Fresh from performing at Sydney’s VIVID Live festival, Zola Jesus (the nom de guerre of classically-trained Nika Roza Danilova) has sold out her first tour to Australia. Albeit a small one to test the waters (one sideshow in Brisbane and two in Melbourne), the crowd milling around the small stage inside of The Toff is a dedicated one, buzzing with anticipation.

We hear the glitchy soundscape track “Swords” from behind the red curtains before they part, spilling smoke into the warm room. The crowd crawl closer as the ambient mix fills the ears and Danilova and her band appear on stage.

All props to the great venue that is The Toff, but when an artist is already short in stature, one can’t help but think how appropriate, and desirable, a raised stage would be in this situation. Strangers are swapping places with strangers, even being a mere few metres from the front. “Stand here for a few songs, you can see her in between these two heads if they themselves don’t move”, is a general, repeated quote throughout the show.

In saying that, Danilova works the entire space with all her might for the entire performance. A self-confessed sufferer of anxiety, she displays no fear as the minute 23-year-old with the booming voice controls her surroundings, pacing from one side of the stage to the other. Jumping atop tables, silently smashing glasses and bottles to the floor with her bare feet, and scrambling upon amps to boost her her height. She holds eye contact with various audience members with a glare that holds you underwater; all you can do is watch and listen.

We bathe mostly in the sounds of Zola Jesus’ recent album release, Conatus (2011), as the cool blue wash of lights, silver flashing strobes and dry ice swathe the entire room. As live pieces, “Avalanche”, “Collapse” and “Shivers” translate with a grooving edge, while it isn’t until the squealing violin signalling crowd favourite, “In Your Nature”, that the audience really start reacting to the oceanic beats.

Her handsome three-piece band are a firm support throughout and, although the keys player and drummer come from heavy metal backgrounds, they slip into Danilova’s chilling tunes like a smoking hot spring. Fittingly, the video screen gracing the stage plays with hypnotizing vapours and milky clouds of bubbles.

“Sea Talk” packages a beautiful juxtaposition of classical violin over static drums and ties a lovely bow on top with incredibly soft piano toward the end, while “Night” takes us down a frightening path heavy with strobes, bass drum and scratchy strings that tug and pull aggressively at the heart’s own; as we’re further pummelled by Danilova’s aching vocals.

Live, it’s a chance to hear her voice take on a true, naive clarity that gives glimpse into her young age, which unfortunately can sometimes be missed under all of the (superb) production and mixing of her recorded work. The songstress counterbalances this, however, with the strong stares and stalks, defying anyone who may get into her way.

Danilova paves her path through the crowd again during “Seekir”, at the back of the room in a flash of white hair and cloth and back on stage again before another strobe light blinks. Her Russian background shines through her appearance, her American upbringing takes place in her voice as she implores, “thank you so much for coming. This is our first time in Australia… In ‘Straya,” she mischievously repeats, dripping in a well-versed ocker accent, “but it’s our last day, we’re very sad.”

The phrase, ‘save the best until last’, could not be more appropriate for the closing of Zola Jesus’ show. For the first (and only) time tonight, we surface from the seas’ depths for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flash of blood red flood light; Danilova is in front of the drum kit, thrashing the hi-hat with such violence that there’s more than one open-mouthed punter.

“Vessel” closes the show on a climactic, strobe-shuddering peak. The band is literally throwing their whole beings into their instruments and as suddenly as the song started, Nika Roza Danilova is nowhere to be seen.

No one is ready to leave these watery depths and thankfully, Danilova returns for a floating ballad with her violinist. “Skin” carries the only hiccup of the evening; she falters on a lyric and says, “Wait, let’s start over,” before continuing in the same breath.

The two lads re-join the two girls for “Poor Animal”; a fan joins them for a dance on stage as Danilova takes a final strut through the crowd and we’re bid goodnight from a performer who may well be the smallest in the industry, size-wise – but whose presence, voice, music and outlook rides the biggest wave.

– Anne-Louise Hill