicated and passionate about social issues and politics. And all that comes out in their music and imagery.
“That symbol is something that kids are holding and they are creating something meaningful for themselves,” says El-P. “It is connecting them in a different way. That symbol, it’s really something that’s been defined by the people who are throwing it back at us.”
“Absolutely,” says Mike. “We opened it up. When we got the music out, it was essentially a calling card for anybody who likes this s— to come. And that’s been the spirit of it ever since. I can literally go online now and see a little kid throwing that s— up. A baby!”
Fashioning a global style comes naturally to 29-year-old designer Rafael Varandas (@rafaelvarandas), and it all started when he was 10. Growing up in São Paulo, before the Internet broke open the doors to other cultures, he devoured American skateboarding and surfing magazines for inspiration. “We were miles behind everything and seeing those guys and bands from outside of Brazil was really a turning point,” he says. “They dressed like nothing I’d ever seen. They were an inspiration, not only because of their clothes, but because of the way they behaved,” says Rafael. Today, as creative director of his own indie fashion line, Cotton Project (@cottonproject), his style is still all about attitude. “We are young adults. We have our responsibilities and jobs, but we are not dead. We want to have fun, maybe not quite like when we were teenagers, but we do want to explore possibilities.”
For your daily dose of Adam’s contemporary collage art, follow @the.daily.splice on Instagram.
Thanks to fellow commuters leaving behind free magazines on London’s Tube, Adam Hale (@the.daily.splice) compiles material for his daily collages on the go. “I thought it would strike a chord on social media, as there’s an immediacy to the work in which current topics, trends and affairs are given new context, turning something disposable into something of permanence,” says Adam.
Although a lot of people assume that Adam’s works are created digitally, everything is done by hand. Adam sees the analogue art form of collaging — and its challenges — as a welcome change from his day job at a digital company. “It’s often very hard to ‘splice’ images together without the ability to flip or resize individual elements as you would on a computer, but I enjoy problem-solving and it feels great when something finally slots into place.”
To explore more of Fred’s photos, follow @photoaskew on Instagram.
On his eighth birthday, Fred Askew (@photoaskew) received a momentous gift. It was a Leica M3 camera, bestowed on him by his beloved grandfather — a painter, a musician and an avid large-format, glass plate photographer. The elder artist died many years ago, yet remains a huge influence on Fred, who grew up to become a musician himself, playing drums for a time in a touring rock band, and then a news photographer documenting conflict overseas and political unrest at home in New York City.
In his gallery, Fred finds creative refuge, a place to practice a more personal sort of journalism through poetic text and imagery shot and manipulated mostly with his phone. His dreamscapes explore themes that haunt him, such as “the insanity of aging” and “memories that don’t sleep.”
His distressed images recall not only his grandfather’s process but also his own early days experimenting with frugal techniques — walking on negatives, scratching photo paper, pouring coffee over his lenses — when he couldn’t afford the chemicals and tools of an analog darkroom. Then, as now, says Fred, “I was finding a new layer to photography. I could make prints look closer to how I saw them in my heart.”
For more portraits by Jojo, follow @jojo.jonah on Instagram.
“#Hellomynameis Jojo Jonah (@jojo.jonah) and I am 17 years old. I was born in Ghana, then moved to Montreal and now I live in Denver. When I take the train, I will go out of my way and go up to people and talk to them. I ask them questions about their lives. I try to take the things they tell me — small phrases or stories — and portray them in a painting or a photograph. Sometimes, I get to hear things that they have never told anyone else.
I rarely ever like to refer to myself as a ‘photographer,’ but more as a creator. I want to expand into films, designing, music, poetry and architecture. Photography is just how I choose to express myself at the moment. It feels like there’s more to every picture I take than just the picture. In some of my work, I hope that people will see things from a different perspective. Sometimes my portraits will involve me expressing myself through that other person and their words. I sometimes get feedback from my followers like, ‘I thought I was the only one who felt this way.’ That’s beautiful to me.”
When Maria Jose Govea (@thesupermaniak) travels, she brings along a companion. He’s short, has brown, wrinkly skin, an infamous index figure and was the star of a beloved ‘80s movie. He’s also an alien.
“I carry [the] E.T. [doll] with me all the time. He’s just very symbolic to me,” says the 35-year-old music photographer. “It’s funny because a lot of people hate E.T. They’re like, ‘He’s so weird. He creeps me out.’ Really, you don’t like E.T.? What’s wrong with you?”
