Zella Day grew up in the “Footloose”-conservative small town of Pinetop, Ariz. (population 7,000), but she instinctively made the most of her surroundings, and at 20, has parlayed them into a successful Los Angeles singing career.
“There’s no music scene in Pinetop, because there’s no college, so high school football games are a really big deal there. And I think they just cut the choir program at the high school, which is really sad,” says Day, who hits The City this week, backing her Hollywood Records debut disc “Kicker.”
Luckily, Day – born Zella Day Kerr – had a major connection: Her Swedish grandmother owned the local Mor Mor Coffeehouse, essentially the only concert venue around.
“It had a stage, and it was open-mic night on Friday, and live music on Saturday, so that was the first stage I played when I was only 9 years old,” she says. During the day, she adds, “me and my kid sister were always running around the shop, taking sips of coffee whenever we could from people’s leftover coffee mugs, as gross as that is. So I’ve literally been drinking coffee my whole life.”
Day wasn’t considering a professional singing career. She was planning on playing college soccer. For her own amusement, she strummed Dylan and Elvis covers at Mor Mor, then recorded an album of folksy originals at 13, called “Powered By Love,” with a telling cover of Melanie’s classic “Brand New Key.”
“I wasn’t anything special when I was a kid – I just liked to sing, like every little girl does,” she says. “And I’d started playing guitar at 9 just because it was something to do. I was just satisfied that I could write a song, and the people around me loved it – that was enough for me.”
Now, when Day listens back to “Powered,” she can hear a nascent talent blooming. Her mother heard it, too, and encouraged her daughter to pursue songwriting.
When her parents divorced three years ago, mom relocated the family to showbiz-adjacent Long Beach, and in earnest Day began sculpting ethereal, Laurel-Canyon-sleek songs such as “High” and “Sweet Ophelia,” both on “Kicker.” Her equally exotic “Sacrifice” was featured on the soundtrack of the 2015 movie “Insurgent.”
Day has moved out. Currently, she’s roommates with fellow burgeoning rock star (and longtime pal) Garrett Borns, and the two frequently bounce song ideas off each other.
Her only problem? “For the first time in my life, coffee has actually been affecting me, keeping me up,” she says. “And it never used to. Because coffee is a tradition in my family. And coffee must remain!”
IF YOU GO
Where: Slim’s, 333 11th St., S.F.
When: 9 p.m. May 28
Contact: (415) 522-0333, www.slimspresents.com