“Wine on the carpet / Wait till you find it / I don’t have the strength to hide it,” sings NYC singer-songwriter Zsela on her debut EP’s opening track ‘Drinking’, a song that paints a vivid picture of the struggles of addiction: knowledge of the harm it inflicts (“I’ve been drinking again / I’ve been losing all my friends”) as well as the cycles of abstinence and relapse so hard to break (“Watch you fall / To watch you start again“). But it’s Zsela’s voice – stark and solemn; poignant yet mournful, backed only by faint piano and sporadic drums – that really drives the message home, one of those voices that truly speaks to your core.
Much of the five-track release, ‘Ache of Victory’, follows in this vein, each song sparsely arranged, all centred around the subtle magnetism of Zsela’s vocal delivery. It’s an intentional move too, with the sparing, minimal production of collaborator Daniel Aged (Kelela, Moses Sumney, Frank Ocean) affording Zsela’s talents to take centre spotlight, never looking to detract or overwhelm. “Daniel’s into making space for my voice,” she recently told The New York Times. “It leaves a lot of room for my melodies and the lyrics to come through.”
The 25-year-old, full name Zsela Thompson, cites her main influences as singer-songwriters before her whose voices also permeated deep: Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Elysian Fields’ Jennifer Charles, and, specifically, Joan Armatrading. Zsela says of the latter: “She’s an icon – musically, but also as a queer black woman, she’s a solid person for me to look up to”. There are hints of Zsela’s contemporaries in her sound too, like the fragility of Tirzah (on ‘Liza’), or haunting balladry of Aldous Harding (such as on EP highlight ‘For Now’, or the largely a capella closer ‘Undone’).
Born part of a hugely creative family (her mother’s a photographer, father a musician better known by his stage name Chocolate Genius, while her half-sister is none than actress and Marvel star Tessa Thompson), Zsela’s been singing from a young age but it’s only the past few years that she’s fully focused on music, taking her time, she says, to “really get these songs to a place where I could feel good about releasing them”. This sense of perfectionism is plainly felt on ‘Ache of Victory’, with every track patiently unravelling and each of Zsela’s utterances sounding sharp and deliberate.
Of course, with such stripped-back production comes the risk of things sounding too monochromatic and single-note. Its shared palette of mostly metronomic drum fills and gentle keys means that songs often bleed into one another, despite Zsela’s captivating melodies. There are moments when the backdrop does brighten a little – like the driving crescendo at the close of ‘Drinking’ or the warped horns opening penultimate track ‘Liza’ –and the arrangements are all the richer for it.
‘Ache of Victory’ ultimately makes clear why Zsela’s early acclaim has seen her opening for the likes of Angel Olsen and Cat Power, and, thanks to a handful of runway after-party shows, has even led to her being dubbed “the New York fashion scene’s newest muse”. Make no mistake about it though, despite her links to the fashion world, this is most definitely a case of substance over style.
- Release date: April 24
- Record label: Self-released