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Zsela lead best fit exclusive

On the Rise

21 May 2024, 10:30
Words by Kayleigh Watson
Original Photography by Tristan Oliveira

Mexican Summer-signed Brooklyn native Zsela embraces the beauty of uncertainty and opens her heart to the unknown in her experimental pop.

“I totally forgot I’m afraid of heights!”, says Zsela. The American songwriter is currently on a writing sojourn in Hawaii and fresh off the back of an “insane” yet “beautiful” hike up a volcano.

Propped up in a car passenger seat and still high on altitude, she raced back down the mountain to make it back in time for our call. “We got all the way to the top and I was like, ‘It’s so beautiful!’, and then I turned around and was like… it’s really high up here!”

While prone to navigating the dizzying spells of vertigo, Zsela is primed and ready to conquer heights of a different kind. Four years after her EP Ache of Victory, her anticipated debut album Big For You is set to drop on 14th June via Mexican Summer.

In a digital climate where musical trends move quicker than a TikTok algorithm, Zsela’s craft is rooted in the practice of slowing down. The union with her new record label proved very organic; Keith Abrahamsson, one of Mexican Summer’s two founders, was “already a fan of the old stuff” and gave her a lot of space “to be a weirdo.”


For Zsela, Big For You is an experimental project that stretches her songwriting outside of her comfort zone. Collaborating with Daniel Aged and Gabe Wax, both disparate, cross-genre producers known for their work with Frank Ocean and Kelela, and Soccer Mommy and The War on Drugs respectively, Big For You grounds itself in earthy percussion and low slung bass lines while playing with sinewy pop time signatures.

Despite driving a very intentional creative process, when a choice feels immediate, Zsela relinquishes her grip to follow her instincts. As a title, “Big For You” manifested long before any of the tracks came to life.

“I was thinking about this yesterday, because I never really have a title first,” says Zsela. “Sometimes they’ll come and I’m like ‘That’s a cool idea, cool concept’, but often it traps me [creatively] if I stick to it before I know what it is. Sometimes, you can make creative decisions that feel ahead of your time; you learn from what’s inherent in you.”

As time progressed, Zsela found herself leaning into writing to discover why it was a worthy title, serendipitously surrendering to what her art was inviting her to be. She says it’s hard to listen to the right voices, be it her own or in the ether. “There’s a lot of content, information, people – making this album took a lot of practising this muscle of listening and trusting.”

Zsela press exclusive 01 credit Tristan Oliveira

It was a departure from the process behind her 2020 EP Ache of Victory; at the time an unknown talent unburdened by self-consciousness, she wrote only to please herself. With those “insular” days behind her, she has had to think about what it means when “any project becomes ‘not yours’ anymore”. One can but wonder how much of yourself is OK to give away.

As such, Zsela concluded that, to step into the next phase of her journey, she had to find a way to write outside of herself. Her latest single, “Lily of the Nile” sees her embody not one, but two characters in a narrative driven by whirlwind love and lust. Undulating bass and smatterings of synth underpin Zsela’s bountiful vocal, one that flits between full-bodied bass notes and breezy whispers, capturing the bittersweet highs and lows of its titular muse.

“This was my attempt at this runaway bride, Bonnie and Clyde story – I kept calling it a Bride and Clyde,” says Zsela. She portrays her runaway protagonist in the song’s accompanying video, which explores the rosy romanticism and apprehension of committing to vulnerability with another. Whether careering down a freeway or drifting solo on a lake, the theme of a person in love daring to lower their walls remains the same.

“There was this interview once that was like ‘Zsela talks to herself in [her] lyrics’, because there’s always this duality or contradiction going on,” Zsela recalls. “In the album, I feel like that’s been a theme in my writing about the ‘you’; the ‘you’ is universal – but it can also be me.”

Recording can get intense, and Zsela maintains that a key focus of Big For You was to find joy creating, to get curious, even picking up her guitar again. “I was very conscious of trying to follow what feels good. I’ll write a song that brings me to tears but then that’s also fun for me – it’s cathartic!”

Another character Zsela began channelling was Trisha Constantine, whose perspective is explored on “Now Here You Go”. Led by plucky acoustic guitar and bolstered by harmonies, the interlude sees Zsela play with the parameters of her vocal and melody: it is an exercise surmised by ‘What would Tricia do?’

“I had a whole character for her – I was like how far do I go? I went pretty far!” Zsela concludes that, more than anything, it was a tool to get her out of her own head and into a space that felt uncomfortable. “It allowed me to do things that I feel I wouldn’t have written about without it. [But] it was also fun to return home to my voice”.

Zsela press 02 web credit Tristan Oliveira

Zsela comes from a family of “music lovers and music makers”. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, her father, Mark Anthony Thompson, is a neo-soul musician best known for his project Chocolate Genius, Inc. and his work in film; actress Tessa Thompson is her half-sister. Most prominently, she remembers growing up with her mother’s love of Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell, who she herself has come to adore, singing along with abandon when she thought she wasn’t being noticed.

“I literally thought I couldn’t sing louder – I was like,” she whispers dramatically, “this volume. I would whisper a song to my mom and she’d be like ‘Can you sing louder?’ and I was like, ‘No!’ Finding my voice and feeling comfortable has felt like an arrival.”

Zsela has recently been on a journey to rediscover the artists she grew up with in order to appreciate their work from an adult’s perspective – a pursuit that has proven quite eye-opening. “You’ve had that, right? Like when you go back in and [you’re] like ‘They’re saying this? Damn! Joni was a big one.” Producer and friend, Daniel Aged, is also a huge Joni fan, and encouraged her to take a deep dive as they were working on the album.

“He’s been my rock through it all. We independently and collectively love Low End,” Zsela shares, referencing the hip hop sub-genre. “The EP is a testament to what’s comfortable, so [with Big For You], if a song could be pushed, we’d push. There was so much newness and excitement about where we were going sonically and [lyrically], I feel like I often have to catch up with myself and what I'm saying.”

Despite the pursuit of fun, it took Zsela a long time to understand how much heartbreak was underpinning Big For You. She makes frequent reference to “Moth Dance” as the “home” of the album, yet its contemplative longing is palpable; meanwhile tentative and mournful album closer “Play” bottles bittersweet regret before ending on a heartbeat.

Elsewhere and the shuffling drumbeats and peppy melody of “Not Your Angel” capture the buoyant optimism of wanting to be “met” by another – whether a connection be romantic, familial or platonic.

“In love, you gotta meet people and keep that door open,” Zsela says. “But change is really scary and there’s a lot of fear going around. It’s taking that leap – and taking that leap with yourself: will I like that person tomorrow? I like ‘me’ yesterday but I don’t know about ‘me’ today! There’s a conversation going on all the time.”

Most of all, writing Big For You has shown Zsela that matters of the heart are always in flux. “When I say ‘Big for you’, it always translates into my head like ‘I love you’. And when I say ‘I love you’, there’s the flip side, this ache.

“My friend said once, ‘I don’t believe in a means to an end, only a means to a means to a means.’ I hope that you can hear some lightness in that it’s an attempt to welcome the uncertainty and the journey itself, rather than feeling defeated by not getting to a destination.”

Big For You is released on 14 June via Mexican Summer

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