Zella Day Talks Music, Shakespeare, and Burritos Ahead of Her Show Tonight at Slim's

Zella Day, the Arizona-born and California-converted pop singer-songwriter, may be young, but she's not new to hitting the stage. At the age of 9 she started wooing coffee shop crowds at open mic nights in her hometown of Pinetop, Arizona. Now 20, and with a full-length record backed by a major label ready for release on June 4, she's amassed quite the following of fans with her enchanting timbre and suave songwriting.

We caught up with the L.A.-based rising star while she was walking her dog around Silver Lake, taking some time to talk about her career, literary inspirations, and Mexican food before she headlines Slim's tonight.

When did you first start playing music?
I got into music at a very young age. My parents owned a coffee shop in Pinetop, Arizona, where I grew up, and that was the only place in town that had live music. It was a town of 7,000 people and there's also no college there, so the art scene is hurting. At the time we had the coffee shop and I was 9 years old and starting playing and singing every Friday night at open mic. I got lucky; there's so many kids that are talented and musically inclined and it's natural to them and I was somehow blessed with the right circumstances.

[jump] It seems like you had a lot of support from your parents, and still do.
Yeah I do. I definitely have to give a lot of credit to the people in my life that have stood behind me and believed in me for a really long time now. I come from such a small place that I couldn't have done it alone. I started writing when I was 12 and learned theory; I started writing at a young age and never had anybody tell me that I couldn't do it, so I kept at it. L.A. and the “stage mom” thing was non-existent, it was really just about the music. I was just in my little cabin and my parents were really proud of me and I never stopped; a lot of the confidence that I have in myself comes from them.

Your goal was never to get famous, just make music and let it speak for itself.
You totally got it. That's exactly what I meant by bringing up the stage mom thing. Fame didn't matter to me, nobody in Pinetop is famous or ever thought they could be; I was just doing it because I really loved it.

Maybe they'll put your name on the “Welcome to Pinetop” sign one day.
[Laughs] I really hope so. I haven't been back in a long time but I do have a dream of going back and playing a big show at the High School football field because that's the biggest venue, maybe take all the money from the show and put it back into the arts. They took away the music program a couple years ago, when I was in High School I was in choir. Right when I left it kind of went away, so anything I could do to help. Coming from a small place, it's pretty cliché to be the “small town, big city” girl now, but it's definitely true. I don't like to be recognized for that, there's so many people coming from everywhere and as long as you're making good music it doesn't matter where you're from.

Now that you're living in L.A., have you found it more difficult to write new music or have you been more inspired?
I've been around so many wonderful musicians, including my roommate. I was never around fellow musicians growing up, it was just me. That can be a little stifling. Coming to California was really an eye opener for me and made me perform to the best of my abilities. I do get kind of competitive [laughs], so it's good for me.

Have you played in San Francisco before?
Yeah, I played at The Independent, opening up for Milo Greene. I really like San Francisco. I haven't spent as much time there as I'd like to, but I think I'm going to be coming to the Bay Area more often.

This will be your first headlining show, are you excited?
I'm really excited. I have my friends Max and the Moon opening up for me, it's a cool thing getting to choose your opener. That's something I hadn't experienced yet. John, who is one of the singers in the band, and I have written music together, so it was kind of a no-brainer.

For moral support if anything.

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly.

What's different about this new record coming out in June?
It's not my first full length, but it's my first record label kind of conventional, music videos, packaged deal release. It definitely feels different.

Did you have an idea for the album? Is it a culmination of where you've been so far?
It's a culmination of where I come from, where I've been, and where I am right now. There's two sides to the record; the first half of the record was written last year when I started to become comfortable with my new surroundings and seeing things with optimistic eyes. That was a beautiful time for me and there's a really airy quality to those songs. The second half of the record is a little darker; I fell into a relationship towards the end of the last year that really messed with me. So you have these conflicting perspectives, which I think is cool, you get to hear two sides of me: the happy side and the tormented side. There's something in there for everybody.

I wouldn't be the artist I am today if I didn't grow up in a small town in the mountains, and I've grown to appreciate that. It's definitely influenced the aesthetic of the record; I have a lot of Southwest influence that's making its way across the board.

Like country music?
A little darker, maybe like outlaw country. I have a song on the record called “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” written after a Clint Eastwood film.

You also have some literary themes on the record, with songs like “East of Eden” and “Ophelia.”
Yeah, for “Ophelia” I pretty much just took her character and me as a person and put the two together.

Didn't Ophelia go crazy and kill herself?

She was absolutely tortured by her love for Hamlet, she couldn't fucking deal anymore. I've definitely had those feelings. It wasn't very hard to see things from that perspective. The images, too, the Victorian paintings of her laying in the river, I looked at those while writing the song.

There are some literary references. My life is interesting, but there are so many more people and characters out there that have so much to offer and I like to include them from time to time.

Any other shows coming up?
We're playing BottleRock next weekend, and I'm excited because it's supposed to be an amazing festival. I'm playing the Troubadour in L.A. for a sold-out record release show. Headlining shows are starting to happen, which is humbling.

One last question, what's the best burrito you've ever had?
In San Diego.

Oh come on, french fries in a burrito are a travesty.
They're so good, they put fish in their burritos like nobody's business.

When you come to San Francisco, you have to go to La Taqueria in The Mission.
[Laughs] OK, I'll remember that. That sounds like a plan.

Zella Day plays Slim's with Max and the Moon tonight, May 28, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $14.

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