"I feel like we definitely created a world and stuck with it..."

The pandemic has presented unique challenges for musicians at every level, but it’s been a particularly fraught time for new acts trying to figure out how to get their art into the world in a way that feels both true to them and appropriate for our surreal reality. New York singer-songwriter Zsela grappled with those issues around her debut EP, ‘Ache Of Victory’, but in deciding to go forward with it she gave us one of 2020’s more thoughtful, wondrous projects.

“This time is so crazy, we were wondering if we should put it off or wait, but I felt like I had a lot of security and since there’s so much up in the air with everything going on in the world,” she says. “Keeping the date just felt like something I could have and say, ‘Okay, this is a secure thing in my life right now that I have. I can release this thing that I have been working on forever.’”

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On ‘Ache Of Victory’, Zsela touches on a wide variety of sounds and songwriting styles. From ‘Liza’, which is spacious and abstract (“When the quiet comes / And they don't know your name / In the houses where the money's made) to the hyperspecific, elegiac ‘Drinking’ (“I've been drinking again / I've been losing all my friends”). Zsela’s voice is expressive enough to portray a myriad of emotions.

The EP running the gamut of feelings is fitting given it was written over a period of several years by Zsela, alongside her producer and primary creative partner Daniel Aged (a Frank Ocean collaborator).

“It’s funny to have it span a few years of my life, but those few years I did so much work on myself and so many changes happened that it feels like these songs really spanned centuries for me,” she says.

The constant is her magnetizing voice, which forces a music writer to consider seriously using the dreaded adjective “ethereal,” due to the way it phases in and out of phrases like a ghost through a wall. That quality is put to stellar use on Zsela’s 2019 single ‘Noise’, which rightly showed why she’s gotten multiple Joni Mitchell comparisons, and the EP closer ‘Undone’, which was the only ‘Ache Of Victory’ track that really fell into her lap, creatively.

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Being an independent artist meant Zsela mostly recorded on ‘Ache Of Victory’ in fits and starts when the people she was working with could carve out time. Despite that, the body of work that came from that more erratic process is remarkably fluid. The songs flow into one another like bleary recollections of long nights gone by.

“I was always on other people’s schedules due to the fact that this was a labour love on a lot of people’s parts,” she says. “It’s hard to call anything ‘done’ when it’s in your hands and you can keep tweaking away if you wanted to, but once we got ‘Drinking’ to a place where we were happy with it, everything else was pretty much there.”  

Inspiration struck in unlikely places, such as the lobby of an L.A. warehouse building, where Zsela and Aged found the perfect grand piano after leaving a stuffy downtown studio nearby. Like her video for ‘Noise’, her music feels like it’s already interwoven into reality, creating not only a sense of immersion and escapism but a heightening for our reality. The songs all move at an hurried place, with synths resounding and wavering, and soft sounds from pianos and drums turned up to be more present in the mix. The effect is music that sounds both grande and spare, like standing inside an empty church or walking through a temple’s well-preserved ruins.

“I feel like we definitely created a world and stuck with it, so as a piece it allows for the same kind of space in each song,” she says.

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‘Ache Of Victory’ was released as a physical record from Vinyl Me Please in August, and it is the kind of music that warrants a physical form. Lots of artists strive for organic and use the world liberally to describe their work, but Zsela’s is the kind that feels built as much by roots and leaves as chords and melodies.  

When we spoke, Zsela was quarantining with her family in Los Angeles, with birds trilling in the background. She had begun writing music on guitar for the first time since childhood. “It’s not my city,” she says of L.A., but one thing that’s guaranteed with Zsela is that her music will reflect every emotion she goes through during this transitory time.

Zsela’s first EP was a perfect, thoughtful companion to quarantine, and our expectations for the music she makes during this period are deservingly high.

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Words: Grant Rindner
Photography: Luke Abby

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