Zella Day Delves Into the Era-Traversing Style and Sensibilities of ‘Where Does the Devil Hide’
There are certain artists who manage to capture the spirit of bygone eras, not merely rehashing them, but reimagining them in a way that transcends time. Zella Day is not only a singer-songwriter, but an auteur with both music and visuals that present a singular, spellbinding vision. Although she grew up in a small town in Arizona, Day is a quintessential California artist, capturing the spirit associated with the state in her art. Her EP, “Where Does the Devil Hide” continues a long fascination with ‘60s aesthetics, continues into the ‘70s, and all the while sounds very much of the moment.
For her latest record, Day teamed up with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, whose distinctive sonic instincts bring her music to a new level. The five songs on the release come alongside music videos, with a blend of influences including classic psychedelia, French new wave cinema, and disco revelry. Day spoke with Entertainment Voice and shed light on “Where Does the Devil Hide,” her California essence, and her distinctive artistic sensibilities.
The striking title of your visual EP, “Where Does the Devil Hide,” is a rather cryptic question that emerges as a bit of a nonsequitur in your single, “Only a Dream,” amidst lyrics about an overwhelming love. What does the title mean to you? And, how does it relate to that particular song and the whole EP?
I find it hard to talk about because it is meant to be cryptic. I personified my own darkness in this devil character that is lurking throughout the song of “Only a Dream,” and at the time when I wrote these songs, there was a darkness hanging over everything in my life at the time, both in my personal life and in my professional life, and it was healing for me to grab hold of that darkness and create beauty out of it. It’s a beautiful thing to have and to hold, and to see my own journey out of the darkness and into the light, as corny as that might sound. That’s what the EP represents.
The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach produced the EP. Auerbach has a way of bridging gaps between eras and reinvigorating classic sounds, so it seems like a natural pairing. How did his involvement shape the sound of the EP?
Dan is such a clear channel for songwriting and production. He has professional instincts and impulses in the studio that are rare. I’ve always dreamed of working with Dan. There is a simplicity to his arrangements, whether it be in the Black Keys or a lot of the production that he’s done. His choices are playful and clever in the way Tom Petty is, and I’ve always wondered and imagined what the chemistry would be in the room between Dan and I, and you can see it and hear it all over the EP. I wanted to be in a place where I was making music in the room with musicians, and that’s exactly what we did, so it was a very organic approach, and unpredictable at times.
What would you consider the main differences — musically, lyrically, and visually — between your last album, “Kicker,” and “Where Does the Devil Hide”? And, how have you evolved?
They’re such different bodies of work, it’s hard to put them in the same conversation even. Knowing myself and also fellow artists, you’re so inside of each record that you can’t really see behind you or in front of you. You can only see the present moment of what you’re trying to communicate. With all of the songs together, it sometimes can be a bit overwhelming (laughs). With “Kicker,” I was in a place where I moved from Arizona. I was getting my bearings here in California, and there was a lot that I lyrically and visually was pulling into my work from Arizona, whether it be the song “Jerome” on the record, which is the place that my namesake is from, and it’s Jerome, Arizona. There’s a lot of imagery that’s meant to live in a desert psychedelia space. And this EP is different. I’ve been living in L.A. now for almost eight years, and with that comes a completely new set of inspirations and people and music. And as I’ve grown as an artist, I’ve kind of done a deep dive into my own writing, and figuring out what I like and what I don’t like about what I do. So it’s kind of refining my craft and hopefully setting myself up for lifelong success, as far as being the kind of artist that I want to be and believe I can be, and this EP is intentional in its classical approach. I hope for myself to sort of transcend time with my writing and my music, and this EP does just that.
Although you grew up in a small town in Arizona, you’re often described as a California artist, with talk about your “Cali boho look,” and the psychedelia of videos like “Purple Haze” continuing in a long Cali tradition. What do you suppose it is about California that makes people associate you with it, and what does California mean to you and your music?
My family is from California. My grandmother was born and raised in Long Beach along with her six siblings. My mother was actually born in Mexico and grew up in both Mexico and Long Beach, and went to high school in Long Beach. And so I’ve grown up coming here. I was born in raised in Arizona, but California has always acted as a root system in my life. I came here yearly growing up, and all of my aunties played a very big role in my life — an example of hardworking, beautiful, ambitious women who all kind of had that California essence, that salt of the eart style. So it’s been around. I’ve been around it. Growing up, when I would go to family gatherings here in California, the alcohol was not really present as much as the marijuana was (laughs). So it’s always been a part of the culture, and moving here was a very gentle transition, and I adapted quickly. In some ways, I feel like I’ve always been trying to make it back here. And so, this place is threaded throughout my work for a great reason, and I honor California however I can, whenever I can.
You have an ability to transport listeners to bygone eras through your music. An especially striking example of this is your single “My Game,” with its disco stylings presented in consummate detail. What were the musical inspirations for this song, and what do you think of the disco era in general?
