Coachella 2016: Zella Day On Desert Energy, “Mustang Kids” & Her Next LP

Zella Day Interview
We spoke to Zella Day about her debut album 'Kicker' & Pinetop, Arizona roots.

Zella Day’s music evokes wide open spaces, desert landscapes and long stretches of highway. Which makes Coachella a rare opportunity to see the Arizona native perform in something akin to her natural habitat. She seemed to draw energy from the dusty surrounds as she stepped onto the Outdoor stage on Saturday (April 16) afternoon and serenaded festival-goers with new material and a selection of highlights from debut LP Kicker.

I caught up with the 21-year-old after her captivating set and she spoke about performing in the desert landscape. Zella also reflected on nine months of Kicker and explained how she’s grown as an artist (and a person) since recording it. The “Ace Of Hearts” singer revealed that “Mustang Kids” will be the final single from the album and gave some insight into her sophomore set. Find out more in our Q&A below.

How does Coachella compare to other festivals?
I played all of the festivals in the festival circuit except for Coachella last year, so the way that this one compares to all of the other ones around the country is the fact that I’m so close to it but I’ve always felt so far. Now that I’m here and a part of it, and on stage… it’s an honor, really. It feels like a badge of honor.

I’m a part of the Coachella season because I live in Los Angeles, and there are so many events and there are so many artists that come and play shows, and I’m watching it all happen and the fact that I feel an affiliation with all of that cool energy is a dream come true.

Is this your first time attending the festival?
This is my first time attending. I said, “I will not attend Coachella unless I’m playing Coachella.” That’s what I said, because music festivals… I think I’m more, I know I’m more of a homebody. For me, if I want to see my favorite artist play, it’s going to be at a venue where all of my attention is on them and I’m not getting sunburned. But that’s just me.

Now that your set is out of the way, who are you going to check out?
I really wanted to see Chvrches but I had to do interviews while they were performing, but I watched her on all the monitors. On all the television screens I was catching her and at any point that I could. She’s amazing. B├śRNS is amazing. He played last night. Gary Clark Jr., who played right before my set, is amazing. I’m really looking forward to seeing Chris Stapleton. He released one of my favorite records of the year.

It’s so good.
So him. Obviously Guns N’ Roses because, how could you not want to see them? How could you not want to see Axl Rose with his now broken leg, I think? Miike Snow. Within the songwriter community in LA, he’s well respected as a songwriter. I listen very intensely to his words and his arrangements, because he’s brilliant. I love “Genghis Khan.” Also, The Arcs. I love The Arcs too.

Are you into electronic music at all?
I have an appreciation. I could never play electronic music but I do like it.

As an Arizona girl, do you draw a special energy from performing in the desert?
It feels like home, that’s for sure. I’m glad you asked that. You’re the first one to ask. I had rehearsal Thursday night from 1 p.m. to 12 a.m. and I was exhausted. I got in the car after rehearsal and drove from here to Palm Springs. There’s a stretch of highway that looks exactly like the stretch of highway that I used to take in Arizona back home to Pinetop. I’m from Northeastern Arizona, so from the desert to my mountain town in Arizona was a four and a half hour drive.

But I would always nap, because my mom was driving. So we passed that stretch of highway on the way out here to Palm Springs, and I was so alert and the second that I saw that, I fell asleep because it felt like I was going home.

I feel like this is the perfect place to hear your music because it conjures images of dusty roads and deserts.
Definitely. It’s southwest, is what it is. Any kind of spaghetti influence that I have in my music, you’re going to be able to hear the desert, because that’s cowboy. Cowboys around Arizona and New Mexico, and that’s where I’m from. It definitely has that element. It’s psychedelic desert rock.

Burning Man might be the only other appropriate venue.
I’ve been saying all day, and the whole weekend that I’ve been here, that Coachella is like Burning Man, but it’s more condensed. It’s true. I mean, you see people wearing the same kinds of things, you see people acting the same, and with the music, it’s just… all your senses are on level 10, and everybody’s wearing goggles because it’s intense. The elements are harsh and they’re unforgiving and it’s the sun, it’s the direct sun that’s 110 degrees.

I spoke to you the week Kicker came out. How do you feel about the album almost a year later?
To be honest, when I write music, I’m very much in the moment. And moments pass just as time passes, so Kicker perfectly encapsulated the place where I was. Yes, I still perform those songs because I am the person who created those songs. They mean something different to me now that I have gone through a whole bevy of experiences in the past six months including touring the world, renting my own apartment, falling in love, my sister moving across the country. There’s so much that I’m experiencing now that wasn’t on Kicker.

