A conversation with ZZ Ward
“Put The Gun Down” singer picks up microphone
Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Updated: Sunday, March 17, 2013 04:03
ZZ Ward is an up-and-coming singer/songwriter with a sound that turns heads—and she’s clearly a threat to border security. Her planned interview with the Advocate was disrupted when her tour bus was stopped crossing the Canadian border.
Luckily, it’ll take more than a couple of measly Canucks to stop this woman’s rise. Born Zsuzsanna Ward, she spent most of her childhood in woodsy Ashland, Oregon, learning music from her blues-playing father and singing at hip hop clubs in Eugene.
Ward’s big break came not long after moving to Los Angeles, where her unique brand of neo-soul and piercing voice quickly got her noticed in a jaded city.
With strong roots in the blues, but without the constriction of the five-bar form, and guest spots by Los Angeles rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs, Ward’s debut album, Til The Casket Drops, signaled a delightful new talent. The album is polished enough to get play on Clear Channel, yet conceals a surprise with each song.
And her list of producers would be the envy of any upstart rapper—A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad helped Ward flip an Etta James classic on “Charlie Ain’t Home,” and Ward has laid down tracks in the studio with the likes of DJ Premier and Pete Rock.
On the occasion of her visit to Denver, as part of the always-swamped Keggs and Eggs event at LoDo’s Bar And Grill on the 15th of March, Ward talked about her attraction to hip hop, Denver’s enthusiastic crowds, and how a farm girl adjusts to Los Angeles.
Advocate: Thanks for talking with us today. I hope they didn’t give you too much trouble at the border.
ZZ Ward: Yeah, that was a little weird. But it’s all good. It’s good to know they’re protecting our country. [Laughs.]
A: Let’s talk a little about your career and how you came to record this album.
ZW: I moved to L.A. about three and a half years ago from Oregon to pursue music. I grew up in Oregon, and I loved the blues and I loved hip hop, and I really wanted to be a recording artist but I had exhausted all options where I was.
I wasn’t in an area where there was a lot of music going on, or any opportunity for music, so I moved to L.A. I didn’t know where I was going to start; I started booking my own shows. And Evan Bogart, who is now my manager, found me on Myspace about three months into living in L.A., and from there I started working with him and started co-writing with people.
Then I put out a record in October, and I’ve been touring ever since the last South by Southwest. So I’ve been on the road and introduced to life on tour since then.
A: What do you think about L.A. so far, compared to Oregon?
ZW: I love L.A. It’s obviously not as pretty as Oregon. [Laughs.] I grew up with a lot of natural beauty around me, and I’m very thankful for that … But [in L.A.], I was like, “gosh, I need to go on a hike or something.”
I have all these plants on my patio because I needed some nature around me. But for the most part, I really appreciate the opportunity in L.A.; I feel like there’s so much variety. I grew up on a 20-acre farm lot, so for me, when there are these things going on around me, and the weather is nice all the time, I appreciate it a lot.
A: Who’s in your band on this tour?
ZW: Eric Walls, my musical director and guitarist is in my band, and he’s been with me the longest. I met him through a nephew who produced half my record. We have different guys come out with us sometimes, but for the most part, Eric Walls is always with me.
A: How much of what you do on record is in-studio instrumentation, compared to computer and keyboard instrumentation?
ZW: It’s hard for me to think about it that way. A lot of songs are written really organically, just in my apartment. You know, I like live drums and stuff, but I also like programmed drums a lot ... So it’s kind of a mix of the two.
A: So on your mixtape, you had Freddie Gibbs and Tyler The Creator beats. You actually have Gibbs and Kendrick Lamar rapping on this record. And you’ve worked with producers like DJ Premier. Could you explain your attraction to hip hop a little bit?
ZW: I grew up listening to blues, because my parents got me into it. It was always what was playing around our house. My older brother listened to hip hop, so I used to steal his Nas and Jay-Z CDs. And I really like the stories in hip hop, about getting out of the place that you are and becoming something more than you were destined to be.
A: What connection do you see between hip hop and the blues?
ZW: They’re both very authentic, the hip hop and the blues that I listen to. There’s a lot of emotion from both types of music ... I think that’s what people also feel from me, and that’s what attracted me to the music in general.
A: When it comes to hip hop, do you find yourself gravitating to new stuff like Kendrick Lamar, the Black Hippy crew, or the old-school, like Pete Rock?
ZW: Both. I am not one to choose one type of hip hop or one genre of hip hop. I love the new stuff, I love seeing what they do, and I love old hip hop too.
A: What direction are you thinking about for your next record—if you are thinking about it?
ZW: I’m not really thinking about it so much right now. [Laughs.] I just put this record out, so I’m really excited about promoting it, and getting the world to know me through this one.