As exciting and eclectic as pop music is becoming in this day and age, it’s still uncomplicated to be able to track the careers of young artists just starting out in the genre.
As exciting and eclectic as pop music is becoming in this day and age, it’s still uncomplicated to be able to track the careers of young artists just starting out in the genre. The sound and aesthetic may fluctuate from artist to artist, but the basic career moves, album layouts, and public persona are all easy to identify for a young artist trying to make a name for herself. Well, unless you’re Zella Day.
She may only be 21, but Zella Day has been working in the music business for over six years now in places like Nashville and Los Angeles. This experience can be felt in her fully realized sound as well as her approach to her career, both as a musician and personality in the industry. Whereas other artists might shy away from making idealistic statements and variegated music, Day fully embraces it and seems to be thriving off of it. Her debut record from 2015, Kicker, paints Day as a musician in complete control of her wide-ranging musical palate as her “pop” sound builds upon elements of roots music, psychedelic, indie, and R&B. The most striking element of Kicker though is how organic and natural it all comes across. You can put on her record and be fascinated by concepts here and melodies there, but before you know it, you’ve been guided by Day through this cavalcade of contrasting genres that all seem to blend together thanks to her preternatural ability.
“I didn’t box myself in on [Kicker] at all,” Zella Day explains. “I never said this is the theme, this is tone of the record, and this is the way I need to write songs in order to go onto the record. I just wrote what I felt. I wrote my stories. I wrote about the people in my life. I wrote about my heart all the while bringing in all of my eclectic influences into one pot. I’d say the record is very organic and if anything, I didn’t dictate the sound as much as I could have. I just let it be.” It’s hard to imagine a record with some many different — and at times conflicting — ideas somehow being connected for a single record, but according to Day, all you need is one thing to unify all of these different sonic ideas and just allow that aspect to speak for itself. “There’s a lot of different influences and a lot of sounds I’m experimenting with on the record,” she further details, “but the one cohesive thread is my voice which is kind of a beautiful thing. There are stories from all sides of my personalities, but that the voice is the blanketed statement tying it all together almost effortlessly.”
Day is a headstrong musician with a clear vision of where her music and career should go, but unlike other determined musicians, she welcomes the idea of collaborating with other songwriters and producers to help her fine-tune and tweak the direction she’s headed in. “I’m very familiar with the collaborative process,” she states. “I’ve been doing writing sessions since I was 15 years old. I started writing in Nashville and that carried over to LA. Some people might not think so, but there’s something so rewarding about sitting in a room with a writer, hashing out ideas, and coming out with a song at the end.” For years, Day has been working side-by-side with the Wax Ltd songwriting & production team to help her sound develop. At the time they met, Day was a young Nashville musician who felt the pressure of the industry to conform to a “Taylor Swift” approach. Wax saw things differently and were able to help her eschew this direction for one that lined up more with her own personality and prescience and paved the way for Kicker to come into existence.
Talking freely about this subject is another way that Zella Day stands out from her contemporaries. While it’s not a well-kept secret in the industry, it’s long been considered taboo to discuss the use of multiple songwriters and producers on a record for a young artist because it can paint a picture of someone unqualified making music, even though that’s far from the truth. “It’s not that I’m a weak songwriter,” she explains. “I write all my lyrics and I also am well-versed on the guitar so I don’t have an issue writing songs. For example, “Jameson” on my record. That’s a song I wrote on my own and recorded in the studio in a live room with just me and my guitar. But I’m a solo act. I don’t have the luxury of having a band to bounce ideas off of so my answer to that is to have writing sessions when I feel like I need outside perspective or a different angle of writing. Honestly, the one area I struggle with the most is not the songwriting, but the production. I don’t know my way around ProTools and I’m also not a multi-instrumentalists so I need help in that regard which I’m completely unafraid to admit.”
The vibrant singer freely talks about her songwriting process like it’s an open book and while she is unafraid to admit where she falls short, she’s quick to point that out that she’s working to fill in the gaps wherever she can. “I’m actually planning to download [ProTools] this week and start recording demos on the bus. I have a lot of time to kill on the road and all of the guys in my band are constantly building tracks for fun so I think it will be really helpful for me. I can lay down my demos on the road so that when I come back home and I’m ready to record again, I have all of these examples of where I want to take these songs.” It’s not just the technical side of creating music that Day wishes to explore though. While she considers herself to be a strong songwriter — a claim supported by a superb collection of songs under her belt — Day admits that she’s still constantly looking for new ways to challenge her songwriting in order to get better such as honing in on her rhythmic approach to songs. “I think that I can get kind of caught in writing mid-tempo songs because it’s really easy to do on acoustic guitar,” she says. “Thinking ahead to the rhythmic attribute to a song is really important and so I’m constantly recording on my voice memos. I’ll just record rhythmic ideas in order to incorporate that into the demo process in order to push myself and push the tempo. One thing I know about myself is I can get caught in the mid-tempo range of songwriting so I’m trying to push myself forward and out of that and try up-tempo songs.”
