“Jameson,” the ninth track of Zella Day’s 2015 album, Kicker, stands out like a grassy meadow in a metropolis. Sparse in its vulnerability and despair, the song is just Day finger-picking acoustic chords as some gentle guitar lines float through the background. Day was just 18 when she wrote the song; it’s about her turbulent connection with a man 11 years her elder whom she loved madly. He was in a successful rock band that she declines to name, and seemed to want to drag her into his booze- and drug-heavy lifestyle. The song’s about refusing to go down those rabbit holes with him.
“I’m not a follower, and I won’t follow you,” she cries during each verse.
The lyrics are the tears of a rebuffed intervention. On an album surrounded by heavily produced modern pop tracks, some of which feature a live orchestra, “Jameson” is the most poignant and stripped-down, and it’s Day’s favorite. She calls it “a perfect display and example of what I do” — just her and a guitar, writing songs about love and life.
Yet she finds her young career heading in a completely different direction.
Today, Zella Day is a 21-year-old budding pop starlet. She’s a Los Angeles resident who lives in the hippest part of the city, and she’s becoming a regular in magazines like InStyle and Teen Vogue that hone in on her unique style, a carefully crafted combination of California and Arizona. She’s one record into a three-album deal with Hollywood Records, and she’s a veteran of Coachella and Bonnaroo, as well as the late-night shows of Seth Meyers and Conan O’Brien. She’s been developing her songwriting skills with professionals in Nashville and LA since before she could drive. Her 18-year-old sister is an aspiring model in New York City who just appeared in W Magazine. Spotify users have listened to her songs almost 100 million times.
She’s also an Arizona native who spent her formative years on a ranch near Pinetop, a town of 4,200 that hugs Highway 260 in a sleepy part of the White Mountains. Named after a miner’s wife who lived in Jerome, the name Zella has roots in Arizona history. She’s a former high-school soccer player who at age 9 first performed at open mics at her grandmother’s coffee shop.
Those close to her music career call her an “old soul.” People who knew teenage Zella remember her laser focus and ability to excel in anything she chose. She’s a polished media presence, speaking about her music in sound bites honed through the hundreds of interviews she’s done since being welcomed to the machine of a major-label deal just a few years ago.
She’s also fiercely self-assured in the clarity of her vision and determined to run her career on her terms. At 13, her talent convinced a neighbor to cover the costs of recording her debut album. That album didn’t make a splash outside her MySpace page, but it would get her in the door of J.P. Williams, the owner of Parallel Entertainment and the former manager of comedians like Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy, Jamie Foxx, and some of the Wayans brothers. She impressed Williams so much that he signed her on the spot, and now, years later, she remains the only musician he personally manages.
But Day now stands at a career crossroads. One year after the release of her debut album, she still can’t seem to get enough radio play to truly reach the mainstream listening public’s ears. She’s taken the hard route to secure creative control of her music, but now she must decide whether to embrace the roots of her isolated upbringing among classic rock records, or to immerse herself in the modern pop that defines LA and the global market beyond.
Day, whose birth name is Zella Day Kerr, moved to Long Beach, California, when she was 16, and she’s lived in Silver Lake, the so-called “Brooklyn of Los Angeles,” for about two years. When choosing the location of an interview, she opts for Cafe Stella, which serves as a salon of sorts for the neighborhood’s hipsters, actors, and artists.
Day is slender and athletic, her oval face framing strikingly blue, almond-shaped eyes that grow rounder when she talks about something that excites her. She arrives wearing a white crop top and white pants that loosely cling to her legs. Light-brown hair curls slightly before stopping to rest just under her shoulder blades. Her outfit certainly fits the hippie-chic look you see at music festivals like Coachella, but is tempered with a Southwestern flair, at this moment visible in the turquoise stones set in the four silver rings on her fingers, and in the single brown feather that sits atop her flat-brimmed white hat.
Her connection to the Golden State runs deeper than the six years or so she’s lived there, as her mom’s family is from Long Beach. “Growing up, [I felt] like I was such a California girl, and I needed to get out of Arizona,” Day says. “The grass is always greener, right?”
She quickly realized being a mountain girl set her apart from the multitudes of LA transplants, and it didn’t take long for her to embrace her upbringing.
“What makes me different and unique is the fact that I grew up in a very small town in Arizona,” she says. “And I think my perspective is one to listen to and be heard because I have something different to say.”
