Zella Day Talks Debut LP ‘Kicker,’ Accepting Her Roots & Mickey, The White Horse: Idolator Interview

Zella Day has been generating serious buzz since dropping her self-titled EP in 2014. The 20-year-old’s expansive, sun-dappled sound and effortlessly seductive voice sets her apart from the other guitar-strumming girls on Hype Machine. When you throw in the “Hypnotic” diva’s unique bohemian style and visceral lyrics, which are largely inspired by her experiences growing up in scenic Pinetop, Arizona, you’re left with a true original.

I caught up with singer/songwriter earlier this month to discuss her critically acclaimed debut LP Kicker. She revealed the meaning behind some of the album’s most arresting cuts (for example, “Jerome” is about a place, not a person!) and addressed the comparisons used to describe her music. Zella also talked about finding her sound and the high expectations she has for her music. Find out more about one of the game’s hottest newcomers below.

I’m going to hit you with the hard-hitting subject first. Tell me about the horse in the “Hypnotic” video. I’m obsessed with it. Well, let’s see. I love that horse. It’s incredible. Some people don’t love the horse. On the Youtube comments, some people are like, “Oh my god, he looks so silly.” Which is so weird because I think it’s awesome. He’s drinking out of the milk bath. I had some serious chemistry. His name was Mickey, which was really funny because I’m signed to Hollywood Records.

It was meant to be. Yeah, but there’s a lot of symbolism in that video. The horse represents this pure, unjaded, unfazed love. In the video, we are both, me and my love interest, kind of going through phases of having the horse in our possession. In the beginning of the video, he has the horse, and then I do. It’s kind of this fight, it’s just a war between us, and Mickey kind of represents what we’re trying to win. Then you have the black snake that kind of represents tainted love.

Was it a little scary to have a huge white horse towering over you while you’re sitting in a bathtub? I grew up around horses. Like seriously around horses. Not just like, “Oh yeah, they were in my street.” More like my sister is a horse trainer. My dad ran a guest ranch from the time I was six to 15 and there was a 40 horse operation there. I used to do rodeos when I was a kid. I call my horse Stormy.

Now that we’ve got the all-important horse talk out of the way, let’s talk about the album. How does it feel now that it’s out in the world? Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been a people-pleaser. I was always the kid in the classroom that wanted to be the teacher’s pet. I had no shame. So as much as this music is for me, I’m making it for other people. If people aren’t a part of the experience with me, and if my music isn’t received, then I don’t really get to live out my dreams.

It’s sort of this interesting dichotomy of, “Yeah I make the music and it’s personal and it’s my life,” but also, it’s in the hands of a lot of people I don’t know. And I said that at my show in San Francisco. Somebody was like, “When are you coming back?” And I was like, “It’s up to you.” In that way, I’ve totally surrendered to the people listening to my music and I do have high expectations of myself.

But at the same time, I’m totally okay with whatever happens because if this record doesn’t do as well as I hope it’s going to do, it’s fine because I’m going to make six more anyways. So it’s all up to the universe. Whatever is in the cards.

How did you connect with producers Xandy Barry and Wally Gagel? I was signed to my management when I was 14. I came to Los Angeles from Pinetop, Arizona to meet with record executives. I was a girl with a guitar and my manager was like, “Hey Zella, you need to have a television component because you’re a child. Nobody’s going to take you seriously.” I was like, “This isn’t why I’m doing this.” I came out here from Arizona because I play and that’s the only reason.

He listened to what I had to say, which was pretty amazing because I was a baby. And he had a partner in Nashville who had a management company out there, so he flew me out there, I was still living in Pinetop at the time. When I was in Nashville, my first meeting was with Dan Huff, who has been awarded producer of the decade in country music. I played him a couple of songs and he loved what I was doing. And from that point on, I was writing in Nashville for about a year and a half.

So I was living in Pinetop, I was getting flown out to Nashville every month for a week and I was writing everyday. I was having really intensive writing days. Crazy stuff. But a year and a half went by in this development process, and it came time to produce some of the tracks and it was too country. Even though they didn’t want to change who I was and they’re really excited about what I embodied and what I was bringing to the table already, I don’t think they knew what to do with me. So I voiced that, then I was pretty much like [makes chopping hand gesture].

They got rid of you? I was shut out. I mean, I wasn’t lucrative. I was just this 15-year old kid that was telling them what I wanted and they were like, “Oh yeah? Okay. Really? No, we do not have time for this.” So they sent me back out to LA. So I met with the BMG camp here. A woman hooked me up with Wally and Xandy. So I was 15 and had my first writing session at Wax Studios down the street from here and we wrote an amazing song together. It was kind of everything that I had been wanting to do. They just kind of got it.

Can we talk about a couple of tracks in specific? Go for it.

Is the song “Jerome” based on an actual person? Jerome is a place.

Really? That’s interesting. My parents got married in Jerome, Arizona, which is a coal mining town. It’s actually one of the most haunted cities in America. It’s on like all the Ghostbusters shows. There are these empty insane asylums built into the side of a mountain. It’s pretty stunning. So my mom was pregnant with me and they were scouting locations on where to get married and they walked into the history museum of the town. They were looking through this history book of Jerome and people that had founded it and settled there.

