Jennifer Day has a cold, but if she weren’t carrying a box of tissues with her around the RCA Records offices you wouldn’t know it. Dressed in striped athletic pants and a black jacket with a red bandanna tied around her head, 20-year-old Day still exudes pep despite the occasional sniffle.
Pep is one of the main ingredients of her first single “The Fun of Your Love,” which is also the title of her debut album set to hit record stores March 7. Day co-wrote the song with award-winning songwriters Annie Roboff and Beth Nielsen Chapman, two-thirds of the dynamic team responsible for Faith Hill’s monster hit “This Kiss.” In fact, Day’s album includes four of her collaborations with some of Music Row’s successful writers, including Tommy Lee James, Liz Hengber, Blair Daly and Kent Blazy.
“I was very excited and kinda nervous,” Day said about her first few writing sessions. “Sometimes I’ll have these wacky ideas, but they have no structure to them. It was really cool because they could help me structure things and add things to it.”
The Roboff-Nielsen session was arranged by Renee Bell, RCA’s Vice President of Artists & Repertoire. “Annie is one of my best friends, and I had been talking to her about it quite a bit,” Bell said. “We needed one more tempo (fast) song for the album, and we knew we needed that kind of thing that Annie does so well. So they sat down and wrote it.”
The pixie-like Day, who stands only 5 feet 1 inch, hopes her songwriting will set her apart from the current crop of young, attractive female newcomers. It’s a talent she first realized as an elementary school student in her hometown of McAlpin, Fla.
“I had written my first song when I was in the fifth grade. It was for a drug awareness program,” Day remembered. “So in a way, I discovered it [writing] when I was young, but I got so involved with school and other things that I forgot about it.”
By her account, Day’s upbringing was fairly normal, but the story of how she made it to Nashville is anything but. Despite her elementary-school stab at writing and performing, she didn’t really start singing publicly until she was 13 and belted out “The Rose” at a school Beta Club convention.
“I always knew I could hold a tune, but I thought most people could sing, so I didn’t think it was anything special,” Day said. “Me and my friends just thought, ‘This will be fun. We’ll sing Bette Midler’s song and whatever.’ When we got done singing, all these people kept coming up to me going ‘Ohhhh … you sound so beautiful.'”
The attention her voice garnered triggered something in her young brain.
“There weren’t a lot of things I could put my finger on that I wanted to do,” she explained. “I loved school, and I was really good in school. I probably had all the abilities to go wherever I wanted to go, but I just didn’t love anything else.”
About that time Day was turned on to country music by her dad and her colorful grandmother, who would play Ray Price, Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline. Soon the teenager was also mixing in Faith Hill, Alabama and Wynonna among her records by pop and R&B artists like Mariah Carey and TLC. During her senior year in high school, Day recorded her own versions of “Crazy” and the Martina McBride hit “Where I Used to Have a Heart.” A copy of the tape ended up at her grandmother’s house in Hiawassee, Ga.
“One thing about growing up with Granny Rosie is she appreciates really good music,” Day said. “She would always find new artists, and a lot of the records she liked would go No. 1.”
In fact, Day can thank Granny Rosie’s good ear for helping her land a record deal. It seems her grandmother would host regular poker games, and she would play Day’s music right along with her other favorite records. One of the poker players was the aunt of Bob Jamieson, the president of RCA Records in New York. Jamieson eventually received a copy of Day’s tape, liked what he heard and sent it down to Joe Galante, chairman of the RCA Label Group in Nashville. Galante admits he almost “tossed the tape” because “usually the stuff he [Jamieson] sends down is terrible.”
Galante and Bell signed the teenager not because of the tape, but despite it.
“The demos were very distorted, but even through the distortion you could tell she had a great voice,” Bell explained. “We set up a meeting in our office, and she just came in and blew us away. Vocally, she was one of the most incredible singers we’d heard in so long.”
The label hooked her up with producer Robert Byrne, who has produced records for successful country group Shenandoah. Byrne also co-wrote three tunes on Day’s album, including “What If It’s Me,” a painful lover’s plea, which, despite her age, she sings with conviction.
“The way she interprets songs at her age!” Bell said. “That, to me, is the difference between a singer and an artist — to be an incredible interpreter and to make you feel every word that’s sung.”
Day said she can put true emotion into ballads like “What If It’s Me,” “Tell Me I’m the One” and “Completely” because she’s probably experienced a little more than some of her fellow young newcomers. For two years she’s been happily married to Brian Phillips, the high school sweetheart with whom she walked down the aisle just a month after graduation. She said the couple first met and started dating when she was 13.
“He and my brother were friends, and I had a big crush on him,” Day grinned as she remembered. “We just couldn’t wait. I mean, if I could have gotten married at 15, we probably would have gotten married, which sounds awful, but we were in love and we knew we were right for each other.
“It was crazy. When I was growing up I was like, ‘I’m going to college. I’m not getting married.’ But in a way, life throws you these things, and you can’t just not do something because you said before that you wouldn’t do it.”
So far Day certainly has taken advantage of the curves life has thrown her way. Since moving to Nashville in 1997, she has already made her debut on the Grand Ole Opry, had her songs included in the Kevin Costner film For Love of the Game and the upcoming Ashley Judd film Where the Heart Is, and she’s just returned from an eight-week radio tour. She admits the hectic pace is starting to catch up with her.
“The only down side is being away from home,” she said. “If I wasn’t married, I’d be like ‘Yippee!’ I’d be on the road all the time. But I’m a home girl. I like staying home and eating in front of the TV and watching movies.”
Although she’s wrapping up the radio tour, Day says there aren’t any immediate plans to go back on the road to perform. She has yet to put together a band, but she says that’s OK with her because she has learned to be patient.
“Even though I was striving towards my goal when I was in high school and singing at weddings on weekends, I didn’t miss out on my prom or the parties or the whole adventure of being young,” Day explained. “I’ve come so far and learned so much. I’m taking it all one step at a time.”