When Zella Day was thirteen years-old living in a small Arizona town called Pinetop, she wrote her first album. It was called Powered by Love and the strength of her writing earned her representation. That same management is still with her today, seven years later, and just released Kicker, her first official album, which showcases a young talent that has matured and exploded on the music scene.
At twenty years-old, Zella Day is already a seasoned performer. “My parents had a coffee shop and it was the only place in town for live music,” she says. When she was nine years-old, she picked up a guitar and started playing Bob Dylan’s 'Blowing in the Wind' with several older musicians. “That was my first stage.” Though her parents supported her musical dreams, they didn’t pressure her career. “I didn’t have a stage mom,” she explains. “I was just living in a small mountain town playing open.”
As one would imagine, music always came naturally to her, but her ambition never overran her passion. “At 14, I don’t think any of us really know what we’re going to be doing when we’re even 20 or 25. We have these dreams, these glimmers of ideas of what we’re good at. And we do what feels natural and what comes naturally to us. And music was something that came naturally to me as a kid.”
When her family moved closer to the industry several years ago, it wasn’t for the singular purpose of furthering Zella’s career. Rather, her parents had divorced and her mother moved her and her sister to Long Beach to be closer to family. “It was a great move for my career though,” she says, “because I did have people in L.A. that I had met and I was already working with them.” When she was living in Pinetop, her management would fly her once a month to work out of Wax Limited, a studio in Los Angeles. “I would stay for a week. I would go and write every day in the studio.” Once she moved to L.A., however, her career took off. “The pace changed for me dramatically because music was more accessible,” she explains.
And she hit the ground running, writing and recording Kicker. “I was so inside my own world and I was making music that was emotional and meant a lot to me,” she says, describing the experience. She believes that writing with authentic intention is what truly connects her music with audiences. “And that’s what music is. You make it for other people. You don’t really make it for yourself.”
She has a unique, sophisticated sound that defies classification and draws from folk, pop and country. “I did that intentionally. I am not ready to be just one thing.” She believes that people respond to her music so readily because of its eclectic appeal. “There’s something for everybody,” she explains. And even though she’s young, she is bolstered by an impressive self-confidence that resonates in her sound. “I’m gonna make so many different records in the future but with this one I wanted to leave myself a lot of options.”
There are extraordinary pressures on young musicians today, particularly female artists, to perform a certain way, sing a certain way, and allow the music industry to package you the way they feel will sell the most records. Zella, however, resisted the temptation of becoming a consumer good. “I really trusted myself as an artist and I knew what I was capable of so I didn’t have a hard time saying no to opportunities that probably would’ve made me a lot of money.” It is an astonishing achievement for anyone, particularly someone so young, but Zella is different. She isn’t interested in fame, she professes; she’s interested in music. It’s a very punk rock attitude and we love her for it.
“I feel lucky that I came to the industry and LA with a clear vision of who I was and what I wanted to do. And what I want to do is make music for the rest of my life.” She deliberately avoids the shortcuts that would prevent her from pursuing her particular musical vision. “I would rather take the long way, writing the music that I want to write, playing those hard shows, and building an audience that loves and trusts me and knows what to expect.”
She recently returned home to Los Angeles and played at the iconic Fonda Theatre, a performance she singles out as a highlight of her career thus far. She remembers last year standing in the audience watching Jack White perform in the very same spot and a friend asking her if she ever expected to be playing where he was. “I was watching him and [was] so humbled by his performance. In no way, shape, or form was I comparing myself to him. I never thought: I’m gonna be there where Jack White is in a year.”
In 2016, Zella will be busy touring Kicker and looks forward to the coming challenges. She has a keen understanding of performance that speaks to her probable success. During acoustic radio shows, for example, she adjusts her sets based on the emotional feedback that she receives from her audience before a show. “If the room is very attentive when they sit down, I will want to play a more quiet song. If they’re kind of excitable and don’t know who I am, I’ll play a ‘Sweet Ophelia’ or ‘East of Eden’ first. Just to set the tone and demand their attention.”
She likes to open with 'Jameson', a song she wrote on an acoustic guitar during a particularly challenging time in her life. “To me, music is storytelling, and 'Jameson' is one of the best stories and one of the most visceral stories I’ve ever told.” She also believes that because she writes her own music, she is able to make a stronger, deeper connection with her audiences. “If I had somebody else writing my songs, it would be very hard to sing those every single night. They mean something different to me every time depending on how I’m feeling. The performances are always emotional.”
She works hard to earn her audience’s loyalty and devotion and considers her songs her 'little warriors'. She explains, “We have to get up on stage together every night and work hard and go to battle.” She also understands that music is ever-changing and an artist must continually evolve, no matter how insulated or successful. “Right now the harder shows are probably more frequent than they are for a Lady Gaga, but I’m proving myself in the industry and I’m proving myself to people who don’t know me quite yet.” That discipline is earning her fans from Los Angeles to Moscow.
“I wanna be playing music when I’m 50 years old,” she exclaims. Comments like that remind you just how young she is, something you forget when you hear her thoughtful opinions on the business or listen to her deeply resonant album. And it’s exciting because it means we’re going to be able to enjoy her art for many years to come.
Check out Zella Day's spread in Rogue's Issue 2, available for download