Zella Day Has Arrived, Renewed [Q&A]

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Photos: Neil Krug 

Zella Day's 2015 debut album ​Kicker​ presented to the world an unapologetic, charismatic woman raised in the mountains of Pinetop, Arizona. The album garnered over 200 million streams and propelled the young songstress to national acclaim. Coming off of appearances at Coachella and Lollapalooza and a tour with Fitz and the Tantrums, Day seemed poised to take the charts by storm.

However, the next four years saw virtual radio silence from the indie pop savant. Following her departure from Hollywood Records, the Los Angeles-based artist took the following years to recoup. While listeners waited patiently for a follow-up to ​Kicker​, Day continued making occasional appearances in music, releasing a few singles and appearing on Lana Del Rey's Norman Fucking Rockwell! Tour.

Now, Zella Day is back with her first original material in nearly half a decade and a five-song EP slated for August of 2020. I had the pleasure of catching up with her over the phone to chat about quarantine, old photos, and her upcoming EP, ​Where Does The Devil Hide​.

Ones To Watch: What are you doing in quarantine?

Zella Day: The first month of quarantine, me, my friends, and family seemed to have a similar energy level, where you just were tired and weren't motivated to do much, because all the information coming out was so scary, and it felt like it was time to hide. I'm not really inspired by hiding and fear and hiding because of fear. The past couple weeks, I've started to take deep breaths, clear out my space, open up the windows, walk my dog, come home, pour myself a glass of wine, and sit with my guitar. I'm getting back to myself, but that was a curveball. I gave myself a pass to relax for a second.

You've said before that you're a homebody, but it's different when it's imposed on you.

Yeah, where you feel like you're restricted. I wanna ​choose​ to be a homebody. 

I personally am such a huge fan of ​Kicker​, I listened to it when I was 15.

That's something that's been such an interesting realization, that people that were listening to ​Kicker​ four years ago have grown up, and they're in college, or turning 30. We've all grown up together, it's profound.

What's it like for you to see your update accounts and fan accounts on social media?

I don't like to call my audience "fans." To me, people who listen to my music have similar tastes to me, and I'd probably like to be friends with a lot of them (laughter). Fan accounts are funny, though. Sometimes, I'll look up the fan account @zelladaykicker, and I will go back in time to find photos that I've lost, that I don't have on my camera roll or my Instagram, but I really wanna look at the memories. @zelladaykicker has got me covered.

It's like your personal Google Photos.

(laughter) It's like, thank you so much for documenting it and being my library.

Speaking of old photos, tell me about the cover photo for your "z as she is" playlist.

I was about nine. That photo was taken of me in my kitchen in Pinetop, Arizona. I was apparently very ahead of my time. Born in '95, I didn't quite get to live out the fantasy of being a '90s kid. I was an infant. That's me trying to bring it back around with my metallic jacket, my little sunglasses, and my little hot pink bandana tied around my head. My mom took one look at me and said, "Wow, Zella, you're really feeling yourself." It's one of my favorite photos, because my mom was making fun of me a little bit, but I was unapologetically wearing that outfit.

Was there ever a point when music wasn't the endgame?

Music has always been an extension of who I am. Sometimes it feels like a gift, other times it feels like a burden. It's my sole purpose. There's been moments in the past three years where my career got a little rock, and a little unclear. I really had to come to terms with the fact that music is what I'm gonna continue to do, whether it's smooth sailing or not. Letting go of music completely has never been an option, just more of a navigation of life and figuring out how to stay as close to music as possible.

Going into the music industry and moving to California, were there any expectations that you had to reevaluate once you were in the thick of it?

I was so young when I moved to California, I was two months shy of my 17th birthday. I signed a record deal when I was 18, and that was my first introduction into the industry. I didn't have a chance to connect with my peers as much, as I was thrown into this machine. Not in a derogatory sense, more so with the record-making process being much more formal than just falling into a community of kids my age making music because it's fun. It was still fun for me, but it was a very different experience. I don't think I necessarily had an expectation. I learned what I needed and wanted the longer I was in the industry and the more I was learning about myself and my process.

I feel like people don't think about the whole process of putting out an album, it's a lot.

You have to be everything these days. You have to be a photographer, music video director, good at public speaking, fantastic at putting together an outfit.

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Your cover of "You Sexy Thing" is so anthemic and fun to listen to. What prompted you to choose that as your big comeback single?

It was a lot of different conversations being had at the time of what the appropriate first release for me was gonna be. The head of marketing at my label suggested a cover, and at first I rejected the idea, because I hadn't released original music in so long, that it felt important to me to share what I had been working on and share original material. I then realized that I haven't engaged with my audience for a long time with music, and as much as I have been on my journey, nobody is a part of that with me. So, I was sitting on my mom's couch in Long Beach with my friend Ellie May, and I was practicing a Roy Orbison cover. If you've ever tried to sing a Roy Orbison cover, it's the most challenging thing. It just wasn't working. 

Me and Ellie started talking about some of our favorite disco songs, and we were talking about songs that have been resurrected and recycled because they are just that good, and "You Sexy Thing" by Hot Chocolate was brought up. I laughed and thought how funny it would be if she and I did an acoustic, serious folk cover of it. It didn't end up being the style we did it in, but it was born there.  

"You Sexy Thing" just felt like a celebration of sorts, reopening myself to the world with a song I could be expressive with and not think too heavily about what I was saying, so I could just re-engage with everyone in an upbeat and charismatic way.

I know Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys produced ​Where Does The Devil Hide​. How did you guys end up working together and what is that creative process like?

Speaking of expectations, I had no expectation of getting a response back from Dan Auerbach when I put out a request to work with him. My manager at the time had a relationship with people in Nashville that knew Dan and they passed along the message that it was a dream of mine to work with him. He and I met three years ago. I took a trip to Nashville, went by his studio and met him, took a tour of Easy Eye, and we liked each other enough to pursue a collaboration. We scheduled four days in the studio, and our goal was to write, complete, and record five songs in four days, which is exactly what we did. Everything was made in under a week, with the exception of some overdubs that were added at a later time. 

There really is a spirit of spontaneity of the EP that is so exciting. Working with Dan was eye-opening, watching him move swiftly, really lean into his instincts and ride the wave of inspiration. There's just a level of talent in that studio with him and the musicians he chose to play on the record. They all know exactly what to do. So for me, walking in, it was definitely a challenge, a good push for me to step outside my comfort zone as somebody who came from the pop world, a more micromanaged state. I was really grateful for all those years that I've spent writing, recording, and playing shows, because any time before the time that I met Dan would have been too premature.

What about ​Where Does The Devil Hide​ are you most excited for your audience to see?

Each song is so different from the next, that's what I'm most excited for people to see and hear. My songwriting style and vocal range, there's so much put into the EP. It's an emergence of my evolution and my arrival as an artist.

Last question: who are your Ones To Watch?

Does it have to be music? What do you think?

Anything you want. The world is your oyster.

(laughter) Right now during this heavy political time, I've been watching my friend Nahko And Medicine For The People doing great talks with everybody from holistic healers to gardeners to authors. It's been really great to watch his conversations. And my sister, Mia Kerr, is one to watch. She is training to become a writer for film and television. It's been amazing to watch her process, and when this is all over, she's gonna be someone who is coming up.

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