Zella Day: “I’m Not Entitled to Anything”

Zella Day: “I’m Not Entitled to Anything”

For Zella Day, writing songs, is as important as breathing.

It’s just something she does and can’t live without. She loves to write poetry too, she tells me.

The 20-year-old singer-songwriter recently released her debut album, Kicker, but music has been a natural part of Day’s life for as long as she remembers. She picked up a guitar at the age of nine, and shortly thereafter started performing covers of Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and the White Stripes at open mics in her hometown of Pinetop, Arizona.

“It might as well be called Tinkletown,” she says, describing the city of around 7,000 inhabitants where that she “pretty much grew up in a cabin.”

At the age of twelve Day was writing her own songs, and at thirteen she released an album of nine covers and an original. The independently released album was called Powered By Love and was an early example of Day’s exeptional gift for writing clever and lyrical folk-pop songs.

In the following year Zella Day became part of professional songwriting camp for young artists and for a week every month she would fly out to Nashville to work with professional lyricists.

She eventually dropped out of the program as she couldn’t see herself writing and performing songs that were so steeped in the country tradition. It didn’t feel right and she wanted to go her own way.

Six years later, here she is. Kicker is the sound of an artist who is comfortable in her own skin and knows what she wants. It’s also a mixture of all the parts that make up Zella Day, as an artist and as a human being. There’s bits of electropop, bittersweet melodies and roaring choruses that reach for the sky. But she also has fragile folk songs and hazy, slowburning ballads. There’s even some country in there as well.

We sat down with Zella Day for a conversation on her upbringing in Arizona, her musical influences and life in LA.

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Do you hear Arizona in your music?

Yes. I used to always fight the Arizona in my music. I didn’t want it to be a part of what I did, because there was a lot of country music where I grew up, and not the good kind of country – more pop country, current country. I love Johnny Cash and June Carter and all those guys, but that wasn’t really what was being played.

So it took me a while to find the parts of Pinetop, Arizona that I love, but I kind of found them when I moved away. I was living in California and I started to become very homesick and I didn’t understand why. Then I started doing a lot of reading about Arizona, old Arizona, watching a lot of westerns. There’s a song about Clint Eastwood on my record and there’s some spaghetti western influences as well. So I guess it’s the rootsy Arizona that I embraced when I was in California. And I think that’s what makes me and my music special.

How did you get into music?

Pinetop didn’t offer any kind of music program. When I was growing up, around nine years old, my grandmother opened up a coffee shop in in Pinetop called Mormor Coffee Shop. [She has Swedish grandparents on both sides – "mormor" is the word for grandmother, literally meaning "mom’s mom".]

Mormor Coffee offered the only live music in town. So when I was nine years old I was kind of growing up in the Coffee Shop where there was live music and the only musicians in existence in Pinetop. So I was influenced by them. I had always sung growing up, but I picked up a guitar when I was nine and started playing Bob Dylan covers and getting up every night to play the open mic.

The coffee shop went under when my grandmother passed away in 2002, but I never stopped playing music. I started writing music at 12. My mom would drive me down the hill to Phoenix – four hours once a week – to get lessons in music theory. I just started diving head first into music and by the time I was thirteen I recorded a record called Powered by Love, with nine originals and one cover. I’ve played ever since.

You mentioned Bob Dylan. How did you discover music growing up?

When I was a kid we didn’t have TIDAL. We were just about to have iTunes. So it was still hard to discover music, and you had to listen to what your parents were listening to.

My parents were into good music, thankfully. So Bob Dylan was in there. And Lauren Hill and Fleetwood Mac. And I was listening to Tom Waits because my grandfather was into him. He was scary. I didn’t pick up much from him but he was definitely around. My dad was an old skater punk, so he was listening to a lot of the Damned and Bad Religion. I have cool parents.

And when I got a little bit older – old enough to realize that country is cool – I was listening to Willie Nelson and lots of Johnny Cash.

Do you remember listening to a song that changed your perspective on music?

Yes. Edie Brickell. My mom had a couple of her albums, and there was one song in particular that I remember listening to called “Green.”

When we moved to Pinetop, we were living on a ranch together because my dad was developing this property of 200 acres with twelve cabins on it to start a backcountry snowboarding business. So my mom, my sister, my dad and I were all living in this tiny cabin with one bedroom. It was kind of like The Shining. We had a snowcat, there was a lodge and there was nobody on the property but us. But my dad was into snowboarding, not murdering. [laughs]

So I was removed from all the other kids in Pinetop, who were 45 minutes away and I was so jealous that they all lived on the same block. That song, “Green,” is about jealousy. I think it’s the first time that I listened to a song and was able to relate and sort of put it into my life.

Do you remember the first time you performed live in front of an audience?

I have a video of it. I was nine, and I had my hair cut in somewhat of a mullet, probably because I used to cut my own hair. I was wearing a little skater T-shirt and cargo shorts – I was going through a terrible tomboy phase at that time. I looked absolutely terrified on that stage and I think I was playing an Elvis cover. Yes, I was playing “Hound Dog.”

I looked like I wanted to get off stage, I looked like I wanted to run out of the coffee shop and go home – but the funny thing is, when you watch the video, I get off stage, somebody else takes the stage, and I get on after that. So, like, I hated it, but I loved it!

There’s something epic but also deeply intimate about your album. What kind of record did you set out to make?

I wanted to make a record that was authentic to who I am as an artist, which has always been a folk artist. I’ve always played music on my guitar and that’s how I’ve written songs. I wanted to write a record that could take me farther than coffee shops. I wanted to play bigger rooms, but I wanted, when you turn on my record, for there to be a sense of intimacy.

What’s the most unlikely band or artist that inspires your own music?

I would probably say the White Stripes. They were one of my biggest inspirations. While Blood Cells. I loved it. My music doesn’t sound like that at all though, but I’m trying to create something solid and timeless that still feels fresh. As a young kid playing music the simplicity of the two of them making that much noise was just jarring. And so amazing. Because they sounded so huge. They were so epic. I wanted to make music like that and in a sense I did. But Jack White and I are very different. [laughs]

What does the perfect day look like for you?

I like having a plan. I really enjoying waking up and making a list of things that I’m gonna do for the day, checking off throughout the day so at the end I’ll feel like I did something, even if it’s nothing. Even if it’s go to the grocery store and get a smoothie.

That sounds stressful.

No, I love it! I don’t know why. I’m a morning person too. But the perfect day would probably be in L.A. at home. I would be able to wake up and walk to my favorite breakfast spot, Sqirl, and have some brioche toast with some avocado cheese on it. It’s really amazing. So food is a really important part of the day. [laughs]

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

That I’m not entitled to anything. Because there are moments on tour where I feel like everything should be happening for me already. Like, I wanna be playing bigger shows, I feel like I deserve more. But at the end of the day, there’s a million and a half people out there working just as hard as I am for the same goal, for the same dream. And it doesn’t belong to any of us. So you just have to do it because you love it.

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