Does it mean that Kicker isn’t true to who Zella is? No. It just means that it documented a time in my life, and a journal entry. I think of albums as kind of a journal entry. You write what you’re currently experiencing and you close the page and you detach, and when I finished Kicker, I detached and I let the world have it, because at the end of the day I’m not making music for myself. It’s for everybody else that wants to be a part of it, and love it and relate to it. I play on stage for those people.

You’re releasing one more single from the album?
Yes. One more. It’s “Mustang Kids.”

Why did you settle on that one?
When I signed a major label deal it became very clear, very fast, that I wasn’t the only one involved on this team, so there is a big pool of people that have an opinion that matter. There’s a balance that I have to keep between the things that I want and the things that my team want. “Mustang Kids,” matter of fact, has an impact on the people that I play it to. I watch it in the set. That’s the reason why it’s my last song, because there’s a communal vibe.

There’s a unified vibe that comes along with “Mustang Kids.” When I sing that song and I look at people’s faces in the crowd they want to be a Mustang Kid, and for a single I think that’s important, because I am a new artist and I want people to feel welcomed in. I want them to want to be a part of what I’m doing, and I feel like “Mustang Kids” is that anthem.

Have you thought about the video?
I’m going to be shooting the music video the first week of May.

Can you talk about it?
A little bit. I’m casting the characters right now.

Will it have a narrative?
My little sister is going to be in the video. There’s definitely a narrative because the story that I’m telling in “Mustang Kids,” which is relatable to a lot of kids across the country that don’t come from much but are very passionate and ambitious… I grew up in a very small town. I didn’t know anybody in LA. I didn’t have connections, but I love to play music and there was a fire beneath me and within me that legitimately drove me out of my town and placed me in a new city amongst new people to keep chasing what I wanted to chase.

It’s possible, no matter who you are, so that’s what “Mustang Kids” is about. It’s about talking about that fire within you and that’s what I’m trying to portray within the video.

How is your sophomore album coming along?
If I wanted to I could release another record tomorrow. I mean I write a lot. If I didn’t write a lot I would feel like the whole thing that I’m doing is a fallacy and not real, because this one record, Kicker… it’s not the paradigm. It’s just a step into the rest of my life. Kicker has been my introduction, and I’m so grateful for that. We’ll see what this next single does. I’m very aware of the fact that I want to shoot farther, I want to go higher, and I’m writing all the time with that in mind.

Are you going to be more experimental on the next album?
More honest. More willing to say the things that I wouldn’t say on Kicker. A little bit more confident because I have now seen with my own two eyes the people that show up for me. I know that they’re listening and I want them to hear me, and so there’s a relationship with my… I guess you would call them fans. I don’t like calling them fans, but with my people that come to my shows, and they relate to my music, there’s a relationship with them now that has influenced the writing process.

Have you been working with the same people?
No. I’ve been writing a lot on my own. I’ve been doing a lot of writing sessions. I actually played two new songs today on stage. I played one called “Tigra,” which is with this producer by the name of Leggy Landon. I have been writing a lot of music with this guy Dan Negro. I’ve written this song called “Honey Pie,” which is about my sister moving across the country to New York to pursue modeling.

Being my baby sister and me kind of watching her go and embark on this journey as a young adult, which was really difficult. That departure song is for her and then I also wrote a song with Dan Negro called “Man On The Moon,” which is beautiful. It’s dreamy. I think after touring, after being on the stage, I know what translates well. So mixed with the fact that I know what I want to say, and I know what translates well live, the next record is going to be very different.

When I wrote Kicker I had never toured before, so I was writing my record in a studio, and then I was experimenting on the road. Now that I’ve experimented, going back to the laboratory is a completely different experience.

Are all your songs based on real-life events?
I have to. I have to start with an emotion, and emotions are very real, and they’re very human. I have to be able to close my eyes and practically touch whatever I’m feeling, because if I don’t then I’m going to write something that’s very divided from myself and outside of my body. I use my body as a vessel for music, and I don’t even claim to own it because I know that when I’m writing and I’m being inspired, it’s something that I don’t get to claim.

It’s something that just happens, and wherever it comes from, I’m really grateful for, because it happens and it’s very powerful. I don’t know, yeah, it definitely has to be sparked, though, by a real life experience because I have to be impacted emotionally, to be able to write about it. It’s not about me. It’s not about this. I know for a fact that I’m supposed to do this thing, because I’m here and I know I’m good at it because I get the validation from people like you and being on the stage and the audience, and I keep going.

It’s like I keep feeling it happen and it’s kind of like this wave that you ride. It’s with anything. It’s really fucking with anything in your life. I watch my friends do it too, who are artists or entrepreneurs or whatever, when you’re sparked and you’re on fire. I’m not really that religious, but God, or whatever the universe is, is going to tell you what you need to do, and you have to fucking be tapped in.

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