Art

Zsela Arrives Just in Time

Whitney Mallett

Photography by Laura Ciriaco

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Zsela styled by Erin Pinover. Zsela wears a Barragán top on the Lower East Side.

“I finally got over myself and was like—this is the only thing you care about,” says Brooklyn-born Zsela, recounting how she made the decision to commit to music. It might seem an obvious trajectory given that her father, Marc Anthony Thompson aka Chocolate Genius Inc., has made a career of it, but Zsela ran away from music for a while. Sitting at a café across the street from Fort Greene Park, just blocks from where the 25-year-old grew up, she furrows her wide-set brows trying to remember why she hesitated. “I don’t know; it’s so unstable, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to do this just because my dad says I have a good voice.’”

Zsela has a voice that makes your whole body feel it’s being wrung of emotions like a wet towel. It’s a voice that summons demons and heartache, and when she sings a cappella, I get goosebumps. It’s not flawless but it’s expressive, and therefore it’s perfect. In her second single “Earlier Days,” which she self-released at the summer’s end, she stretches vowels like remembering stretches time, her intonation at once wayward and soothing. Live, her voice is almost startling, low and steady, yet a reminder of how fleeting it all is. And with sold-out shows, major press and gigs with the likes of Angel Olsen and Dev Hynes, it’s clear I’m not the only one who’s smitten.

Gauntlett Cheng top; Barragán skirt.

Things have happened relatively quickly for Zsela, who only really started performing her music less than two years ago— but that’s in part because she was already deeply invested in the New York creative scene. After several years living on the West Coast and then Upstate, she moved back to the city at 19 and quickly became something of a known entity in the nightlife world, making friends with many of the fashion designers who now dress her for shoots and shows: Telfar, Luar, Arielle de Pinto. “I was meeting a lot of people but a lot of them were ten years older than me and had already done their thing. They were in more of a place where they could be out all the time,” she admits. “It took me a minute to realize I needed to make some changes.” Reintroducing herself as a musician, Zsela says, “I just had to get over what people thought of me.” She also had to take a break from the city for a bit. She hid away upstate in Hudson where she’d gone to high school (“a small Waldorf school on a farm with like 15 kids”), and there worked on songwriting. Then she went to LA and connected with Daniel Aged, half of the fraternal neo-R&B duo Inc., who’s produced for artists like Kelela, Moses Sumney, and Kelsey Lu. “I finally started making music that I really heard myself in,” explains Zsela, whose songs are driven as much by her haunting voice as her storytelling lyrics. “It’s hard, but writing a song is the best feeling in the world.”

Nina Simone, Tracy Chapman, and Arthur Lee of the ’60s band Love are some of Zsela’s biggest influences—all artists she was introduced to as a kid. “My parents had such good taste,” she acknowledges. But discovering Fiona Apple in high school was also pivotal. “My dad really didn’t like her,” she admits, smiling to say that made her like the angsty icon even
more. “I remember seeing the ‘Criminal’ music video. I didn’t grow up with a TV but I was at my friend’s house and we were watching that one-hit-wonder show. After, I looked her shit up and was like, ‘One hit? What the hell are you talking about? My girl’s got so many hits.’” Another more recent discovery is Nick Cave’s catalog. “I’m a sucker for really strong, deep voices,” Zsela confesses before skipping off on a Cave-inspired tangent. “I always wanted to have a man’s voice. If I had a man’s voice, I could get away with saying so much shit!”

Barragan skirt worn as stop. Makeup by Cirsty Burton; hair by Latisha Chong.

Zsela’s debut EP is due out before the end of the year, and this fall she’s opening for Cat Power on a North American tour. The way the tour came together was serendipitous, to say the least. Zsela was just becoming re-obsessed with an older Cat Power album when she crossed paths with the indie singer-songwriter at a dinner: “I was like, ‘I never do this, but fuck it, I’m going to
say something.’” Long story short: Cat Power had known Zsela’s father and remembered her from when she was a kid. “She told me this whole story of when she was working at a photocopy shop and my dad brought me by. I was learning to read, and he was like, ‘Do you have any tips for my little girl?’ She told me I needed to sing the words like ‘Ar-i-zo-na, Ar-i-zo-na,’ and I was like, ‘A-ma-zo-na, A-ma-zo-na.’” Cat Power remembered going to one of Chocolate Genius Inc.’s concerts later that month and he had a song called “My Little Amazona Girl.” Zsela called him up to say that for all these years, she didn’t know that song of his was about her: “He was like, ‘I forgot, but I’m sure she’s right.’”