VMP Rising is our series where we partner with up-and-coming artists to press their music to vinyl and highlight artists we think are going to be the Next Big Thing. Today we’re featuring Zsela’s debut EP, Ache of Victory.
Birds are chirping when Zsela answers the phone. It’s late April, five days after the release of her debut EP, Ache of Victory — a collection of songs she fine-tuned for nearly three years before setting them free into the world. They paint a portrait of self-discovery and the thorny path it takes to get there, but with the singer-songwriter’s voice going down strong yet smooth, the journey feels calm and poised.
“It’s this over my family talking,” Zsela said over the chatty birds in her parents’ yard, where the previous day she helped a baby bird safely return to its nest. “It was scary,” she added. “The mom came and saw me, and she probably thought I was kidnapping the bird. She flew in, and I almost lost my footing [on] the ladder.”
Zsela, 25, spent the past two months with her own mom, dad, and little brother in Los Angeles, but New York is her normal homebase. Last year, she even shot a music video for “Noise” — her debut single that first made listeners’ ears perk up — smack in the middle of Times Square’s mad rush of People With Places to Go.
Ache of Victory’s visuals had to be less crowded; Zsela’s original plans were canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic, so she got scrappy while staying inside. Her mom, photographer Kate Sterlin, provided lights, and her friend Jasper Marsalis offered his camera. All three pooled their resources and filmed a black-and-white music video for “Undone,” the EP’s grand finale, in just two days. They used heavy black spaces to represent the “sense of void when you’re losing something,” and the haunting clip kicks off with Zsela pouring tears into her eyes.
“I’m so reliant on other people a lot of the time… making music with someone else or having people to do my makeup and stuff,” she explained. “But this, we were like no, this is just the three of us, let’s go.”
“Undone” was a last-minute addition to Ache of Victory. While touring with Cat Power and Angel Olsen in fall 2019, Zsela often closed her sets by singing the song a capella. Right before mastering, she had a “strong feeling” that her EP needed the same ending. The slow and steady verses — “If I were to tell you the faces I put on / The grins and sins and innocence / Would you run with me?” — examine the gritty emotions that make us human.
Vulnerable opener “Drinking” features the “ache of victory” lyric that became the EP’s title. Zsela and producer Daniel Aged, who’s worked with the likes of Frank Ocean and FKA Twigs, tweaked this song’s instrumentals time and time again to get it perfect. Swapping a keyboard piano for a real piano made all the difference, Zsela said, because they wanted to record “people playing real shit” as much as possible.
“It was all very labor of love, because I have no label,” Zsela said about bringing the EP to life in Aged’s basement studio. They tapped musicians “who really cared” about the work: saxophonist Sam Gendal lent his talents to “Liza” and “For Now,” and drummer TJ Maiani joined for “Earlier Days.”
The songs flow together seamlessly, presenting a cohesive body of art that defies genre and puts Zsela’s resounding vocals front and center. She grew up listening to Prince and Tracy Chapman and has gotten numerous comparisons to Sade. More recently, she’s been “obsessed” with Anohni, a singer she listened to as a kid and whose music she’s now rediscovering as an adult. Zsela’s family is full of artists; besides her photographer mom, her dad, Marc Anthony Thompson, has released multiple albums under the name Chocolate Genius, and her half-sister is actress Tessa Thompson.
Ache of Victory also honors Zsela’s grandmother, who provided a direct quote for one song: “The trees are dying prettier than we do,” from “For Now.” There are several references to trees throughout the EP, and Zsela revealed they’re usually a nod to “family-related stuff.”
“She feels claustrophobic around trees,” Zsela said about her grandmother. “We were driving upstate once, and she wanted to see out, but all the trees were so tall and she couldn’t. She likes vast, open spaces, and so she was talking about how like, ‘And they even die prettier than we do…’”
Months after Ache of Victory’s release, amid nationwide protests against police brutality, Zsela shared another timeless quote from her grandmother on Instagram: “It is important that people know what you stand for, it is equally important that they know what you won’t stand for.”
Zsela was candid about Blackout Tuesday in a follow-up email to VMP. “The intention was lost and overtaken by white people trying to ‘show up’ and do the absolute bare minimum,” she wrote about the black squares that flooded social media on June 2 — corporate America’s response to the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black lives lost too soon. “It was disappointing, but not surprising, to see quick and easy performative activism.”
When asked what she hopes future generations learn from 2020, her answer is simple: “VOTE.” She also shared a list of Black artists, activists, writers, and creators she’s been inspired by: Davia Spain, Yves B. Golden, Naeem, Raquel Willis, Slauson Malone, Candice Saint Williams, LA Timpa, Shanekia McIntosh, Joviale, Kiese Laymon, Brandy, Ms. Carrie Stacks, Ian Isaiah, Moses Boyd, Victoria Rowell, Darren Cunningham (aka Actress), Beverly Glenn-Copeland, creative studio Chroma, Laraaji, Sean-Kierre Lyons, Tourmaline, and Joan Armatrading.
Still, Zsela stands out as she builds her own distinctive sound, and Ache of Victory is only the beginning. A remix EP is in the works, she revealed back in April, followed by what will hopefully become a full-length album: “Daniel’s not far, so we’re just going to try to get some shit together remotely.”
In the meantime, her current collection of songs gives you space to take a breath, reflect on life’s sometimes painful twists and turns, and emerge on the other side with a clear head. It feels like a call to move forward.
“Especially with everything going on in the world,” Zsela said, “I feel really grateful that I can provide any kind of healing.”