Balancing Beautiful and Bad Ass
With her trademark fedora threatening to soar aloft in the wind, singer-songwriter ZZ Ward arrives at a Hollywood coffee shop accompanied by Muddy Waters. No, not the late McKinley Morganfield, but a newly acquired female Border Terrier puppy she named in homage to the legendary bluesman. This summer, after Ward returns from concerts in London and Paris, this lucky canine will accompany her mistress for a series of extensive cross-country jaunts on a summer tour and festival run.
ZZ Ward’s Boardwalk/Hollywood Records debut, Til The Casket Drops, introduces an artistry informed by both the field hollers collected by archivist Alan Lomax and the exclamatory lyricism of modern hip-hop. Ward possesses a musical vocabulary that is deeply traditional and decidedly modern.
Among the signature tracks on her full length is “Cryin’ Wolf,” replete with a dirty steel-string guitar and guest artist Kendrick Lamar. “Save My Life” matches a driving old soul rhythm section to bells and tambourines, while “Last Love Song” is an open-veined lament bolstered by a lush orchestral backdrop.
Raised in Roseburg, OR, Ward says that her father’s record collection of blues masters was her introduction to the deep imprint of American music. Performing at dive bars and pizza joints––and competing with kangaroos and dog shows at county fairs––anointed her with a formidable stage presence she soon utilized sitting in with local hip-hop artists in nearby Eugene.
Destiny interceded in the person of Evan “Kidd” Bogart, the hit songwriter and impresario who first heard her music online. Under his tutelage, Ward moved to Los Angeles where Bogart signed on as her manager.
Ward says it took the industry awhile to understand her. “Coming down here and moving into a new scene, how are you supposed to walk into a session with someone who says, ‘Nah––you should do more of this.’ What do you say? You can’t say, ‘That’s not really my sound,’ or you wouldn’t go very far in this business. So I had to go along and try different things. At the end of the day I learned a lot through co-writes. It was inspiring, but then I’d go off and write a better song. And most of the songs on my album are the songs that I wrote by myself.” Notable among the numerous producers on Til The Casket Drops are Ryan Tedder, Michael Fitzpatrick (Fitz and the Tantrums) and Theron "Neff U" Feemster. “I don’t produce myself,” says Ward, “I write a song and then find someone to produce it. It’s incredibly tricky because someone can make it a totally different song. To get producers to respect you as a new artist is a challenging thing.”
Ward cut some earlier tracks in Nashville, TN, where some of the producers discouraged her from playing guitar on the finished tracks. But Ward avows that her guitar is integral to her overall feel. “I’m not some amazing guitar player, but I don’t think that’s what music is about. My record has an individuality, and there’s something about being backwoods, and dirty and rough around the edges.” With appearances on television shows like Good Morning America, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and Conan serving as an introduction, Ward’s songs have been utilized extensively on television shows and promos, among them Nashville and Pretty Little Liars (ABC) and Awkward (MTV.) “I wasn’t expecting to have all of the placements,” says Ward. “I’m so thankful because it’s gotten my music out to so many fans and it’s cool to see the music used in different mediums. Usually in songs for television they want things to be broad. But I’m documenting my life in song—I don’t think that my life is generic.”
Bonding to the concept of the song, Ward says, is her primary directive as a writer. “The blues, the music I grew up with has extremes of emotions: heartbreak, sex and anger. The artists are so sincere that there is no line between what they feel and what they write. That’s my biggest thing; I have to really connect. When you try to force things in songwriting they don’t work.”
Contact Brooke Black Just-Olesen, Big Hassle Media, [email protected]
By Dan Kimpel