Like Spielberg’s creation, Maria considers herself a bit of a loner. However, her origin story begins a bit closer to earth. She works by herself and leads an untraditional life –– a nomad who travels with musicians, takes their pictures, stays out late, then comes back to edit the final photos until 8 a.m.
After growing up in Venezuela, Maria moved to Toronto to study film, but ultimately wanted something else. With her visa running out, she decided to take up photography. By then, she had been throwing parties and DJing on her own, posting pictures of the events to her Myspace page. She soon built a solid portfolio and started getting freelance gigs at an alt-weekly in the city. Even then she didn’t know much about photography –– or the politics and stage rules that came with it.
“I was just shooting like there was no tomorrow,” she says. “I only had a fisheye lens. Everything was fisheye –– a fisheye and a flash and I was just going wild and shooting and getting people’s faces and DJ’s faces. But somehow I was making content that people were really relating to. So I started taking it seriously. I started learning a lot, and I started shooting rock and indie shows and buying different lenses and shooting from afar and trying different angles and really thinking about it. At the same time, I always go with the flow and follow my gut.”
Around 2009, Maria would meet a then-relatively unknown Skrillex, who discovered her thanks to the work she did with the DJ 12th Planet. When Skrillex came through town, he would invite her to shoot on stage. They became fast friends, and she’s continued to travel with him over the years, including a recent train tour across Canada.
“He became one of the biggest stars in the world,” says Maria, of Skrillex. “It’s unreal to be so close to everything that he has done. It’s also been great to see how he stayed exactly the same. He has not changed at all. He’s stayed really humble. Everybody loves that kid. Everybody asks me, ‘Oh, you’re friends with Skrillex? How did that happen?’ It’s weird because to me he’s just Sonny. It hasn’t sank in, I guess.”
As Skrillex’s career has grown, so has Maria’s approach to photography. She’s more interested in shooting the intimate moments on tour: musicians hanging out after hours, or prepping behind the scenes, or skateboarding on their off days.
“The more and more I get to know these DJs, the more access I have to them,” she says –– and she’s right. Not every photographer gets to sit in the observatory car of a train at three in the morning with the world’s biggest DJs and an E.T. doll and watch as the northern lights pass by in the distance. When you have opportunities like that, it’s hard not to go with the flow.
For more of April and Ken’s magical family moments, follow @kinzieriehm on Instagram.
When they aren’t shooting for magazines and mainstream children’s companies, photographer couple Ken Kinzie and April Riehm (@kinzieriehm) turn their cameras on something much more familiar: the adventures of their three children as they grow up in balmy Orlando, Florida.
“School’s out and we’re all together in the summer — that’s where the magic begins,” Ken says of the backyard adventures and beach excursions that provide the backdrop for the moments they capture.
“It’s not all sunshine and popsicles. We have the same struggles as other parents. But we’re probably not going to show the tantrums and nose-picking,” April says. “We’re not trying to portray a perfect lifestyle,” Ken adds, “when there is a breakdown or a trauma we put the cameras down and deal with it.”
The children are often eager participants in their parents’ photos, bringing their own creative ideas to their activities. “Our son has begun to want to direct more. He wants to set off smoke bombs over the pool,” April shares. “It’s fun to make photos collaboratively as a family. I never imagined that before having kids. As the kids get older, it’ll be interesting to see what creative influences they have on our images.”
And ultimately for all of them, their photos tell a story. “They look at these images and they can remember what happened last week and last year,” April says. “They talk and ask questions. It’s like time traveling. We get to go back — we get to experience those tiny little moments again and again together as we’re flipping through the feed.”
Weekend Hashtag Project is a series featuring designated themes and hashtags chosen by Instagram’s Community Team. For a chance to be featured on the Instagram blog, follow @instagram and look for a post announcing the weekend’s project every Friday.
This weekend’s prompt was #WHPsayhitothewater, which asked participants to creatively capture their own reflection in the water. Every Monday we feature some of our favorite submissions from the project, but be sure to check out the rest here.
To see more of Sabine’s neatly arranged garbage art, follow @virgin_honey on Instagram.
(This interview was conducted in German.)
Broken figurines, outworn toys, battered shuttlecocks, random bits of plastic. These seemingly useless items, carelessly tossed away by others, find new purpose in the playful assemblages of German artist Sabine Timm (@virgin_honey).
