For most of you, this article is the first mention of ZZ Ward you’ve ever seen. It won’t be the last.
There are up-and-comers, rising stars and soaring stars in the music business. It would appear Ward is the latter. Nine months ago, she was a green Oregon musician releasing her first mixtape. Today, she has a polished album on Hollywood Records, she’s fetching big-time collaborations, she has upgraded from gigs at seedy bars to shows at theaters and auditoriums, and she even has performed on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
For Ward, 2012 has been a whirlwind of a year.
“It is definitely a roller coaster ride, and it’s been super fun to watch everything grow,” Ward says. “... From the first shows that we did on this tour to now, watching the crowds coming out and having fans know all the lyrics to my songs — there’s nothing like it.”
Ward will perform with Flogging Molly, The Dirty Heads and Morning Parade at “The Night the Buzz Stole Christmas: Night One” at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 14 at The Midland in Kansas City.
The beautiful architecture of the Midland Theatre is a far cry from the Oregon clubs where Ward’s musical dabblings started. Ward grew up on a farm near Roseburg, Ore., but started making hour-and-a-half trips to Eugene when she was in high school. While in Eugene, she immersed herself in the hip-hop scene and even lent her talents to a few groups.
Although her parents raised her on a steady diet of blues from Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton and Robert Johnson, Ward says she always found a connection with hip-hop artists like Jay-Z and Nas.
“A lot of the stories were about getting out of where they grew up and achieving bigger things than what they started with,” Ward says. “That always kind of resonated with me. I grew up in Oregon in the middle of the country on a 23-acre farm lot. There was nothing around me for so long that I just wanted something more.”
By 2012, Ward had moved to Los Angeles to try to achieve her dream. In the City of Angels, she recorded her first mixtape, “Eleven Roses,” which featured Ward spitting rhymes and wailing sexy blues verses over samples by Wiz Khalifa, Childish Gambino and Tyler the Creator. Ward’s powerful vocals and creative piano touches, as well as her undeniable swagger, immediately caught the attention of innovative rappers Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs. Ward also rang in the ears of some execs at Hollywood Records, the label that Queen, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Grace Potter and Breaking Benjamin call home. She was signed to a record deal immediately.
Take one listen to “’Til the Casket Drops,” Ward’s album that was released via Hollywood in October, and it will become clear why she garnered such interest. From the sultry blues tale of scorned romance known as “Lil Darlin’” to “Move Like U Stole It,” an Adele-esque ode to a good-looking nerd, Ward’s debut feels like a Billie Holiday or Etta James record with a good share of modern touches and a whole lot more attitude. Think Alicia Keys — if Keys were a blues-playing badass who also picked up an acoustic guitar from time to time.
Ward refers to her sound as “dirty shine,” which is loosely defined as a mix of blues, soul, hip-hop, pop, and whatever else she is feeling that very second.
“I’m not putting dubstep in my music,” Ward wisecracks.
While “Put the Gun Down,” the first single from the album, has started to get some radio play in Kansas City, Ward’s collaboration with Kendrick Lamar also is picking up steam. Called “Cryin’ Wolf,” the song about a toxic alcoholic lover blends a bass-heavy hip-hop beat with honey-drenched guitar hooks and Lamar’s fitting rap performance.
“He’s such a great storyteller and “Cryin’ Wolf” is such an obscure song. For me, it’s one of the art pieces on my record,” Ward says. “And I feel like he stepped into that, and I don’t know how many rappers could have done that.”
Ward’s lyrics rarely stray from the typical blues and soul banter — bad boys, fractured romances and hot nights. However, Ward says that she feels “’Til the Casket Drops” is an album about the ups and downs of a relationship, and more specifically, the fights one has to go through to keep true love alive.
“I hope that people walk away after listening to the record with a feeling of empowerment,” Ward says. “Sometimes, you have a broken heart or you’re singing about your sorrow, but I want people to feel like they’re going to be OK though.”
Between her uplifting vibes, her incredible singing talent, her catchy tunes, her effortless blend of genres, her age and her swift career uptick, one thing’s for sure: This is only the beginning of Ward’s tale.
Shea Conner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.