“Even when I was a kid, people would be, like, ‘You sound old,’ ” she said via FaceTime from Los Angeles.
Zsela, 25, came only hesitantly to performing her songs, although she grew up surrounded by music and the arts. Her father is Marc Anthony Thompson, a songwriter who has been recording since the 1980s under his own name and as Chocolate Genius (and with whom Zsela has lately been singing live on Instagram); actress Tessa Thompson is her half-sister. Her mother, fine art photographer Kate Sterlin, came up with Zsela’s name, which is pronounced ZHAY-lah; she took the first syllable from the glamorous-sounding Zsa Zsa Gabor. When Zsela asks her mother what it means, “It’s always changing,” she said. “It just is.”
Zsela was a shy child who avoided singing in front of anyone, though she wrote songs with a guitar. Her parents urged her to go to college, and she attended SUNY Purchase, where she studied studio composition and production before deciding to drop out. She moved to New York City and started writing and recording songs, collaging snippets of words and music. “I have this whole bank of lyrics, and they’re from different times and they’re from different things,” she said. “So drawing from it is telling a story that’s not like linear time at all.”
For a while, she recalled, “I was not sharing them with anyone. None of my friends that I would hang out with knew that I could sing.”
Still, her secret slipped out. One friend sent her demos to her future manager, who arranged for Zsela to meet a producer, Daniel Aged, who has also worked with Frank Ocean and FKA twigs. She visited his home studio, he started noodling on a baritone guitar and “eventually she started to sing,” he said by phone from Los Angeles.
“I was immediately touched by the sound of her voice,” he said. “I heard a command, a certainty in her voice, a strength. Obviously she has an amazing tone, vocally and everything, but just the intention around the melodies and around the words is what really touched me. There’s certain singers, the tone of them — it feels good to my heart.”
They began the lengthy process of refining Zsela’s songs into recordings, painstakingly constructing them from the top down. Zsela and Aged sought out the harmonies and instrumentation to cradle her melodies and lyrics. “He was giving me the space to take control and find my voice,” she said. “Through the whole process it was like, ‘Oh God, this is what I wanted to do.’ But I still was like slow and steady with the music, ’cause I was like, ‘If I’ve waited this long before I put something out, I’ll just dig into this and have it be the best that I can make it.’”
The tracks they built rely on imperturbably sustained keyboards, layers of Zsela’s voice in unison and harmony, subdued electronic percussion and myriad near-subliminal sounds. They tried various tempos but eventually decided that the songs all worked best at an almost monolithically slow pace. In February 2019, they finally declared one finished and released “Noise,” which contemplates “packing up the pieces of a broken love affair,” as a single and video.
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Zsela had also started playing her music live: at clubs like Joe’s Pub and Baby’s All Right, at fashion events and at art museums including the Whitney and MoMA P.S. 1. Onstage, she said, “I channel a different kind of confidence or something.” She interspersed her own developing songs with favorites from Nina Simone, Tim Buckley and Madonna; she would often begin her sets with a deep electronic drone, and end them singing a cappella to the audience that she had brought to hushed attention. In fall of 2019, she toured as the opening act for Cat Power, another languidly pensive songwriter.
“When I first met Zsela I didn’t know what was coming, what she was capable of,” Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, said via text message. “When I finally heard her soothing timeless voice, her depth of frequencies and vocal toning were a healing unchained vibrant triumph.”
Though it was by no means planned that way, “Ache of Victory” is fitting music for self-quarantine: a richly introspective, solitary reverie on connections made, lost and remembered. The music wells up around Zsela, mysteriously opening out from sparse beginnings to boundless depths, as her lyrics wander between the oblique and the starkly exposed: “I know how to lose/I taught myself when I found you,” she sings in “Earlier Days.”
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The album’s long gestation “taught me to take my time, taught me to be patient,” Zsela said. “It’s taught me to really let go of the fear.”
“I in no way intend for this to box me in to ‘only slow,’” she added. “I can go places if I want to afterward — like, if I want to make a country album. I just needed this to be like this.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .