ZZ Ward

“I was always attracted to powerful female voices,” says ZZ Ward, a singer, songwriter and guitarist intent on redefining the blues for a new generation by blending traditional sounds with the beats and rhythms of hip hop and rap. “There aren’t a lot of singers out there with the sincerity and commitment of Etta James and Tina Turner. They’ve lived the lyrics, and nothing separated them from the emotions they sang about. That inspired me.”

Ward may be young, but she’s already got a lifetime of experience behind her. She was singing in blues bars with her father’s band when she was 12, learning how to sell a song and deal with the rowdy patrons who frequented the dives they played in. “The [clubs] served alcohol. Because I was underage, I’d get an X stamped on my hand before they’d let me in, but it was a good way to build up my voice and learn how to perform. We’d play four hour-long blues sets a night, and you’d never know what’ was going to happen in an Oregon blues bar.”

Ward was raised near a small Oregon town called Roseburg, a place with no art scene to mention. “I grew up on a farm that was a 30-minute drive to Roseburg. We had a 23-acre piece of property backed by 1,000 acres of government land, with open space all around me. I had a lot of time to figure out ways to be creative.” Her dad’s collection of blues albums provided her first inspiration. “I love Big Momma Thornton, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson. My dad had two Hammond B3s in the house. I started picking out melodies on the organ when I was five. When I started writing seriously, my songs had lot of parts, like [Queen’s] ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ Slowly I learned how to structure a song. I picked up guitar about four years ago. The lead guitarist in my dad’s band taught me a few things, and I took off.”

Ward was also drawn to the hip-hop records her older brother was playing. “My brother, who is the coolest person I know, was into Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie—all the greats. I loved the beats and the energy. I actually liked hip hop before I got into the blues.”

“When I was 16, I decided I wanted to get into hip hop, so I drove up to Eugene, the closest town with a rap scene. I walked into a club, and the stage was full of dancers and rappers. I was from the country, so it was very exciting. I went up to the guy running the show and told him I could write hooks for his songs.” It took some convincing, but Ward was soon onstage with rap crews singing what she’d written. “It’s different from singing with a band behind you,” she explains. “When you only have a backing track, there’s a lot more weight on your shoulders as a performer. I used to go to blues jams with my father. I’d tell the band the name of a song and the key it was in, and we’d just go. Performing in different scenes like that helped me to be the artist I’ve become.”

In order to make her living as a musician, Ward knew she’d have to find a bigger scene. Three years ago, she relocated to LA. She played on the street, sold her demos out of the back of her Dodge Ram, and developed a performing style marked by her powerful vocals and driving guitar work. “If you play solo shows, you learn that no matter what happens in the club, you can handle it. You deal with people yelling at you, the power going out, and, in hip-hop clubs, fights everywhere.”

Shortly after arriving in LA, Ward was contacted by the producer and songwriter Evan Bogart, who’d worked with Adam Lambert, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, and Rihanna. “When he called, I thought someone was playing a joke on me,” Ward says. “Then when we met, he asked me to play him a few songs.” Bogart liked what he heard and signed Ward to his new label, Boardwalk Records. They soon started working on her debut album. “[Evan] hooked me up with incredible producers, like Pete Rock, Ali Shaheed Muhammad (A Tribe Called Quest), Blended Babies, and DJ Premier. He didn’t want to change me, so he put me with people who brought out the best in the songs. I’d bring in my GarageBand guitar and vocal demos, and we’d use them as a structure and just have fun. The arrangements happened as we worked together in the studio.”

The still untitled album will hit the streets in September, but meanwhile Ward has released a four-song self-titled EP on iTunes and other digital outlets. It features her soulful vocals, gripping songs full of passion and heartache, and backing tracks that balance pumped-up hip-hop beats with old-school melodies. Between sessions, she made an 11-song mixtape called Eleven Roses that she gave away free on her website. She made it in her apartment using GarageBand. “I stripped the vocals off of some hip-hop things I loved, like Childish Gambino’s ‘You Know Me’ and Freddie Gibbs’s ‘Oil Money’ and layered on my own vocals and melodies.” The Gibbs song became “Criminal,” one of the tracks on Ward’s teaser EP. Gibbs liked it so much, he came into the studio to add a rap to her version.

In Ward’s hands, the fusion of blues and hip hop sounds like a logical step, but she didn’t start out to create something new—it just happened. “It isn’t natural to explain my process,” she says. “I just channel the music I like. I don’t know where it fits, and I don’t think about it. If it feels good to me, it’ll resonate with other people.”

Text by J. Poet
Photography by LeAnn Mueller