Zella Day: The Best of What's Next

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On a rare overcast afternoon in drought-riddled Los Angeles, singer-songwriter Zella Day is delighting in the weather as she sits down for tea outside a café in Silver Lake, her recently adopted neighborhood. Looking like a ’90s alt-rocker dressed in a red flannel shirt and black jeans, the 19-year-old Pinetop, Arizona native has just arrived from band rehearsal. “It’s almost like the quiet before the storm,” Day says, but she’s no longer talking about the weather. With a debut LP planned for 2015, she’s referring to the momentum that her music is currently generating.

The next day, she’ll head to San Francisco for a show, then return to L.A. for another performance the following week. It’s been just three weeks since the release of her eponymous EP, which coincided with performances at CMJ in New York, where she was recognized on the street for the first time by a pair of tween girls. There have been private industry showcases and talks with label execs since then, while her EP track, “Hypnotic,” was picked as an iTunes Single of the Week.

“It’s become clear to me that everything I’ve worked for is very real, and it’s happening more so than ever before,” Day says. “Things are going to get a lot busier, but I’m still finding time to create and put everything into my art.”

Her breakout has been years in the making, with periodic highlights along the way. In 2012, Day’s acoustic cover of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” rose to the top of Hype Machine’s chart. That feat was repeated earlier this year with her own composition, “Sweet Ophelia,” a sun-flared pop track that begins with a blown-out beat and builds to a soaring, synth-boosted chorus. Similarly lush hooks surface throughout her four-track EP. Some journalists have mistakenly labeled Day as an electro-pop artist, while others have looked to her style in photos to peg her sound. She’s diplomatic about comparisons to Lana Del Rey:

“I can see it because there is a very timeless element to both of our sounds,” Day says, before countering: “But after people watch me perform, they don’t tell me I sound like Lana Del Rey.”

Day’s folk and rock leanings are more evident in her live performances. Covers of The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” or Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” might turn up in her set. She points out that all of her songs originate on guitar and that even her most produced and polished tracks can be performed acoustically. Day grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell but reasons that their influence was more intellectual. She appreciated how their songs transported her to another realm, something that she strives to do with her music. Layered with metaphor, “Sweet Ophelia” is about losing virginity.

“Growing up, I saw that as something that was impactful in all of my friends’ lives,” Day explains. “I saw girls so torn apart by that, and it really affected me. I always ended up feeling bad for my friends because when that starts happening in high school, girls are emotionally ready for more than boys are. For a girl, it always seemed that there was an expectation with losing your virginity to get something back in return, and they never got back what they thought they were going to. It was very unfulfilling.”

Two of Day’s EP tracks, “East of Eden” and the gospel-inflected ballad, “Compass,” were inspired by Pinetop, her small hometown located in the White Mountains of Arizona, about a four-hour drive from Phoenix and Tucson. Zella Day Kerr was born to a contractor/developer father and a mother who, at different periods, sang in rock and jazz bands. Zella was named after the wife of a mine owner whom her parents discovered while learning about the history of Jerome, Arizona, where they married. Day’s mom also ran Mor Mor Coffee House, which was co-owned by Zella’s grandmother. The name was a nod to Day’s heritage, mormor being Swedish for maternal grandmother (mom’s mom).

Day learned to play “Blowin’ in the Wind” on guitar at 9 years old, aided by a chord chart written by her aunt’s boyfriend. She’d already been making up songs, her first being about a boy in her first-grade class who attracted longing stares from her. One musician, a frequent visitor to Mor Mor, showed young Zella chord shapes and wrote out progressions to songs for her. When she wasn’t developing her guitar skills, the nascent songwriter spent her time playing soccer and snowboarding on the local Apache reservation. Her gravitation to guitar was a byproduct of her love of singing.

“My mom was against me just being a singer, ‘cause she was only a singer and couldn’t play an instrument,” Day says. “She always felt a little held back, and she didn’t want me to be held back.”

At talent shows, Day would play The White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends” or Fefe Dobson’s “Julia,” the latter once earning her a prize of $200, which she spent on an iPod Nano. By the age of 12, her mom was driving her to Phoenix once a week to serious guitar lessons, where she began to learn theory. At 13, she recorded Powered by Love, a solo album consisting of nine originals (and one cover), with titles such as “Red Pants” and “Mr. Bird” among them. “Children love that record,” Day says, noting that she hopes to re-release it when she’s more established. By 15, she was traveling to Nashville for writing sessions through BMG Publishing.

“My mom would drive me four hours down the hill, and we would get on a plane and go over to Nashville and stay there for a week, and I’d write music and come back and go to high school,” Day remembers. “It was hard to get off the mountain. There is an airport, but there are no major connecting flights, so they’ll take you to Phoenix, but that’s it. Obviously, that’s way expensive.”

