Last spring, when Zsela Thompson’s arresting vocals enveloped Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street—the intimate jazz club where Amy Winehouse and Adele first made their headlining debuts—the idle chit-chat in the room lulled to silence, leaving the crowd transfixed. Decades ago, Thompson’s father, Marc Anthony Thompson (a funk musician known as Chocolate Genius) performed at the same hole-in-the-wall space known for sending underground stars-in-the-making onto their inevitable meteoric rise. “My dad got me to sing, but I was pretty shy about it growing up,” Thompson, who goes by Zsela, tells CR. “He’s an amazing resource and I feel like we’ve gotten a lot closer through all this. He used to play this venue and he called me this morning from California and was like, ‘WTF you sold out Joe’s Club.'”
Since that night, Zsela’s breathy melodies and moody lyrics have earned her buzzy comparisons to folk darling Joni Mitchell and cemented her as a rising star in the New York downtown music scene. Her debut single, “Noise,” released last February, simmered with soulful passion and bemoans the finality of lost love. “It was one of those songs that was a very free idea and came out when I was working with someone, who was playing piano,” she says. “I had a lot going on in my head and I was like, Hey, let’s chat. Let me get something out of me. And it all fell out. I wish that happened more—lightning bolt strikes of inspiration.” The rest of the year was a blur: she performed for Collina Strada at the designer’s Spring/Summer 2020 fashion show, collaborated with art/fashion collective Vaquera at MoMA PS1, and completed a national tour—her first time on the road!—with Cat Power.
Zsela grew up in the creative space (her mother, Kate Sterlin, is a photographer and her half-sister Tessa Thompson is an actress most famous from the Marvel franchise and her role on HBO’s Westworld) but she didn’t really get serious about music until her friend sent her demos to Joanna Cohen, a music manager. That led to an introduction to Daniel Aged, a producer who has helmed hit-making tracks for John Legend, Beck, and Tinashe. Five years or so later, today marks a milestone for the 25-year-old artist: the long-awaited birth of her debut EP, Ache of Victory. Aptly named, the five-song release continues Zsela’s brilliant ability to bottle vulnerabilities (“It’s all I’ve known how to be,” she says) into haunting and melodic chorals. Fueled by past pains, the musical confessional sees Zsela as soft as ever—but not defeated. “Treat me like the one you want / Though I know you’re coming up for air,” she coos on “For Now,” the EP’s first release. “That’s all and I won’t/ Let them see you/ When you’re down.” Here, the singer-songwriter speaks to CR about evolution, empathy, and the victory of release.
How would you describe your sound?
“I don’t really like to describe it as a definitive thing, because I want to always be evolving with my sound. My [last single], ‘Noise’ was very vocally driven, sparse, and minimal with production and all the sounds that we have incorporated.”
Your name has been around for quite some time, but you’ve never had a full body of work—why do you think Ache of Victory took five years to put together?
“It was important for me to be patient with the process, and not rush to release something I didn’t feel 100 percent about putting out into the world. That took time. I haven’t seen the EP out yet as a body of work, but so far it’s felt really good to get a few songs out. It’s been a very cathartic release for me.”
How do the songs on Ache of Victory compare to “Noise”?
“They exist in the same world. ‘Noise’ was very much an introduction to Ache of Victory. I wanted that to set to the tone for what to expect from the EP but still wanted to let it exist on its own. I’ve found that in my writing, I never really focused on one person or thing; it’s like a fluid weaving in and out of different tenses, whether I’m talking about myself, different relationships, or my family. ‘Noise’ was a really good example of me being like, Oh, this is about this person and this is about this person. It was this stream of consciousness and it felt like something I needed to get out of me culminating from a lot of different relationships.”
What is the most common reaction to your music?
“I think the things that are really beautiful—and that have stuck with me the most—are the ways in which people have responded to it. It’s really emotional and felt really personal. In their responses, I can feel they’re with me as I was in the song, even though they have no idea who or what I’m talking about. They’ve taken it into their own.”
Did you always want to be a singer?
“I didn’t. My mom recently reminded me of the fact that I wanted to own nail salon. I went into college undecided and had no idea I wanted to do music so I dropped out of SUNY Purchase.”
What made you decide to leave?
“I got into music and wanted to leave. I started making music with someone outside of school, and I just wanted to keep doing that. I’m from Brooklyn. Purchase is in Westchester, and I just didn’t want to be up there. I came into the city, and the city is a beast, so it wasn’t that easy getting back into the shit and being so young and broke. I definitely pushed myself out of a dark place to realize there’s nothing else I wanted to do.”
Did you sing growing up?
“When I was a kid I’d sing, but I was shy. I remember my mom would drop me off at pre-school, and she’d come to pick me up at the end of the year and they’d be like, ‘Zsela said her first word.’ My mom was like, ‘What the fuck. This bitch is always chatting.’ [Laughing.] I’d sing with my dad sometimes, and then the few times I ever performed when I was younger was with him.”
What do you hope people get out of your music?
“I don’t really have any expectations. I’ve been sitting on my music for a minute, and I finally feel like it’s at a place that I’m really excited to share. Sonically, I feel confident with it. I’m excited to let the music live. In the ways that I’ve seen people respond to it, I hope that keeps happening. It’s been really meaningful to hear people using it for healing. Sometimes I’ll put myself down and say, Oh, this is just some sad music, but if people can use it to get through difficult times in their life, then it has a purpose.”
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