We were talking a lot about Abba and the Bee Gees when we were in a writing session in Nashville with me, Dan, and Bobby Wood, who plays keyboard. We had just finished “Only a Dream,” and it was time to pick up the pace a little bit. At this point in my career, I identify with a certain groove that the disco era has. I was talking about Abba and the Bee Gees, and we were talking a little bit about Hot Chocolate, and we were having conversations about that era and about that time. Bobby started playing a progression on the keyboard, and I just started writing lyrics, and that was kind of it. It was pretty simple and easy to see where the song was going from there, And, I think with disco, I appreciate its straightforward nature, and for a song like “My Game,” it was important to have that part of the body of the work, because it just allows you to let go, and not think as much about the lyrical content or the depth of the poetry. It’s just more about a sound and a feeling and a pulse.
You have a distinctive aesthetic vision that borrows from the ‘60s. The clothes, dancing, and color schemes in your music videos for “People Are Strangers,” “My Game,” “Purple Haze,” and “Only a Dream” all nod to that decade. What is it about the style of that era that speaks to you, and how did you manage to capture the ‘60s spirit so effectively?
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to outrun the ‘60s decade because I just have wavy beach curls and freckles and blue eyes (laughs). I feel like no matter what I do, I’ll always be attached somehow, which I’m cool with. A lot of the inspiration for the videos didn’t come from the ‘60s era at all. “Only a Dream” was heavily influenced by Ingmar Bergman. I’ve been watching a lot of French New Wave films. That’s where a lot of that inspiration comes from. And, then “People Are Strangers,” that is definitely more James Bond theme-inspired, which is that ‘60s, ‘70s that you speak of. And even “My Game” — I try not to be too on the nose with anything I do because there’s nothing more boring than a regurgitation, and I don’t find it interesting to rip anyone off. I mean, I’m inspired, but as far as “My Game” goes and the nod to disco in the song, it was important to me that I created a world full of color in a different way, so I’m not wearing my platform shoes and my bell bottoms for a reason. My friend Damon is an illustrator and does a lot of work that kind of represents Japanese anime, and we had had the idea to do more of an animated video for “My Game.” But then we decided that because I haven’t really put out work in a long time, it might be important to show my face (laughs).
“Purple Haze” is full of vivid imagery, with lyrics about “smoking with no clothes on” and “sugar coated ozone.” Considering that you were a writer first, tell us a little about the dreamy language you use in this song, and where it came from?
Yes sir (laughs). I was living in downtown L.A., and it was the dead of summer. It was so hot sometimes that there was nothing else to do than just smoke a joint and walk to the market, and get your daily dose of snacks — a couple of apples or just apple juice (laughs). And with that song, I had that hook for quite some time — “Purple haze on Saturdays / Smoking with no clothes on / I bet he tastes like outer space / Sugar-coated ozone.” It was just one of those lines that found me, while really just kind of doing what I do on a Saturday. I brought that hook to Dan, and from there, it was about not overcomplicating something so galactic feeling (laughs). And so, you know, the lyrical content that surrounds that hook in particular is just about me hanging out in my neighborhood, and sometimes a song doesn’t need to be about more than that. I’m happy to have got one of those on the record that is so just simply human, and there’s nothing incredibly special about that narrative, which I think is the best part about it.
You covered Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” live last year with Lana Del Rey and Weyes Blood. Do you have any collaborative tracks in the works? Possibly a feature for your next album?
That would be the headline, wouldn’t it, if I did a collaboration feature with Lana del Rey (laughs), so I’m not going to comment on that. And as far as the next record, it’s me. I’m kind of the center point for all the things I make. The next record is actually entirely different from “Where Does the Devil Hide” (laughs). I don’t even know how to really describe it because I’m just receiving the mixes back right now. So the record is actually done, and I’m in that bubble right now where I’m trying to familiarize myself with it because it was an explosion of recording that lasted all of July. I’ll be ready to talk about that soon.
In “Only a Dream,” your breathy, intimate vocals, over the sprawling, string-laden arrangement, effectively conjures the “world of enchantment” that you sing about. Considering that you often keep dream logs on tour, does music ever actually come to you in dreams?
Concepts come to me in dreams. I feel lucky when they do. It’s kind of the in-between state that is the meditation that music is written in the first place, but “Only a Dream” did not come to me in a dream, to be specific (laughs). It came sitting in the living dream, but there are other songs that absolutely were only a dream, and then became a song.
With Covid putting traditional live performances and tours on pause right now, what kind of performances can your fans look forward to, in both the short term and the long term?
We’re trying to figure that out. I’m waiting patiently to get word from my team, as to what is going to be the best strategy moving forward, because I have to share the music somehow. And I’m hoping that it doesn’t completely just live in a virtual space because I don’t feel as though that’s my strength. I’m strongest in a room with people, and that’s where I would prefer to be, but I’m trying to really cool it on all the wishes that I know I can’t have right now (laughs). But we’ve only got a few months left in the year, and maybe a miracle will happen.
“Where Does the Devil Hide” releases Aug. 28 on Apple Music.