Changes & Chaos – Zola Jesus on David Bowie

Photo: still image taken from Zola Jesus‘ video for »Seekir«

»As someone who has grown up in a world where David Bowie has always existed, it never occurred to me that one day I would live in a world without him.« Says Zola Jesus. Here’s the story of how Bowie changed her music and her life, forever.

My introduction to David Bowie was actually one of my first memories as a music listener. I was five years old, and my parents had just retired their old MS-DOS machine for a brand-new Windows 95 computer, full of pre-loaded software. I became consumed by the encyclopedia program, where I could look up and learn about anything that came to mind. In my innocent searches for »music«, I came across a 30 second clip of David Bowie’s song »Changes«. As soon as I heard it, I became transfixed by the song. I had never heard anything quite like it. I played those 30 seconds over and over, for days. I was obsessed with reliving the feeling the song gave me.

As I grew up and discovered all the tributaries of my passion for music, David Bowie was always there in his endless incarnations. When I was discovering punk, there was The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. For krautrock, there was Heroes. When I was discovering New York no wave and post-punk disco, there was Young Americans. For industrial, there was Outside. No matter what feverish state of discovery I was in, David Bowie was always there as a touchstone. His ability to evolve and adapt himself into the changing climate of transgressive art was uncanny and never felt disingenuous. Often times you could not tell if he was the chicken or the egg; could this other music even exist without him?

No matter what feverish state of discovery I was in, David Bowie was always there as a touchstone.

Through so much evolution, Bowie never sounded like anyone other than himself. His consistency was always steadfast in the uniqueness of his voice and vision. That was part of his great appeal – his personality would always pierce through anything you dress it in. The many experiments he put himself through were conducted as a test to the strength of his true artistry; the kind of artistry you can only be born with.

So much of art is created through these tests: what if I adopt an alter ego, paint my face, look unrecognizable, work with instruments I never even knew existed, what will happen? This passion for experimentation is what makes art truly great and it seems to be what Bowie would feed on.

As a musician, Bowie taught me to never stay in one place for too long, to constantly push my abilities, and always question the identity of what I’m doing. He taught me to perfect my craft, but never my style – that is something that should live ephemerally, intuitively, and within a constant state of flux. He inspired me to reach deep inside and pull out the truest parts of myself, and to never let go. So long as you have the purest essence of intention everything else is just chaos. Bowie played with the chaos, but always in judicious service to his intent.

David Bowie is the definition of a true artist. He takes you to places that dance between reality and a dream world. I’m thankful he left us with so much wonder and wider eyes. Through his art he will live forever, and continue to inspire us to play with the chaos.

A German translation of this text by Zola Jesus was published in SPEX N° 367. The issue is available in our online shop.

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