After singer-songwriter Zella Day first moved from the tiny town of Pinetop, Ariz. to Los Angeles, the logical first step to securing a record deal would be to get a TV show. After all, there’s a long tradition of pretty teenage girls (Britney, Christina and the like) who first started on TV before they become pop stars. But Day, who was 15 at the time, says she wasn’t interested in following in their footsteps.
“My mom and I came out here when I was 15 and just through mutual friends had meetings set up,” says Day, 20, via phone from Culver City, Calif., where she was “hanging out, having lunch and catching up” with her manager before hitting the road for an extensive tour. “I met my manager that I still have now. We’ve been working together for five, going on six years. He sent me to Nashville. I wanted to be taken seriously as a musician. As we all know, there aren’t many 15-year-olds who are taken seriously in the music industry if they don’t have a television component. There were offers from Disney and Nickelodeon to do television and I declined those offers.”
When she went to Nashville, she met Dann Huff who has won producer of the decade and who recorded Rascal Flatts and LeAnn Rimes.
“He loved the music I was playing,” she says. “He wanted me to connect with the writers. I was writing within the BMG publishing camp. I would stay there for a week and have writing sessions every day. I was 15, 16 at the time and going to the best music college in the country.”
That experience certainly helped her hone her musical chops. Her new album, Kicker
, which comes across as a cross between Lana Del Rey and P.J. Harvey features haunted vocals and intensely personal songs. On an extensive tour to support the album, Day plays the Grog Shop on Friday. The album’s title is a reference to an Apache man she met while growing up in Pinetop.
“The songs for Kicker
were written in the course of a year,” she says. “Kicker was the Apache man who was working the 40-horse operation that we were developing. When I was six, I would go to the barn and would beg him to tell me all about all the magical things that made the Apache culture so amazing and beautiful. He indulged me. It was the first time I remember having vivid dreams and thinking outside the box for the first time. I was inspired by him and the Apache culture.”
According to Day, the album has a “light” side and a “dark” side. Much like Lorde, another profoundly mature young singer-songwriter, Day writes songs that reflect a deep understanding of the complexity of romantic relationships.
“’Sweet Ophelia’ was the first song that I wrote for Kicker
,” she says. “It’s a part of the light side when I was coming from Pinetop and moving to L.A. and everything was so innocent and untouched. I was new here in L.A. and everything was optimistic. I was writing and reflecting about my hometown and coming into myself in a new way since leaving and embarking on this new journey. The second half is darker and written when I fell into a toxic relationship. I started to see a different side of the city. I had to fight for myself in a way that I never had to before. It’s all part of my growth. The album title is just one word I used to categorize all of my experiences because it started in a simple place.”
Producers Wally Gagel and Xandy Barry deserve credit for lending their talents to the album. The moody, Portishead-like “East of Eden” features fluttering synths and echoing vocals and “Hypnotic” embraces hip-hop as Day practically raps over heavy bass riffs and metallic-sounding percussion.
“I think of my two producers as my bandmates,” she says. “It’s a solo project but it’s so it's nice to have people to collaborate with. That’s what they have provided. Xandy is a classically trained pianist. I don’t play piano, so I have sat with him and written beautiful ballads like ‘Compass.’ Wally is an amazing engineer. The three of us together created something special. I’m grateful for them and you can hear them on the record, which I think is cool. I needed some masterminds on the project. I know better than anybody that you can’t do things alone. I didn’t get to L.A. alone, and I didn’t make this record alone. This is my story and it’s taken a village to get it out there.”