“Every time I come to New Mexico I have to make it a point to order some black beans.” One thing you can say about Zella Day (21) is that she has retained her love and spirit for the southwest even though her music has now taken her around the world. Really starting to come into her own as a singer/songwriter after the release of her debut album Kicker last year, Day is way more grounded than your average twenty-one year old. A free-spirited maturity is all over the record; a confidence that enables her to broaden her mind without the meekness that might shut down truthful hurts. With a voice that lilts over a melody like sweet honey, songs like “Jerome,” “Compass,” “Hypnotic” and “Shadow Preachers” transform into powerful confessions of the heart. “Sometimes I have to close my eyes when I’m listening to these songs, because I feel like I’m telling everyone all my secrets,” Day said upon the release. “But at the same time I’m proud that I was able to be that fearless and not hold back from putting so much truth into the album.”
Born into a music-filled household in small town Pinetop, Arizona, Day was always encouraged in her creative endeavors. At nine, she sang at open mic nights at her grandmother’s coffee shop. At thirteen, she recorded a record. At twenty, she released Kicker. She’s been on tour with Fitz & The Tantrums and will be going out with Michael Franti next month. The world seems to be her oyster at the moment, yet she lacks the stereotypical ego that can come along with budding stardom. It’s not in her nature.
So last week while Miss Day was sitting in front of a plate of those tempting black beans – “Are you kidding, I can totally talk and eat at the same time. I’m really good at it,” she says with a laugh – she talked with us about songwriting, revealing emotions and playing her music to a Russian crowd that knew the words to her songs.
What has been going on in your world recently?
Well, we have tonight’s show [in Albuquerque] and tomorrow’s show in Phoenix that mark the end of my tour with Fitz & The Tantrums. Before touring with Fitz & The Tantrums, I was doing headlining dates. I did about twenty headlining dates and then I’d say around fifteen dates with Fitz. So that’s kind of coming to an end and then starting in August, I’m going on tour with Michael Franti, which is kind of up and down the West Coast, and playing Mammoth, I’m doing Colorado, going up to Oregon and that’s going to last about a month. So I am touring all the way through September. I just came out with a new music video for “Mustang Kids.” Then this Fall I am also coming out with a couple of new singles, dropping some new music that nobody has heard yet. It’s a good time right now.
Kicker has been out a while now
Yeah, it’s been out for like a year, a year and three months, so it’s fresh. All depending on how a record does and what it’s doing out in the market, some people tour off their records for two years. But mine has been different. We’ve had like moderate success, which is awesome because it’s really given me a platform for touring and introduced me to an audience. So now I kind of have a place in the world that I’ve carved out for myself and I’m really anticipating releasing new music and continuing the bond
You’ve kind of referred to Kicker as a relationship-type album, kind of the bookends of a relationship.
I would say that you were right that Kicker is a relationship album but it represents my relationship to my home, where I come from, Pinetop, Arizona. While I was writing Kicker I was moving my life from Arizona to California and I was reflecting a lot on where I had been and what Arizona was to me and my life and what it meant moving forward in this new world and all the people that came along with it. So it was a very emotional time. My family had kind of split up. My dad stayed in Arizona and my mom and my sister came to California with me and we were living in Long Beach. So it was a very hectic time in everybody’s life, which is inspiring because, I mean, there is a lot to say about pain and the depths of pain and I had felt the depths of pain like I had never really felt before and a lot of it is on Kicker. I’d say some good examples of songs that represent that pain would be “Jameson” and “Compass.”
Would you say that pain is the dominant emotion on there?
No, I would say that the record is split into two things. There is definitely a side of the record that’s optimistic, optimistically brave I would say. When I moved to LA, I was so excited and very new and unfazed by LA and what it was. In my head, the world was at my fingertips and I was just starting to explore this city and what it meant to be in a city cause I had grown up in a really small town of 7,000 people. So there is a beautiful optimistic side to Kicker. And then there is a darker side, which I think is kind of the way life works and how a lot of people are. There is no dark without light and we’re experiencing both all the time. So Kicker is a good combination of both places that I was.
Which emotion are you seeing showing up on your new music?
I’d say now after three and a half years of living in LA and about one and a half years of touring around the world, meeting new people, being exposed to lots of new music, reading about different cultures and being amongst different cultures, I’m really figuring out who I am as an independent woman and living on my own and falling in love with the right person and how that’s all affected me. It’s been very positive and the new music is much more lighter but at the same time a little bit more rooted in who I am. When I was writing Kicker, I was like seventeen and eighteen and I’m now twenty-one, which doesn’t seem like a big difference but I would say I’m a lot different now two years later after all the things I’ve experienced. And I still have so much growing to do and a lot of learning to do but the new music is a good documentation of where I’m at right now, which is very healthy and very much alive.
As a songwriter, does it have to be real for you to write about it?
I have to be real in my life. Whether I am around somebody else or a friend or a close friend that is going through an experience and I’m inspired by it or whether it’s myself, I have to experience it firsthand at least to be able to write about it. Then again, I do bring in fictional characters sometimes into my music. Like on Kicker you’ll hear Josey Wales and Shakespeare’s Ophelia on the song “Sweet Ophelia.” So I do sometimes draw correlations between my life and fantasy but it does start in a very real place of real emotions because if it doesn’t have some kind of emotional root then I can’t connect.
What triggered you to write a song instead of a poem or just a journal entry?