In 1842, the main coalminer’s wife was named Zella. So that’s where my name comes from. For me, I always had an idea of who she was and what she went through. Whether that maybe true or maybe we’re connected in some metaphysical way, I don’t really know. I plan on going back and finding more out about her because I don’t know much except for my sort of take on who she was, but that song is about her. The ghost of Zella.

That’s so cool. I can’t wait to listen to the song again now that I know the back story. It’s a ghostly song. If you listen to the record, the lyrics “look me in the eyes as they close,” and those kinds of things are sort of bringing her back to life. It’s funny because I actually read a review of the record before it came out, and somebody was like, “Who is Jerome?”

But that’s also what music is for. I’m always kind of apprehensive to tell people what I’ve written the songs about just because I don’t want to change the experience for them. Because sometimes it’s just a basic idea or a simple topic and it just, I can make something grandiose out of it because that’s what I do as a songwriter. And for other people, it can be life-changing. I mean, there’s some songs that have changed my life and when I’ve read about them, then like, “Oh, that’s about your brother moving into your house?”

Another song that I adore is “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” I think it has to be a single eventually. I’m from Arizona. The western culture is very visceral where I’m from. John Wayne had a ranch there, you have the Apache Reservation right there so you have Geronimo. It’s pretty amazing and vast and people definitely go there because of how legendary Pinetop is. But it’s kind of Arizona’s best-kept secret. Anyways, I wrote that song at a time when I was really accepting the place that I came from and excited about it.

I never felt as proud like when I lived there. I hate country music, except for Johnny Cash. I’m a California girl. I have freckles and blonde hair. I’m so meant to be by the ocean. It took me getting away from there and living in Los Angeles to really have that revelation of — I am where I come from and I can make it into anything I want and I can tell my story the way that I want to tell it.

That’s when that song was written. The Outlaw Josey Wales is a western classic that I watched as a kid at my grandparents’ house. I felt like I wanted to write a song about him. So that song is just for him.

I’m also obsessed with “Ace of Hearts.” It’s another song that sounds like it should be a single. I think it so too.

It’s so catchy. It feels so good live too. I think it’s that line, “We shouldn’t have to try, we shouldn’t have to try so hard.” By the end of the song, people are singing along. I’m so glad that line made it on to the record. It’s something that my mom always told me. She was always like, “You shouldn’t really have to try that hard, because if it’s right, it’s just going to be right.” You know if it’s wrong. Stop trying to… drag yourself into the dirt or beat a dead horse.

Speaking of the live element, I keep reading “her music is even better live.” Is that a compliment? Or kind of a backhanded, weird thing to say? In this day and age, I don’t know. I don’t know because I feel like music is spread over the internet, that’s just our generation. Being on stage is a really comfortable place for me to be. So is a studio, but I think on stage I’m a little bit more playful. I think that it’s not that the songs are better live, I just think that I connect with people live instead of being elusive and afraid of what I’ve created.

I’m not afraid of it — I created the music with the intention of playing big venues. I want to play on a big stage. That’s what I want to do. I really want to play the Hollywood Bowl. I want to do those things and I’m kind of aiming for the stars, so I don’t think that the record is better, or that live is better than the record… I just think that when people come to the live show and be like, “Oh shit.”

Do you pay attention to reviews? Yes, in these early stages. I do because it’s not like I’m getting bombarded with reviews everyday because I’m a new artist. It’s really hard to avoid the one of five in two weeks, you know what I mean? But I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by the support. Everybody has been nice to me and I think it’s because… I’m not into the shock factor of being an entertainer, I’m just all about good music.

One thing I did notice from reading dozens of interviews before speaking with you, is that you seem to get a little put out by people making kind of lazy comparisons between you and other artists. Why does that irk you? I don’t know if it irks me. I think that comparing people, in any facet of life, is convenient. Because people are going to just stick with what they’re familiar with until something really rocks their world. So for me, right now as a new artist, I expected it. It’s fine. I think that with this new record… you asked about expectations. I expect to stake my own claim.

I’m Zella Day and this is the kind of music I make and I make it to be me and not to emulate anybody else. I didn’t start making music because of Lana Del Rey. I love her and she’s amazing. I’ve listened to her record and I think that her tone and her voice is so strong and visceral. And she changed music there for a moment and now she’s set for life. And for me to be compared to her is amazing, because she’s so successful. Why would I hate on that?

I don’t hate on that. But at the same time, I think it’s clear with my record coming out that we’re not the same. We’re from two completely different worlds and I think that you can hear that. Our stories are different.

For it’s like two different sides of the coin. I always imagine Lana sitting in a dark room sucking a cigarette, while there’s more light in your music. I’m glad that you get that because I’m hoping that’s what people take away from it. And I think that’s what people are getting from the shows too. They’re kind of like, “Oh, okay this is its own thing, which is so refreshing.”

Who did you grow up listening to? It’s always a hard question for me to answer because the artists I grew up listening to and inspired me to write were Bob Dylan, Jack White, Joni Mitchell, Edie Brickell and Stevie Nicks. I know my music doesn’t necessarily sound like that. I know that. I know that I’m going in a different direction. I started writing music with my guitar and that’s who I will always be. I plan to one day release an acoustic album and do what I do best.

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