Currently based in Los Angeles, CA, singer/songwriter ZZ Ward got her start as a professional musician by playing alongside her father in dive bars across Oregon when she was 12 – a highly unusual education, indeed. Heavily influenced by the blues and hip-hop, and with an incredible, soulful voice reminiscent of the likes of Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, Alice Russell and others, Ward turned a number of heads when she released a mixtape with the-then-unknown and unsigned sensation by the name of Kendrick Lamar.
The last two years or so have been particularly big for Ward – she released her critically praised debut effort, Til the Casket Drops and it includes collaborations with the sadly unheralded Freddie Gibbs, Kendrick Lamar, and Fitz and the Tantrums. During the past year since the album’s release, Ward has burst into the larger, national scene: she’s toured with the likes of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and Gary Clark, Jr., as well as appeared on Good Morning America, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Conan. Adding to that some of her songs have made prominent appearances on ABC‘s Nashville. And i think you’ll be hearing from her quite a bit more, as she’s been headlining a national tour, which includes a stop at Irving Plaza on September 30th.
I caught up with the lovely ZZ Ward via email while on she was on the road, and in this Q&A she talks about how her experiences performing with her father has informed and helped her career; how her collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs came about – and her bucket list of collaborators; and much more. Check it out below.
WRH: You got into music at a very young age and according to your bio you were playing, singing and touring in your father’s band by the time you were 12. How was it like touring with your father at such a young age? And how did that experience inform you as an artist?
ZZ Ward: When I would play with him we just played locally. If anything, it taught me how to play with musicians on stage and that was the best education I could get. It taught me when to wait on stage, when to not over-sing, how to play, and take cues from musicians, how to be prepared for what comes. That was definitely something that informed how I operated early on.
WRH: How would you describe your sound?
ZW: Back porch blues meets hip-hop
WRH: Who are you listening to right now?
ZW: Gary Clark Jr., HAIM, James Bay and the Wild Feathers. James Bay and the Wild Feathers are on tour with me right now. I really think James is gonna blow up. He’s the whole package. Incredibly talented, and a big sweetheart. I’ve really enjoyed having both bands with me on this tour. It’s been amazing.
WRH: You’ve been known to collaborate with a number of emcees including the likes of Kendrick Lamar before he blew up, and on this album with Freddie Gibbs, who I personally think is an underrated emcee. Interestingly, I’ve listened to your latest effort a number of times and I’ve noticed that the material manages to possess a bluesy shuffle with swaggering, towering hip hop-influenced beats. How much has hip-hop influenced your work? Is this meshing of the blues and hip-hop intentional?
ZW: Yes it was intentional. Hip-hop was a huge influence to me growing up it’s one of my top two favorite genres of music (blues is the other). I love beats. I love the confidence of hip hop Nas, Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim I couldn’t make music if there wasn’t hip-hop. I wouldn’t survive without hip-hop.
WRH: How did the Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs collaborations happen? How was it like to collaborate with them? Is there any other emcee, or any other artist for that matter, out there who would be on your bucket list of people to work with?
ZW: When I put out my mixtape I flipped Kendrick and Gibbs songs and they heard me and believed in the sound I was doing and wanted to be a part of the record. Watching Gibbs write his rap in the studio – I was just so excited the entire time. When he went in the booth he just laid it down it was amazing. If I could collaborate with others I’d have to say Salaam Rami, Azealia Banks, Kanye West or Dr. Dre.
WRH: From listening to the album, a great deal of the material deals with love in some way – “’Till the Casket Drops,” “Cryin’ Wolf,” “Home,” and “Blue Eyes Blind,” deal with being deeply, passionately, hopelessly in love; the speakers of the songs openly being seduced in a way that they desperately crave the object of their attention. Songs like “Put Down the Gun” “Save My Life” and “365 Days” seem to come from the perspective of the jilted lover – but instead of the possessing the “woe is me” sentiment, there is the sense of the speakers honestly thinking of their situation, and getting fed up with it and wanting out altogether. In some way, the speakers seem to be saying, “look fool, I can do much better.” In the case of “Lil’ Darlin’” the speaker of the song openly admits that the man she loves is fucking up to the point that she’s worn out but he has a hold on her heart. “’Move Like You Stole It” is one of the most seductive, come-hither now songs I’ve heard this year. How much of the material is based on your own personal experience or those of others?
ZW: It’s all based on personal experience. All of it. I’m a Gemini so some days I’m feeling angry at the person and other days I’m crazy in love with them. It just depends on what I’m feeling. That’s why the album is like a rollercoaster of ups and downs. Sometimes you have to go through war to find love, but I’d rather have it that way and have real emotion there.
WRH: On the album, the songs sound carefully constructed – to the point that the sequence of each song feels thought out. It wouldn’t be the same album if the track listing was different. Was this intentional? And with each song being so carefully constructed, when did you know you had a finished song? Was there anything that was scrapped/saved for later, as it often happens?
ZW: I just wrote the songs and then we figured out how they flowed into each other best on this record. There’s no fat on this record. There were maybe 2 songs that didn’t make it, barely. In my life I’ve scrapped plenty of songs but not for this album. When I hit my stride for this record I just knew my path and went with it.
WRH: My fellow colleagues across the blogosphere who may have been largely unfamiliar with your work may compare you to the likes of Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, Alice Russell and the like – you know, the soulful white girl. Nothing wrong with that because all of those women can sing. Have you felt any pressure to either live up to that comparison or to do something to set you apart?
ZW: I’m flattered by those comparisons, but most of my influences are deceased, other than Tina Turner. My goal is to try and do as well as they did in their prime and that’s all I can do. Be the best I can be, sing the best I can sing, and write better and better songs.
WRH: You’ve been touring to support the new album and it included a stop at Warsaw here in NYC. How was the response to the album and to the tour been?
ZW: Incredible. It’s been an amazingly fun journey and the crowds have been so wonderful. I’m looking forward to coming back to NY and playing Irving Plaza.
WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? As a woman, has been tougher? And would the advice differ for a woman?
ZW: I don’t know if as a woman it’s been tougher because I’ve never been a man (ha), but I would say if you have an opinion about things, know that you have an opinion about them. Find the right people you can express them to. If you have something you’re passionate about find people who value your opinion to work with.