While Day was born in Phoenix, her parents initially moved to Pinetop when she was young to help start a backcountry snowboarding operation in nearby Greer that was converted into a luxury guest ranch called Hidden Meadow in 2002. Hidden Meadow became quite successful — Conde Nast’s luxury travel mag Johansens named it the “most excellent” ranch in the United States in 2011 — and Day spent her childhood riding horses and exploring the valleys and forests of the Pinetop area.
Visiting Pinetop, it’s not hard to understand why an ambitious teenager would want out. The northeastern Arizona town, officially called Pinetop-Lakeside after it merged with a nearby municipality in the ’80s, is flanked by the Apache Reservation and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Calling it isolated is an understatement. The nearest university is 150 miles away in Flagstaff, and nearby Show Low hosts the closest community college, Northern Pioneer College, which employs fewer people than the town’s Home Depot. With its picturesque lakes and easy access to mountain recreation, Pinetop is a popular destination for vacation homes and seasonal tourism. As a result, swaths of homes sit unoccupied for much of the year, and opportunities are limited for the 200 or so graduates that come out of Blue Ridge High School, the town’s lone public high school, every year.
Day’s mother, Ana Kerr, operated a crafts studio called Art Smarts that shared a wall with a coffee shop, Mor Mor Coffee, run by Day’s maternal grandmother. Kerr noticed her daughter’s affinity for music at a young age — as a toddler she could sing parts of Disney songs by heart — and at age 9, her grandma bought her a guitar. Pinetop offered limited arts opportunities for elementary schoolgirls, but her grandmother hosted a weekly open mic that attracted a core group of guys playing acoustic guitar covers. This exposure to live music inspired Day, and it didn’t take her long to stage her first performance — acoustic covers of “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Hound Dog,” along with an original song of her own, a tribute to her first-grade crush.
“The song was about how boys just don’t get it,” she says, throwing back her head and laughing. “That was my message I wanted to put out as a 9-year-old.”
In school, Day’s sixth-grade teacher, Gretchen Polkinghorne, remembers her as a “brilliant,” hard-working, and well-liked student who starred in the class’ production of Twelfth Night. She was mature for her age as well, with many older friends.
“Sixth grade is such a drama year for kids. She didn’t really have any of that,” says Polkinghorne, who now teaches sixth grade in Minnesota. “She was kind of in the middle of things, but never really got any of that angsty middle-school drama.”
As Day grew older, she drifted towards soccer, where she played with the boys’ team in Pinetop and considered vying for an athletic scholarship at nearby Northern Arizona University.
“Everything she did was all the way,” says her mom. “She took herself very seriously.”
Possessing an uncanny focus and a mother willing to push her to develop her talents, Day began taking guitar lessons in Phoenix, with her mother regularly making the eight-hour round trip.
“I have to give a lot of credit to her as a mother,” Day says of her mom. “[She was] pushy, but in the right ways.”
Always, Day was writing songs. She had songs about everything, from appreciating what you have to how she doesn’t “feel groovy until I put my red pants on.” Moreover, she was enough of a sensation in Pinetop that a neighbor, Neil DuCharme, offered up $20,000 so she could record an album. The CD, Powered By Love, came out in 2008, when Day was 13.
“Some people donate money to scholarships,” Kerr says. “He gave to Zella.”
Powered By Love didn’t make Day a star, however. Her next big break came from MTV. While signing up for a School of Rock-style summer camp for teens, Day noticed a link soliciting campers to be filmed for an MTV reality show, something akin to the True Life series. She signed up, and on the first day of camp, she woke up to cameras in her face. After an argument with an older girl named Rebecca, she ended up in middle of some unanticipated reality TV faux-drama.
“There was a shock factor to having this experience at camp and having it be so positive, and then watching it on MTV, and being like, ‘Wow, they really manipulated this into a dramatic episode,’” she recalls.
MTV ended up running the episode just once, but the exposure caused the traffic to Day’s MySpace page to explode overnight. Encouraged, she and her mother asked around Pinetop, and once again, fortune smiled upon them. A family friend’s brother-in-law knew someone in Los Angeles, and the CD ended up in the hands of a guy working for Tom Werner, chairman of the Boston Red Sox and the producer of The Cosby Show. The rep said she needed a manager, and made the introduction to the man who would help guide her career to where it is today.
