Electric company

String theory: Zola Jesus (aka Nika Danilova) presents the J.G. Thirlwell-plus-string quartet version of her darkly ethereal songs. Photo by Angel Ceballos
String theory: Zola Jesus (aka Nika Danilova) presents the J.G. Thirlwell-plus-string quartet version of her darkly ethereal songs. Photo by Angel Ceballos

There’s an ongoing argument about whether opposites attract. While the collaborations set to appear on Mountain Oasis’ various stages might not settle that age-old question, they’re likely to prove that disparate forces can, together, make beautiful (ethereal/edgy/thought-provoking/eerie/revelatory) music.

One of the odd couples who will take the stage is Zola Jesus (the project of Nika Danilova, a Russian-American, witch-house singer-songwriter and musician) and J.G. Thirlwell, the Australian-born singer/composer/producer once known as post-punk act Foetus. Though nearly three decades separate the two, Danilova says, “When I’m working with him, it’s only about the music. I only remember that he is Foetus, that he has this history when he brings up stories from the past. Then I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s right. You’re J.G. Thirlwell.’”

The two were introduced by a mutual friend when Danilova was searching for a string arranger. Thirlwell revamped, for Mivos Quartet, a number of Danilova’s darkly atmospheric songs. The resulting arrangements were performed in 2012 at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. A recording from that concert was released this summer as the 10-track album,Versions.

Danilova, who has historically eschewed remixes — she made an exception only for David Lynch, who remixed her song, “In Your Nature” — said there were a lot of growing pains in the beginning concerning how much she wanted to let Thirlwell into her music. “What he was providing, to not only the music but to me, as an education, was really valuable,” she says. “Once I realized that what he was doing was serving the music, then I just kind of yielded to that.”

Tara Busch, the musician and composer behind I Speak Machine, has a much different take on remixes. She’s re-envisioned the songs of Annie Lennox, Bat For Lashes and others. “Remixes fall more on the producer end of the spectrum, as it involves less writing and more technique,” she says. “I like how diverse projects offer a chance to transform and grow as an artist. The challenge is very important to me.”

Currently, she’s at work on scoring a graphic novel that shares the I Speak Machine moniker. That project “involves just about every creative muscle I can flex: production, technical approach, collaborations with the writers and illustrator and, of course, creating music that is simultaneously personal and represents the story,” she says. It’s a collaboration with comic-book artist Tommy Lee Edwards and filmmaker Maf Lewis.

However, it’s the score for 30-minute sci-fi/horror film The Silence, another joint effort with Lewis, that Busch will perform at Mountain Oasis. She and Lewis met at the Winter Music Conference in Miami about 12 years ago. “I ran off to Wales with him after knowing him for only five days,” she says.

Naturally, they did what any artist couple in love would do: formed a band. “I would say we do have a great juxtaposition and chemistry between the two of us creatively, and it brings precious perspective when we're in the thick of working on a project, be it together or our individual projects,” says Busch. Plus, her husband is picky and difficult to impress, which Busch sees as a bonus.

But Lewis’ passion is for film, hence The Silence, the first of a series of thrillers that the couple will be releasing throughout next year. It’s inspired by The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, says Busch, “and my score is strongly influenced by Goblin, John Carpenter, Michael Small, Clint Mansell, Krzysztof Komeda and Delia Derbyshire.” Mountain Oasis hosts the debut of The Silence, which was created with funding from the Arts Council of Whales. Busch plans to perform the score live during the screening.

That project is Busch’s second under her stage name I Speak Machine. Danilova, too, creates from the auspices of an alias. For her, though, Zola Jesus evolved as “kind of a security blanket I could hide under.” She says that early on, she was afraid both of failing and of losing her sense of identity. The alter ego “allows me to put it on, like a costume.”

Busch, whose background includes musical theater, chamber choir and a number of bands, seems less concerned with public missteps. “My path feels like it's been all over the place: lots of indecision, difficult lessons, growing pains and a few key people who encouraged me, especially Maf,” she says. “It took me ages to embrace technology and muster the confidence to write and produce on my own — and even approach a synthesizer.” Once she did, however, she never looked back.

The musician points out that, although Mountain Oasis has noticeably fewer female performers than male acts, technology will likely even the playing field in coming years. “I think that is making an infinite difference — more people have a fair chance to create,” she says.

Busch’s career has taken her around the globe, but she says that she wishes she'd been exposed to creating music on a computer — or to pursuing music technology and engineering — when she was a teen in Charlotte, N.C. “Now, young girls have access to music technology in so many wonderful ways and incredible, affordable resources — like the Bob Moog Foundation, for example,” she says.

Danilova and Busch are both examples of how the possibilities (and combinations) of art and technology are constantly evolving and opening. Like Danilova’s Guggenheim performance with Thirlwell. They are now touring that show, with surprising results.

“One night a song can be massive, and the next night it can be very intimate, and that’s the exciting part of having a sparse set,” says Danilova. “I have the ability to twist and transform the songs in order to serve the purpose of the audience.”

Zola Jesus and J.G. Thirlwell play Saturday, 7:45-8:45, at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. I Speak Machine’s performance is on Saturday, 10:30-11:45 p.m., at Diana Wortham Theatre. Go to mtnoasis.mountainx.com for full Q&As with both Busch and Danilova.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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