This is all work that’s leading to Day’s next record, something she’s excited to tackle especially as she begins to put all the pieces together of what she’s learned thus far. “Since recording Kicker and being in the studio for my first studio record,” she explicates, “I’m much more knowledgeable about the recording process about what I want and about how I see it going for my next record. I know how to communicate and I know the terminology a lot more than I first did so this time around with my second record, I’m going to have all the songs ready. I’m going to be choosing my producers and I’m going to have a rough idea and outline of where I want to take the songs production wise. I will also be in the studio with other writers and collaborating.” Though she’s more confident than ever in her ability, Day is still not ready to shy away from having other eyes and ears help guide her songs in the beginning stages. In fact, it’s something she views as vital to the process. “Co-writes are always important, she continues. “I always love getting in the room with another brilliant mind to speak about songwriting and really just learn from other people. That’s how I’ve become a better songwriter. I’m really open to other talented writers and skilled instrumentalists and producers and I love ingraining myself in that world so I can learn more and keep growing.”
Day certainly has plenty on her plate at the moment, as she continues to form the basic skeleton of what will become her second record while still touring the country, but for Day, the music is not necessarily enough. She recently spearheaded the Headstrong Mama campaign, a positive feminist movement that serves to highlight the exemplary women in people’s lives. For Day, it’s not only a chance to celebrate extraordinary females, but also a way for her to get her beliefs and opinions out to the masses, even if it’s something her contemporaries might shy away from. “It really depends on the type of person you are,” she explains. “Some people don’t have any interest in speaking out against any issues or being part of any organization other than just recording music and releasing songs. But I do have opinions and beliefs that are stated in my music and stated in the things I’m pursuing.”
Day admits that the Headstrong Mama movement is simple in its concept and approach, but also hopes that this contrasting approach to the feminist message may continue to push women forward in society just as has been done over the last few decades. “The idea is to shed light on how far woman have come in general,” she continues. “I know if I was pursuing a music career fifty years ago, it would be much different than it is today. I am allowed to direct myself creatively and sonically. I’m really the boss of my team and that is a beautiful progression that has been made in the past few decades for females. I think one thing feminism can kind of suck you into, especially today, is the negativity of what we don’t have as women. Of course, there is that aspect of how far we have to go, but I am doing my best to shed light on how far we’ve come.”
The campaign works on a simple premise of asking fans and followers to submit photos of who they believe are their own “headstrong mama” in their lives as well as that person’s story. Fans are encouraged to not just look to family either, but also celebrate the friends, colleagues, and mentors in their lives who might fit the criteria of an empowering figure. “I just think females are really strong, dignified, and intelligent this day and age,” Day describes. “We are really the captains of their own destiny. I think that’s a beautiful feat for today’s world and it’s worth celebrating.”
Many of Day’s contemporaries would balk at the idea of attaching themselves to a movement, campaign, or even opinion so early in their career, for fear of it negatively hindering their career growth. For Day though, she recognizes the hesitation, but also believes her approach to voicing her opinion on feminism leaves little room for criticism or even disagreement. “The thing is the angle I’m taking on feminism isn’t necessarily pointing a finger of blame,” she reasons. “I could be putting myself in a jeopardizing situation if I was pointing a finger of blame, but what I’m doing is recognizing the beauty in female power and I don’t feel like that puts me in a comprising position. All it does is focus on the positivity and I don’t think I’m going to get punished for speaking out on positivity or even get people who disagree.”
Some might view this approach as a young artist looking at the world through rose colored glasses that are simply destined to shatter. Day’s more than aware of this belief and the harsh realities that might lead to this scenario, but she’s still headstrong in her belief and will continue to push for it. “It’s really being solidified in what you believe in,” she states. “There is no good without the bad and as long as you know that, it’s going to be fine. I believe women are powerful creatures and there is nothing I have encountered in my life that says otherwise. I am continuing to create music and to be on the road and to really have control over my creative future and career and I want to inspire other women to do that because other women can do that. On a global issue, that’s a little bit different because there are countries where women can’t even drive cards and aren’t allowed to show their faces, but women living in America are lucky for to be a little bit more bold as far as our career choices and the control that we have over our lives. We just have to continue to push forward and this is the way I think I can do it best.”
Zella Day plays The National tonight alongside opener Nightly. Tickets are $10 with the doors opening at 7 PM. For more information on the show and where to buy tickets, click here.