J.P. Williams sits in his Culver City office and leans back in his chair, folding his hands over his head. Everything about him screams high-powered entertainment executive, from the good-natured way he shouts at his assistant — like a friendlier Ari Gold — to the string of profanity that breezily drops from his mouth when talking about facets of the industry he dislikes. He’s tall — about 6'2" — and bulky, and is wearing a pink shirt, white pants, and no shoes while seated behind an impressive desk that looks like something you’d find antiquing.
“I smile because I can still remember it,” says Williams, remembering the first time he met Day, who at the time was nursing an ankle she had broken playing indoor soccer in Pinetop. “She’s this little girl with a guitar and a broken foot. ... From the moment she came in and I met [Day] and her mom, I’m like, ‘I’m in. I’ll do it. I’d sign you in a heartbeat.’”
Sign her he did, and Day and her mother went back to Pinetop. The next time Day returned to Los Angeles, Williams helped set up meetings with networks like Nickelodeon and Disney Channel to possibly get her on television — the Hannah Montana entrance into the music business.
“I hated it,” Day admits. “I was really vocal about what my intention was, and if I was to be a part of the industry on any level, [I wanted] to make music.”
It was a brash assertion coming from a preteen, but Williams respected it. Yet it left him in a tough position as her manager.
“How do you sell a 13- or 14-year-old little girl without television?” he asks. “Who’s her competition at that point? Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera — they’re selling sex. A 13-year-old can’t sell sex.”
Instead, he sent Day and her mom to Nashville to meet Dann Huff, a renowned country music producer and guitarist for ’80s glam-metal band Giant. Huff liked what he heard and set up co-writing sessions for Day with other artists. (New Times was unable to reach Huff for comment on this article.) She met and wrote songs with people like former Civil Wars member John Paul White (“Music just, like, falls out of that guy like I’d never seen before,” she says) and a pre-bass Meghan Trainor (“We came out with a Fleet Foxes-sounding tune”).
For Day, it was a foundational learning experience that helped hone her pop songwriting instincts and confirmed that there was a place for her in the music industry. After a year of development, Huff wanted to produce her record. But Day wasn’t interested. Despite repeatedly watching Coal Miner’s Daughter when she was a kid, she didn’t want to be a country singer.
Hence, for the second time in three years, Day had turned down an opportunity many musicians would kill for in order to do things on her terms.
Back in Pinetop, Day’s musical precociousness distanced her from her peers. Her friend, Maddie Cooley, remembers that kids didn’t really quite know what to make of her.
“It’s a closed-minded area,” Cooley says of Pinetop. She says the depth of Day’s ambition was difficult for her fellow high-schoolers to comprehend. “I wouldn’t say ‘jealousy,’ but it was a weird elephant in the room.”
When Day was 15, her parents separated. By the time she was 16, they had divorced, and Day’s mom moved her two daughters to Long Beach, where Kerr had grown up and still had family. It took some time, but Day was able to reconnect with a team of producers, Wally Gagel and Xandy Barry of Wax Ltd., that she’d met on a previous trip to Los Angeles. Between the two of them, they’ve helped produce or engineer records by the likes of Muse, Best Coast, Old 97’s, and Family of the Year.
Standing in his studio off Sunset Boulevard, Barry points to a shimmering upright piano and a white plastic folding chair.
“This piano and that chair: That’s how we met Zella Day six years ago,” he says. “She walked in here and we wrote a song. I knew right away that she was going to be a really important songwriter in this generation.”
Meanwhile, Williams kept courting labels for Day and, in 2014, she signed with Hollywood Records. Once the home of pop princesses like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Hilary Duff, the roster has thinned of late; the label’s most recognizable current asset is Queen’s catalog.
“I didn’t have a lot of options when I came out here,” Day says. “I didn’t have the cream-of-the-crop pick of whatever label I wanted to be with … I had a couple of good deals, but Hollywood was the one that I went with because they were willing to give me full creative reign for my project.”
She and her producers would eventually go on to create an EP, released in 2014, and Kicker, Day’s full-length debut with Hollywood Records. Upon the album’s 2015 release, it made a one-week appearance at number 65 on the Billboard charts, but quickly disappeared.
For his part, Williams remains completely dedicated to Day, despite admitting that she’s still a “loss leader” for him.
