A shine all her own
With her brassy mix of blues and hip-hop, ZZ Ward makes a memorable first impression.
By Naila Francis
Even as a child, ZZ Ward had a way of standing out.
In talent shows at school, her voice, so potent and searing for her age and stature, easily commanded the spotlight.
“That’s kind of when other people started freaking out about my voice, when I was little. They were so excited to hear me sing,” says the Abington native.
That was also when her dad began paying attention, too. A musician and singer-songwriter who’d played with several bands in the local area before the family moved to a farm just outside of Roseburg, Ore., when Ward was 6, he decided it was time to school his daughter in some of the finer skills of vocal performance.
By 12, she was accompanying him on gigs with his blues band, singing four-hour sets before unpredictably rapt or rowdy patrons.
“When I was first singing the blues in front of people, it was so different for a little kid to be up there singing the blues. A lot of older people respected that, but kids my age were, like, ‘What are you doing?’ Now it all makes sense,” says Ward.
Those formative experiences, along with a foray into rap at age 16 — she began writing and singing hooks for some of Eugene’s top hip-hop artists — have given rise to a sound that has made Ward one of the freshest, most compelling voices to emerge from the clamor of new artists competing for critics’ ears and audiences’ fleeting attention spans.
The singer-songwriter and guitarist calls it “dirty shine”: a crackling blend of hip-hop and blues, spiked with pop and Motown influences and anchored by her raw, soulful voice.
“It’s mostly a feeling,” says Ward of the descriptor, which stemmed from a conversation with her manager when she first began exploring the sound that would propel her debut album, “Til the Casket Drops,” to buzz-worthy status across multiple platforms from NPR and MTV Hive to publications like Marie Claire andRolling Stone. “He said, ‘Stop thinking about what other people are going to like — just write music that feels right to you and music you love.’ That’s what I hope to encourage my fans to do — to embrace their authentic selves.”
It was that sincerity which first attracted her to blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson when her parents began delving into the genre following their move out west.
“If you listen to Big Mama Thornton or Tina Turner singing the blues, it’s just so real, so authentic,” says Ward. “It was just magical for me.”
With music a constant in her childhood, it seemed an inevitable career choice. Her dad owned two Hammond B3 organs, and by 5, Ward was already picking out melodies on them. She also learned how to play the harmonica and says one of her earliest musical memories was watching her grandmother in Hatboro play the instrument.
“She would just go to town,” recalls Ward. “I was always hearing my dad sing and hearing other female singers, so I always wanted to be a singer. At some point when I realized that made me special, that I could sing and I could play music … it just seemed like I should do that.”
After opening for hip-hop artists like Mike Jones and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony in Eugene, she moved to Los Angeles, busking on the street, playing small clubs and selling demos out of the back of her pick-up before she was signed to music impresario Evan “Kidd” Bogart’s Boardwalk Entertainment Group. Bogart, who’s written songs for artists like Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna and Beyoncé, had stumbled upon Ward’s MySpace page while searching for new talent. Once she began working on her debut album, Ward allowed her instincts to be her guide.
“I had been listening to a lot of old Smithsonian recordings, like field recordings. They just really inspired me and inspired (the title song) ‘Till the Casket Drops.’ That was the first song I wrote for the record,” says Ward, who will perform Wednesday at the Theatre of the Living Arts. “After that one, I just started knocking them out.”
The album was released on Hollywood Records last October — Ward also previously put out the mixtape “Eleven Roses” and an EP — and features collaborations with artists like Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, Fitz of Fitz and the Tantrums and rappers Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs.
On most of it, she swaggers, slinks and stomps through a cycle of rough-and-tumble romance, but then takes a surprisingly vulnerable turn on the ballad “Last Love Song.”
“When I first started writing, when I was younger, I would always write ballads on piano. I really tried to stay away from that when I was writing the record. Then I sat down one day and that poured out of me,” she says. “When you’re writing, you’re always thinking, ‘Am I cool with talking about this and other people hearing this?’ At some point, as a writer, you just kind of let it go.
“I want to write songs that transcend time,” says Ward. “That’s the most important thing to me — to write songs that people remember.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer