Talent and creativity are abundant in the Thompson family. With founder of musical collective Chocolate Genius, Marc Anthony Thompson as a father, Marvel and Men In Black: International star Tessa Thompson as a half-sister, a brother who raps and a photographer mother – Zsela was primed for success from the get-go. “There was a lot of love and support in our home,” says the 24-year-old, “and support for me to create without pressure to pursue it as a career. I’m thankful for that, because I needed to find that pressure in myself”.
Zsela, born and raised in Brooklyn, released her first single back in February this year, though she’s been making music for most of her life. With “Noise”, the singer relies on her low, husky vocals to tell the story of a broken heart, while a sparse arrangement rumbles and swells in the background. Listening to her evocative debut, her voice feels timeless, akin to singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading’s. “I love Joan,” Zsela confirms. “I wanna think we are on a first-name basis. She’s an icon – musically, but also as a queer black woman, she’s a solid person for me to look up to”.
The city Zsela grew up in clearly has a profound impact on her work – noise in itself being one of the most encroaching assaults on the senses in New York. The music video for her debut track, filmed in just one long shot, depicts a busy NYC street swarming with an eclectic mix of people, from rushed commuters to curious tourists. Once you spot Zsela through the visual din, you can’t look away, like when your vision finally locks into an optical illusion. Fixing her gaze onto the camera, she walks with an air of serenity and calm that matches the sombre and personal words of her first release. “Being from this city, it will always inspire whatever I do,” she professes, settling on the concept with director, Daniel Arnold (who shot the Met Gala this year). “It’s an ode to chaos, NYC and the intimacy that lies therein.”
Next for the singer-songwriter is a tour with ‘queen of sadcore’ Cat Power later this year, and plans to make more music, “read more and drink a lot more water”. Describing her style as “minimal” and “moody”, she exudes a laid-back, composed confidence, and she’s keen for people to take what they will from her music. “If it strikes a chord, good or bad, it still did something. I’m happy with that,” she muses. “Even just people listening to lyrics is a plus for me.” Subscribe to the school of Zsela – get your two litres of water a day and take the time to listen.