“I’m not holding a tab,” he says. “If Zella walked out the door tomorrow, I’m not going to ask her for the money. A lot of people would say, ‘You’re going to have to pay this back.’ I don’t have a contract with her. I believe in her and that was my commitment. I’m very old school … I’ll put my skin in the game.”
Kicker gets its name from an Apache cowboy who worked on Day’s father’s ranch. As a young girl, she’d drift to the horse stables, perch on a bale of hay, and listen to Kicker regale her with his ancestral folklore. The tales catalyzed Day’s young imagination, and she was soon having vivid dreams about the lightning princess that starred in Kicker’s stories.
These days, Kicker works at Sunrise Park Resort on the Apache Reservation. He talks in a thick reservation drawl, and when asked about Day, he initially doesn’t remember her. But after some prompting, he recalls working at Hidden Meadow. When told Day’s album is named after him, he reacts with a slow, polite chuckle.
“That’s cool!” he says. “That’s very cool, heh heh. Good to hear something like that!”
Arizona is all over Kicker, and not just in the name and album art, designed by Phoenix artist Brock Lefferts. The opening track is called “Jerome,” after the old mining town near Flagstaff from which Day got her name. It’s a song about a miner’s wife who, trapped in Jerome by marital obligations, never got to see the outside world.
“And now, today, I don’t have to be that,” Day says of the song, a hint of triumph in her voice.
There’s a lot of darkness on the album too. Five of Kicker’s 12 songs — “Jameson,” “Shadow Preachers,” “1965,” “Ace of Hearts,” and “High” — deal with her substance-abusing ex-boyfriend and their relationship, the one she entered when she was 18.
“He was 28, 29, and I was 18, and it was the worst possible thing that I could have done,” she says. “I was so disillusioned about what he was and the kind of people that he was a part of, and it really took me for a spin, for a ride. I had to fight for myself for the first time in ways that I’d never had to fight for myself, I guess in ways of fighting for my morals and my health, and not really falling into this darkness that was deemed to be cool by him and his band.”
“It’s scary, because I think a lot of artists can get addicted to being inspired by pain and by negativity because there’s a lot to say about it,” she adds. “It’s hard to write about happiness. It’s hard to write about being optimistic or positive. One thing I think a lot of humans relate on is pain. At that time, I was definitely inspired by the pain and the negativity of my life because I had never really felt it as deeply as I was at that time.”
“Mustang Kids” is the latest single off Kicker. It tells the story of a gang of small-town teenagers who drive around like they own the place, get bored, and rob a liquor store. It’s unlike any other song on the album — it features the rapper Baby E and is the only track with a voice besides Day’s — and it holds commercial importance, too. It might be the last single from the album, and if it’s successful, it might drive interest to the rest of the LP, none of which really ever got any substantial radio play.
“Right now, Kicker is at that place where it’s either going to keep going and I’m going to keep working that record, or I make a new one,” Day says, noting that she has enough songs written that she could record a full album of original material tomorrow. “Whichever way it goes, I’m fine.”
“Mustang Kids” is clearly the oddball on the album; Williams, Day’s manager, calls it the “most commercial” song from the record. The track seems to evoke polarizing reactions from fans and critics alike, and Williams admits he has a lot riding on the song.
A month after its release, it’s gotten a great response online, Williams says, pointing to the quarter-million views the music video had acquired on YouTube. But FM stations still won’t bite.
“As far as radio? No, not yet,” Williams says, noting it was still early in the process. “To say we’re a success in radio would be a lie.”
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Day’s coming to Tempe to open for Fitz and the Tantrums at the Marquee Theatre on Wednesday, July 27. She’s excited to play the 2,500-person venue. During her last trip to Phoenix, she headlined the 300-capacity Rebel Lounge. She was at the tail end of a 150-date tour that took her across the world, and was a little disappointed at both the small size of the venue and the lack of support she received from Phoenix radio stations. It didn’t make sense to her that she’d have such a small crowd in Phoenix after performing for much bigger audiences in places like Moscow.
“Walking into it, for the Rebel Lounge I was like, ‘Damn, I wish this was a bigger show,’” she recalls. “But then I had the best time I’d had at a show in months.”
She's hoping that radio support will pick up as she passes through town this time. But if it doesn't, she's clearly prepared to move on.
Zella Day is scheduled to play Marquee Theatre in Tempe on Wednesday, July 27.