zsela finds intimacy in the chaos of times square

Hot off her performance at MoMA PS1 for designers Vaquera, i-D goes behind-the-scenes of her debut music video.

by Coco Romack
26 June 2019, 2:28pm

24-year-old songbird Zsela is quickly finding her way within New York’s creative cliques. She’s modeled for LVMH Fashion Fund nominee Collina Strada, has been featured by Vogue and The New York Times for her idiosyncratic style, and has brought her contemporary take on old-school vocals to fine art institutions. Like, say, MoMA. She recently sang a haunting, deconstructed and mixed up version of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at MoMA PS1, wearing a metallic bralette beneath an off-the-shoulder gingham dress by Vaquera, and this week she’ll take the stage at queer collective Papi Juice’s World Pride party.

But as a solo artist, she’s ready to make moves. She dropped her first single “Noise” in April, a slow-transfixing ballad about the discovery and loss of intimacy. Quavering over a sparse track, it’s a compelling debut, indicative of Zsela’s bluesy pop vernacular: It’s 5 A.M. somewhere / They’re packing up of the pieces / Of a broken love affair / And making it look easy.

An accompanying music video places the musician, who grew up in Brooklyn (her father is the musician Marc Anthony Thompson and older sister is actress Tessa Thompson), in the love-hated skyscraping center of New York: Times Square. Directed by the photographer Daniel Arnold, known for his humorous documents of everyday Midtown moments, Zsela emerges — slow, statuesque — from a thick crowd of tourists, costumed street performers, and businessmen. Zsela’s eyes meet the viewer’s, mouthing the deeply personal lyrics as she walks towards the camera. Together, it reads as both a love letter to the frenetic energy of the city and an acknowledgement of its ability to isolate.

Behind-the-scenes snapshots tell a different story, however, showing the musician laughing and playing with the crew (all the while breezily rocking an understated Luar jacket). i-D shares them here, catching up with Zsela — who’s working on an upcoming EP and preparing for a fall tour with Cat Power — about Tracy Chapman, her fashionable friends, and a longtime fear of stairs.

You come from a musical family. Could you tell us about how you started making music?
My dad is a musician, and he's always been an inspiration to me. He's a weirdo and has always pushed boundaries, never conforming to one genre. So growing up with him, I was always around music. I would always sing with him. I was young when I started writing songs — I remember I wrote my first song using just a tape recorder. But I only got serious about music recently, in the past two or three years.

You covered “Like a Prayer” by Madonna at MoMA PS1 recently as part of Vaqueraoke: A Return to Oz , where you completely stripped the song down and gave it this incredibly moving a cappella edit.
When I perform live I like to start with a cappella because it sets the tone a bit. Because my music is minimal, setting a tone like that demands a certain level of attention before I go in and bare my soul. I get to a really vulnerable place sometimes, which I really enjoy, but it’s important that I feel I have a safe place to do so.

Besides Madonna, who are some other artists who inspire you?
I love Andre 3000. Martha Wainwright. And I grew up with songbirds like Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman — I really want to meet her.

Tracy Chapman?
Yeah. I heard she's just around in San Francisco. My parents’ friend has a bar and she comes in all the time. She just seems chill.


What was it like growing up in New York?
It was fun. I lived in Fort Greene in Brooklyn. My mom is really into hosting and entertaining and having dinner parties, so our porch and our house had a lot of people coming in and out. It was just very community-oriented — neighborhood vibes.

My mom was 21 when she had me, and imagining her having me here is so crazy. I was so afraid of stairs.

You were afraid of stairs?
Yeah! I really feel for her. Out of all the things I could have been afraid of, that's really inconvenient in New York!

But yeah, my parents were just in town from California and we were walking around my old neighborhood and it was really wild to see the change. It's very gentrified and white now. All babies.


You recently released your first video for your debut single “Noise.” What’s the significance of focusing on Times Square in the music video?
I actually lived there for a minute. My grandmother lived in a building for artists for over 10 years. She was gone for three months, so I stayed there around the time that I wrote “Noise.” It was wild to live there — getting off the train and constantly being in Times Square. Every New Yorker goes, "Yuck, Times Square. It's the worst.” But there's something about that chaos that I love.

Daniel Arnold, the director, has such a beautiful eye for this city. We wanted to capture the chaos but also its diversity.

Could you tell us about the meaning behind that song?
It’s about finding intimacy in the chaos, and how being in the city can wear you down sometimes. At the time, I wasn't writing that much. I had a lot going on in my head and in my life. But when I wrote "Noise" — and this doesn't happen that often — it just needed to get out of me. I remember I was with my friend, and we sat at a piano and just expelled this thing.

You’ve been featured in Vogue and The New York Times for your style. How would you describe your relationship with fashion, and do you feel it engages with your own practice?
I have a lot of friends who make cool shit, and I love supporting them by wearing their clothes. Now that I’m doing more shows, it's fun to incorporate them and elevate my performance.

I picture myself as scrappy and resourceful when it comes to my fashion. I'm always on the go, and I've moved around so much. So it's been fun building relationships with my friends and what they do. Like with Vaquera — I just love them so much and it makes me feel grounded.

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