A practiced scavenger drawn to the sun-bleached and oddly shaped treasures found in flea markets and on beaches, Sabine builds amusing scenes from her collections at her home studio in Düsseldorf. Each arrangement is fleeting — most live only to be photographed and then are quickly disassembled. “I am always a bit sad to part with my ephemeral little creatures,” Sabine says. “But in taking them apart, I can again give rise to new characters.”
For more invisible worlds and fooling perspectives, follow @mau.cp on Instagram.
(This interview was conducted in Spanish.)
Things aren’t always what they seem. At least that’s the mantra behind Guatemalan visual artist Mauricio Contreras-Paredes (@mau.cp), who likes to create visual incentives to prompt an interaction between art and spectators.
“Imagine an empty world, without curves, almost totally blue. It’s a world where perspectives fool you and where planes interact almost randomly. That’s my artistic style,” says Mauricio.
Mauricio’s choice of blue, however, is not random. “I am really invested in blue because gaseous bodies or transparent liquids, like the sky or the sea, are perceived as blue. As my work explores invisible or imaginary architecture, somehow transparent blue is conceptually perfect.”
Mauricio enjoys his creative process more than the final piece and also combines pictures of food with his own art. “I believe that food is also an art, a brief kind of art. What’s the difference between a dish by Ferran Adrià and a painting by Picasso?” he asks.
When Nika Roza Danilova (@zolajesus) was a little girl, she and her brother would pretend they were Trinity and Neo, the characters in the sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix. No surprise then that the singer who’s known as Zola Jesus is piqued by everyday things that aren’t as mundane as they seem–– from a scrawled bit of graffiti that reads “This life is a lie” to a rubber breathing tube snaked on a bed.
“That intrigues me, to try to find a really beautiful moment in a very plain, everyday experience,” she says over the phone from her home in the Pacific Northwest. “I see shapes and geometry –– things that aren’t usually that obvious.”
Since the release of her haunting 2009 debut solo album The Spoils, the 26-year-old Nika has repeatedly surprised critics and fans with her own unobvious choices. She first caught people’s attention while studying philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Describing herself in an interview with Pitchfork as “the kid in all black,” she was quickly branded a Goth girl. But she also possessed the kind of big voice Broadway belters are known for, and her karaoke song of choice is Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.” “Dangerous Days,” a soaring single from her latest album, last fall’s Taiga, would fit comfortably on the playlist of any mainstream radio station.
Still, her aesthetic tends to be stark and minimalist, even when presenting a photo booth strip of pictures of her and a friend goofing off. “I have really strong ideas about what I like and what I don’t like — I feel like everyone probably does,” she says. “But maybe what I like is extremely specific? And so everything I see is through a very specific lens.”
As evidenced in her photos, that lens is drawn to showcasing vastness both indoors and out. The images are beautiful and startling, not least because they show just how small the human world is in comparison to the natural world. “It’s really interesting when you have the context of a human body within the photo, because it creates this life force in an otherwise very still environment,” she explains. “So I’ll use myself as the object that gives context to the scenery or the landscape. The human element makes photos powerful, not just a bunch of objects in a vacation photo: ‘This is a canyon!’ There’s an interaction between human and the outside world in a way.”
She comes by this ideology naturally, having grown up on over 100 acres of forest in northern Wisconsin. Her parents would take only one trip into town a week. (“You learn to stock up on everything. My parents have like four freezers.”) And she mostly played by herself, making up “little musicals” about her life.
“Things like that will always stay with you,” she says. “Rural mentality.”
Due to her husband’s job as an entomologist, she lived in Los Angeles for a while. With 72-and-sunny weather and the constant hustle of being in the music industry, the city was an unsurprisingly bad fit for a woman accustomed to icy temperatures and actual stars in the sky. “So much of your life is about the industry and working. It’s so easy to think what’s going on in that world is the entire world, when it’s barely even a sliver of it,” she says. “And once you remove yourself from that and move outside of those big hubs, it’s very grounding because you’re like, Oh right — what you’re doing is inconsequential to the greater world. I think it’s really important when you’re an artist to have that perspective.”
That greater world is often the subject of her work, especially since her move to the state of Washington. The transition has suited her, both artistically and personally. She’s been writing a lot lately, experimenting and preparing songs for “anything that could happen” — including a possible move back to Wisconsin. Wherever she goes, she’s sure to continue capturing the extraordinary in the ordinary, seeing through the matrix and dazzling us with what we thought we knew.
—Rebecca Haithcoat for Instagram @music