Indie-Pop Songstress Zella Day Comes From a Long Line of Hardcore Bitches

Zella Day
Zella Day
Photo by Alexandra Valenti

Look up any other profile of breakout indie-pop singer-songwriter Zella Day and you'll find a story about a young girl, frolicking barefoot through the wide-open fields of Pinetop, Arizona, a place with a population of about 7,000, where the closest guitar lesson was four hours away. A place where Day first sang to crowds at the age of nine in her grandmothers's coffeehouse and learned Native American folklore from an Apache named Kicker who worked on her parents' ranch.

This isn't about that Zella Day. This is about the Zella Day the badass, a fighter who has lived for music for all of her 20 years and, at 15, did the unthinkable: walked away from a chance to have a record produced on a major label.

When she was 14, Day would fly out to Nashville from Arizona for a week every month to work with writers at a professional songwriting camp for young artists. For a year, Day wrote with artists like John Paul White of The Civil Wars and "All About That Bass" songstress Meghan Trainor, experimenting with new sounds and honing in on her own writing skills.

When it came time to produce some of her songs, Day faced a dilemma. The sound "was too country," she said, noting that although she was still finding herself (as most teens are), she had conviction about the type of artist she wanted to be. She went to her team of mentors and told them thanks, but no thanks.

"They were pretty much like, 'well, good luck,'" she remembers. "I was not gonna have it; I wasn't going to have some producer tell me what I should do or what I should sound like."

Looking back, she realizes what a risk that was. "I was pretty young at the time ... I can't believe at 15 I was like, 'No.'"

From that point on, Day has refused to compromise, even after moving to Los Angeles, which is so competitive that at times, she confesses, it's difficult to feel special as an artist. In little-old Pinetop, being a musician was a novelty; here, she says, it's so common that people lose faith in artistry. "Sometimes people don't even believe you" when you say you're a working musician, she says.

But Day took Los Angeles' notoriously cutthroat music scene as a challenge. "You do not really get far here if you're weak, if there's a chance that someone could come along and be like, 'Eh, this is what I think you should do.'"

Today, she treats her musical endeavors as an all-out enterprise. She spent a week writing the treatment for the "Hypnotic" video with director Gianennio Salucci. She hand-picked Arizona artist Brock Lefferts to help design the art for each of her singles and her debut album, Kicker, named after the man whom she says "ignited the flame in [her] creative realm."

"L.A. has kind of instilled a fighter in me. I've never really had to fight as hard for what I want as I have here."

Day isn't just fighting for herself, though. She describes her message as specifically empowering for young women, noting her audience is generally made up of 16-to-20-year-old girls — "beautiful little hippie babies," she calls them. She says she's always played music because of the love she receives from those listening, which she says are usually girls like herself. "I'm doing something really good for myself, which in turn inspires other girls. It's super important," she says. "I'm up there and present, and out in front, and not afraid."

She's got a family full of powerful women to thank for that fearless attitude.

Her mother, a singer in a jazz band, was the one who first encouraged her to learn to play guitar — a skill her mother wished she herself had acquired at an early age. She was so sure it would make Zella a more self-sustaining artist that she drove her from Pinetop to Phoenix for music theory lessons — an eight-hour round-trip.

Her Mormor — "grandmother" in Swedish — owned Mormor Coffee, the coffeehouse where she first performed as a child, which was attached to Day's mother's pottery-painting studio, Art Sparks. Mormor grew up in Long Beach with five other sisters that the singer describes as a bunch of "headstrong mamas," and was one of the pioneers of bringing the Renaissance Faire to Arizona. She made Day a Queen Elizabeth ensemble once, which remains her favorite Halloween costume.

Then there's her aunt in Oregon, who works on Mount June as a ski instructor and as a member of the avalanche safety team, trained to rescue skiers in case of an emergency. For Day, growing up around such women was just a part of everyday life.

Upcoming Events

"I was just around creative, innovative women that were just themselves and not afraid, and in turn made me not afraid. Like, there was never a question in my mind about whether I could do something or not. I just played music and I just did it, and I just never stopped because I never felt I had to." After a moment's pause, she adds, "I just come from a really long line of hardcore bitches."

Kicker comes out today on Hollywood Records. The singer-songwriter hopes it will represent not just her own layers as an artist, but the women who supported her and the town of Pinetop itself.

Day used to feel like she didn't belong in her hometown. But coming into her own in Los Angeles allowed her to look back with pride at where she came and incorporate those roots into the sound and themes of the record. Opening track "Jerome," for example, is named after the small Arizona mining town that was home to the woman after whom she's named. "The Outlaw Josey Wales" takes its title and lyrical themes from the Clint Eastwood Western of the same name, much of which was shot in Arizona.

"There are all these references to this old-timey, Southwestern kind of feel," Day says, noting that the album marks a deliberate shift away from the pop bombast of her debut EP, Cynics vs. Dreamers, and the single "Sweet Ophelia," for which she's still best-known. "I feel like the EP was very pop-oriented ... which is good, because I think it put me on the map and people definitely paid attention to it. But I think now that the full-length is coming out, you kind of get a feel of who I am as an artist.”

There's a softer side to Day that emerges on Kicker, one that, compared to a track like "Hypnotic," sounds almost naked on stripped-down acoustic tracks like "Jameson" — which pleasantly hearkens back to the acoustic cover of The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" that first brought her to the public's attention. "Jameson" came to her at a breaking point, one she says she couldn't finish if she wasn't crying.

"I've never really written a song like that." It's about falling for an alcoholic, she says. "It has this hopelessness, but at the same time there's this light at the end of the tunnel, so there's this sort of weird war. It's kind of like love, but being in love with something you can't have because something [else] already has it."

For now, Zella Day waits for the world to hear what she's been creating for the past year. She feels lucky that she had the time to figure out what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it, to not rush the writing process, and to record her most inspired songs.

"Your first record, you have all the time in the world to write it because nobody knows who you are yet," she says with a laugh.

When Kicker comes out, Day hopes to go back to her little-old town of Pinetop, Arizona and give a record to the Apache man who once filled her head with legends and fairytales. One of her favorites was the tale of the lightning princess in the forest, which told that when you heard the sound of thunder, it was the sound of her riding her horse. "When I was younger, the part in my hair, I would always zig-zag it down the middle in the form of a lighting bolt."

Why did she stop? She laughs. "It's not the '90s anymore."

Zella Day's debut album, Kicker, comes out June 2, followed by a sold-out show at the Troubadour June 3.


Like us on Facebook at LAWeeklyMusic

West Coast Sound's Greatest Hits!
Top 20 Worst Bands of All Time
Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl
The 20 Sexiest Songs of All Time

Upcoming Events


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >