A Sacred CelebrationBy Lillian Isley
They thought the Mayans were right—so they threw a party.
That was the logic behind record label Sacred Bones’ fifth-anniversary concert last month at a roadhouse-type venue in the middle of the Mojave Desert, thousands of miles away from Brooklyn, where the label calls home.
“We were thinking about all the different ‘exotic’ places [the show] could be at, and the desert seemed like the perfect spot,” explains Sacred Bones founder Caleb Braaten, just prior to the Dec. 21 show. “It being the end of the world, we may as well be in the middle of nowhere.”
With the apocalypse overarching everything, the tunes ended up being truly special—which worked out great considering the bill was a sampling of Sacred Bones’ lauded roster and offered something for pretty much everybody: experimental goth pop, Swedish electronica, moody ’80s-tinged rock—the list goes on.
Headlining that night was Zola Jesus, a 22-year-old Wisconsinite (real name Nika Roza Danilova) who is one of the label’s biggest success stories. She dropped her full-length debut, The Spoils, in 2008 via Sacred Bones, after mutual friends tipped off Braaten to her siren-like vocals, joined by instrumentation that incorporates dark layers of industrial, electronic, goth and pop.
“The Spoils was an incredibly conceptual record,” says Danilova, who was interviewed right before the Dec. 21 show. “I planned it all out and it felt very methodical, but at the same time felt very instinctive. I knew exactly what I was trying to communicate.”
And all the while, she had the support she needed from her label.
“Something that’s very unique with Sacred Bones is their entire appreciation and presentation of music,” she says. “They don’t arbitrarily put anything out; they’ve got to believe in it. Our relationship is so strong, and I feel such trust with them.”
The trust goes both ways, but it’s not difficult to trust in Danilova once you get a sense of her passion for music, and for her favorite instrument: her voice, powerful, mysterious and the focal point of Zola Jesus’ music.
“Ever since I was very young, I loved making music, but I didn’t really have any instruments,” she explains. “So I’d just sing, because that was an inborn instrument. When I realized it was something you could actually master, like guitar and piano, I started taking voice lessons.”
She was around 8 or 9 years old at the time, and she continues regular training with a vocal coach even now, continually awed by this instrument most of us carry around daily.
“You’re born with this ability to make music and to express and internalize and externalize everything,” says Danilova. “It just seems so powerful.”
She’s released several more albums, EPs, and collaborations since her debut and is working on her next full-length record now. With any luck, Sacred Bones will be around for her and the rest of its roster for a long time.
For now, Braaten is just stoked he’s made it this far.
“I had no idea how labels worked, or even what a label really was,” he says. “I didn’t even know how distribution worked. It’s all been a real learning experience.”
So was she shocked to be celebrating Sacred Bones’ fifth birthday?
“Oh, hell yeah!” he laughs. “Are you kidding me? It’s really a feat.”
Sacred Bones founder—and former Denver resident—Caleb Braaten is proud of his home state and its voters, following last year’s landmark marijuana legislation in Colorado, as well as Washington. “It’s wonderful,” he says of the growing national conversation over legalization. “It’s definitely the future. I’m not a marijuana user myself, but I still think it’s ridiculous to criminalize it.”