For one of her Nashville writing sessions, Day was paired with Meghan Trainor (“All About That Bass”). The two sized each other up before collaborating on the song “Moon-Time Mess.”

“She was 18 and I was 16,” Day recalls. “We ended up writing a kick-ass song together. It sounds like a Fleet Foxes song. It’s in drop D, like nothing you would expect after hearing her single.”

A fan of country music, Day admits to having a twangy side, but she grew discontented with how far she was being led in that direction while in Nashville. In seeking a more modern sound, she teamed with Wally Gagel and Xandy Barry of WAX LTD in Los Angeles, her producers to this day. As this professional partnership in L.A. began to flourish, life in Pinetop was becoming more complicated.

“School was a struggle for me,” Day confesses. “I’m a very social person; I loved my friends. I was on the varsity soccer team. I was very ingrained in high school social life. But, at the same time, I was traveling for music, so I was doing something that nobody else did and nobody else really understood. It was something in my life that was separate from my friends, so it was really hard to talk about it. And then me being gone and traveling, there was kind of a disconnect. As kids, I don’t think we know how to support someone doing their thing as much as we know how to be like, ‘Oh, you think you’re better than us.’ I was always hanging out with older people as well. So I was a freshman hanging out with the seniors, and that got kind of messy. I left high school feeling lonely. But I was OK with that, because I really love music, and I wasn’t willing to cut off that part of my life to be in high school. It was a very conscious sacrifice that I made.”

Day’s other passion was soccer. She was selected to an Arizona Olympic Development Program roster that competed for the Donosti Cup in Madrid, where her team earned second place. She hoped to play collegiate soccer while also pursuing music, but that dream ended after she broke her ankle and had screws inserted. Compounding matters at home, Day’s parents divorced. Her mother needed to find work and start over, so Zella and her younger sister, Mia, moved with her to Long Beach, California, where they already had family and support in place. Mia, who by chance was signed to a modeling agency after being discovered by a scout at the Grove shopping center in L.A., enrolled in public high school. Zella, a sophomore, chose to finish high school with online courses, which allowed her the freedom to travel and perform.

“That was a really hard time in my life,” Day says. “Coming from a small town and living in Long Beach and doing online high school was rough—sitting in my house five hours a day reading all of my lessons and filling out worksheets.”

During this interview, Day is shown a copy of the Powered by Love CD that she recorded when she was 13. She comments that the sight of it makes her nostalgic and happy. To her, the album represents all the people that believed in her as a kid. Without any expectations of monetary return, a friend of her parents invested $20,000 so that she could record the songs. The CD artwork was done by designers for free, on the condition that someday she’d pay it forward.

“When I started traveling for music and having this dream, the people around me saw it, recognized it, and wanted to feed it,” Day says, explaining that she faced little criticism being the only one in town pursuing this endeavor. “It was like an alternate reality to what life is like here, where I’m inundated with such talented people that are really killing it—my peers. I had to get used to that, moving out here and realizing that I’m not the only one after all. It’s not all about me.”

In March of 2013, Day signed a publishing deal with Dr. Luke’s Prescription Songs. Though she’s only 19, it’s been a long road to becoming recognized as an artist on the verge. Bearing in mind her mom’s four-hour drives to and from Phoenix—once a week for guitar instruction, once a month to the airport for writing sessions in Nashville—and then her bouncing back and forth between Pinetop and L.A., it’s not the years that Day has accrued but the mileage that counts.

“I feel like I’ve been doing so much work behind the scenes, writing and recording,” she says. “I literally have a hundred demos at WAX on that computer. I kind of live in a little cave there. Not releasing my music into the world is a very safe thing. You can write all this great music, but if you keep it to yourself, nobody will ever know that it was great. Releasing the music has changed everything for me.”

A week after this interview, Day and her band are performing a late-night live set in Hollywood for a small, public audience. The venue is an old Victorian house that’s been refurbished to function as a bar. Onlookers watch from the courtyard as Day sings from the house’s porch area. During her last song, “East of Eden,” she glances to her left and is surprised to see Miley Cyrus peering through one of the house windows, giving her an enthusiastic sign of approval. “What the fuck?” Day interjects mid-song, before laughing at the surreal nature of the moment. After finishing her set and clearing away her equipment, she descends into the courtyard to meet with Cyrus. They exchange a friendly hug and carry on a brief conversation while surrounded by a tame crowd of bystanders. Whether or not the young singer-songwriter from Pinetop realizes it, this is the new normal in the life of Zella Day.

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