New Music to Know: Zella Day and the Return of the ’70s Rock Goddess

"What I hear a lot is that the live show is more rock and roll than expected. There's a kind of Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac thing going on, which is awesome."

By Scott T. Sterling

Zella Day is not what she seems. The emerging singer-songwriter tries on many different hats throughout her debut album, Kicker, far too wily to get comfortable with any one sound quite yet.

Kicker opens with “Jameson,” a sparse, acoustic ballad with distinct country undertones that captures the vibe of her tiny hometown of Pinetop, Arizona, where she grew up amidst wide open spaces and playing in her grandmother’s coffee shop.

By contrast, the album also features singles like “Hypnotic,” a dense, heavily electronic production with a subtle hip-hop beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on a pop radio playlist.

“The record fluctuates between light and dark. In my head, there’s two sides to the album,” says Day during a phone interview with Radio.com. “There’s the side of me that was just moving to L.A. and I was seeing the city with new eyes and I was so optimistic and everything was beautiful and shiny. There’s a half of the record that was written at that time, and I think you can hear that.”

The album’s darker side was derived from a heart-wrenching relationship in her still-new city.

“I ended up falling in love with somebody out here in L.A. and it was one of the most hectic, tumultuous relationships I’ve ever experienced, and it definitely changed me,” she says. “I feel like after him, I saw the city in a different way. I finished the record when I was in a dark place. I embrace both sides. I’m really glad that I experienced something so heavy. It taught me to fight for myself in a way I hadn’t done before.”

Day’s L.A. stories are a far cry from her upbringing in Pinetop (pop. 4,282) where she lived a life many would find ideal. Her mom sang in a local jazz standards band, while her grandmother was the owner of the Mor Mor Coffee House, which doubled as the only live music venue in town. Starting at the age of 9, Day was a regular on that coffee shop stage, performing at open mike nights and learning to love singing.

“I was pretty much the only young girl playing music. For that time in my life, finding myself as a musician and learning how to write music, expressing myself freely without any judgement or any kind of competition was probably healthy,” Day remembers.It was never about making money or fame. Music was never that for me. It was a lifestyle.”

At 13, Day released her first album, Powered by Love, independently. Featuring songs like “Red Pants” and “Mr. Bird,” she says it’s a apt reflection of who she was as a budding teen.

“I would love to reissue it someday. I think it would be an amazing children’s album,” she says of the album now, which is increasingly hard to find, not to mention pricey. “I have given that record to a lot of people in my life, and kids end up being really connected to it. It’s a really optimistic, sweet, pure and honest record. I was 13 years old, and what I was writing about was what was relevant in my life at the time. It had nothing to do with relationships or boys or heartbreak. It was all about the environment I was growing up in, the kind of love I was experiencing from my family, and what I believed in as a 13-year-old.”

 

It was soon after the release of Powered by Love that Day was tapped by a management company which would eventually fly her from Pinetop to Nashville on a monthly basis to spend a week having daily songwriting sessions with the likes of John Paul White of The Civil Wars and Meghan Trainor.

“It was pretty intensive, and it kind of was like going to music school,” Day says of the experience. “It was at a very malleable time for me, I’d just done my record, and then learning so much from the writers I was working with. Learning about storytelling and what goes into writing a song beyond the simple verse-chorus format, which is a lot of what was on Powered by Love. It was a good time in my life.”

Eventually striking out on her own, Day, now 20, has grown a sizable audience with a pair of EPs (Cynics vs. Dreamers and Zella Day, the former included her take on the White Stripes‘ “Seven Nation Army“) leading up the release of her debut full-length Kicker. While the album covers a wide range of moods and sounds, in concert, she delivers a straightforward and raw show that strips away much of the studio gloss to reveal what she says is her true essence.

“What I hear a lot is that the live show is more rock and roll than expected. I have a really good, strong dynamic with my band, which is important to me. There’s a kind of Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac thing going on, which is awesome,” she says laughing. “Not that we’re anywhere close to being that good yet. I’m obsessed with the ’70s rock goddess, so I’m doing my best to keep that spirit alive.”

Zella Day is on tour across America throughout the summer. See tour dates here.

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