Zola Jesus is in a quandry. She wants to be a pop star, or even more popular, yet she seems to have no interest in being mainstream.
Thus, she creates the kind of music that filled the Granada theater Wednesday in Lawrence: a tide of songs that flirt with pop styles but skirt them in favor of arrangements and directions that are more intellectual and avant-garde than the normal Top 40 fare. Nonetheless, she kept a small crowd (100 or so) enchanted and entertained throughout a set that was just short of 70 minutes long.
Nika Rosa Danilova, 25, created Zola Jesus while in her teens. In 2009, she released “Spoils,” the first of her five full-length albums. Trained in opera, she brings to her music a voice that is muscular, full-bodied and expressive, melodramatic without toppling into histrionics.
Danilova is touring on “Tiaga,” released in October, and it dominated the set list (nine of the 14 songs). She took the stage with a three-piece band that arranged her songs with keyboards, synths, drums and trombone. For a trio, they could raise a dynamic ruckus in a variety of weights and styles: dance, industrial, goth, heavy rock. In the midst of the stage sat a large glacier-like sculpture that glowed light in various colors.
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But all that was background to Danilova, who, dressed in black from head to toe, commanded the stage, prowling back and forth, thrashing her long black hair and dancing spastically at times while gesticulating wildly. She has created her own distinct personae, but she arouses comparisons: Tori Amos, Lykke Li, Lorde, Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine.
She performed part of “Lawless” from atop a speaker. During “Hollow,” she ventured into the crowd and, upon returning to the stage, proclaimed she’d encountered everyone in the place. (And given the size of the crowd, she might have.)
She started “Nail” a cappella and without a microphone, then, with a microphone and the full band behind her, she barged into the song full-throttle. She stopped it a couple of times (“I’m off.”) but recovered and finished with a flourish.
Small though it was, her audience was spirited throughout. A few of the older songs, like “Night” and “Sea Talk” prompted cheers of recognition. So did the two-song encore of “Skin” and then “Vessel.” That song suffered the only sound problem of the night: The music around her drowned out Danilova’s vocals.
After that one, she bowed and crawled deliberately off stage and into the darkness, as if assured of both where she is and where she’s headed, no matter what the pop charts say.
Taiga; Dangerous Days; Dust; In Your Nature; Hunger; Go (Blank Sea); Sea Talk; Lawless; Nail; Long Way Down; Hollow; Night. Encore: Skin; Vessel.