I was surrounded by music growing up. I’ve always been a singer. My mother is also a singer. My mother and my grandmother ran a coffee shop called Mor Mor Coffee that gave me my first stage actually. Friday nights they had live music and I hopped up there with a guitar when I was nine years old. So music was something that I was just so enthralled by and taken by and passionate about. I was also really inspired by words. I was listening to a lot of poetic lyricists growing up like Bob Dylan and The Beatles and Joni Mitchell and a lot of Bob Marley and they kind of triggered that sort of writer’s passion, the writer’s fire, in me. So I started just putting words to music when I was young and, I don’t know, it sort of just escalated the older that I got and that was kind of my outlet, or acted as an outlet for me.
When you were singing at your grandma’s coffee shop, were you singing any originals?
I was. I mean, I was pretty little so the songs were from the heart of a nine year old, ten year old. But I was not afraid to share songs that I was writing at the time and I actually recorded a record when I was thirteen years old and it was called Powered By Love and it’s a beautiful record actually and I am very proud of it. I would like to re-release it maybe someday down the road as a children’s album. I’m very proud of it. It sounds very Jack Johnson and the music is young and sweet. So yeah, I have always been a writer and it’s a special thing for me to be able to kind of listen to the records that I am creating and reflect on where I’m at. It really is a true documentation of my growth as a person. I’m lucky that I get to do it through song.
When you are performing, do you gage the song’s impact on the audience from their faces or from the applause?
Their faces. I am really sensitive to my audience and I’m really sensitive to the people in the room and it heavily affects my performance. I mean, applause is great and of course you want someone to clap after you just spilled your heart out onstage. But at the same time you can really tell from somebody’s expression if they are engaged and if they are with you and if they’re really hearing what you’re saying. So I’d say facial expression and body language.
You capture your sound so well in the studio, which is almost kind of strange since you’re such a free spirit. How do you keep from going overboard with the electronics?
Well, my roots are in singer/songwriter acoustic guitar so I’ve always written songs very organically. So getting into the studio and experimenting with bigger sounds and program drums and synthesizers was something that I was excited about but also very cautious about. I was always checking myself. It was like checks and balances with me and my producers and figuring out how to keep the music very authentic and genuine to who I am and how I write songs but also create a sound that is big enough to live on a stage like Coachella. So I think I figured out a way to kind of live in both worlds. I can play all the songs on the record broken down on a guitar and that’s very important to me. The songs are strong and the bones of the songs are real songs.
What can you tell us about the opening track, “Jerome”?
Jerome is where my parents got married and also where my name comes from. When my parents were looking around Jerome, which is a small copper mining town in Arizona, it’s in the side of a mountain and it’s beautiful. It’s actually one of the most haunted cities in America. So they found my name in a Jerome history museum. They were looking through a yearbook of all the people that had settled in Jerome and all the miners that had been there and had worked in the copper mines in the 1840’s and one of the copper miner’s wives was named Zella. And that’s where my name comes from and I always had this idea of who she was and what she went through in the town. So “Jerome” is just about the ghost of Zella, really.
What about “Shadow Preachers”
“Shadow Preachers” is about all of the conflicting feelings that you experience when you’re in a relationship and how hot and cold it can be. When you’re so in love with somebody, I mean, it’s kind of an age-old saying that the person you’re most in love with can make you the most angry. And I experienced that with a relationship I had in LA and the arguments that we would get in that would take me to places in my brain that I had never been before. It was a really passionate relationship and sometimes the darkness overtook it. So “Shadow Preachers” is about that turmoil.
And you just did a video for “Mustang Kids”
“Mustang Kids” was a beautiful opportunity for me to tell people and show people where I come from and what it was like growing up in a very small town being an artist and how oppressed it was but figuring out that no matter what, no matter where you are, it really is about the fire and the passion within you that can take you anywhere you want to go. I physically removed myself from a small town by sticking to and being convicted to my music and really believing that what I was doing was what I was supposed to do. And here I am four or five years later touring the country and I come from pretty much the middle of nowhere. I wanted to kind of sing about that and make a music video about that because I know there is a lot of kids out there that relate because talent doesn’t mean that you come from LA or that you come from New York or Nashville or have parents in the industry. It just matters who you are and what you believe in and sticking with your talent and sticking with your gut.
What do you think is the biggest mistake a songwriter can make?
The biggest mistake a songwriter can make is being intimidated by outside opinion. I’ve had to learn that not everybody is going to like my music and that’s okay because if everybody liked my music I would be doing something wrong. I would rather have controversial music and a controversial sound rather than appease everyone at the same time. That’s what makes it special. You have people that find you and are connecting with your words and it makes you different and unique and not everybody is going to connect and that’s okay. But I guess getting over the fact that not everybody is going to like what you are doing.
When was your first “I can’t believe I am here” moment?
Probably when I played Moscow last winter and I played in front of a crowd of 500 people. It was such a revelation for me that my music was reaching farther and wider than I ever imagined. I mean, further than I had ever been. Physically, I had never dreamed of going to Russia, had never been to Russia before, but somehow my music had made it’s way across the world and into the homes of people that I had never met or shaken hands with or been a part of and that’s sort of the mystique of music and the magic of it and what it does. It really is more than you and it’s more than human. So being onstage in Russia and playing to people that were so engaged and so welcoming, it was a beautiful thing. I am so excited and so addicted to that feeling of sharing and being embraced by the world.