By FEMI ABORISADE
ZZ Ward is playing in Houston at The House of Blues September 18. Purchase tickets here.
Singer/songwriter ZZ Ward eats, sleeps, breathes and, of course, sings the blues. The Pennsylvania-born, Oregon-bred artist was introduced to the genre at a young age by her parents and would eventually join her father’s blues band at the age of twelve. Yet, while blues helped her cultivate her musicianship, she found her drive in hip hop.
Songs like “Home” and “Last Love Song” from her debut album, “‘Til The Casket Drops,” feature Ward’s compelling imagery and soaring, emotionally resonant vocals in a contemporary style, but others, including “Criminal” and “Move Like You Stole It” display an artist in command, not unlike Tupac on “Ambitionz Az A Ridah.” Ward’s confidence as a blues singer is steadfast even outside of her natural element, as expressed on “11 Roses,” a mixtape which features her performing new lyrics over instrumentals from prominent rappers such as Tyler, The Creator, Wiz Khalifa and Kendrick Lamar.
Aside from performing her singles “Put The Gun Down” and “365 Days” on programs like Good Morning America, Conan and Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel, ZZ Ward has begun a 30-day “Down and Dirty Shine Tour” through the states to give fans a chance to hear her beautiful songs live. Meanwhile, The Collegian recently had a chance to sit down with Ward to speak on her musical background, her projects and the wonder of being onstage.
Collegian: Your music brings blues and hip hop together in a fresh way, especially on your “11 Roses” mixtape. What is your musical background?
ZZ Ward: I was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Roseburg, Oregon when I was eight. I had to find ways to be creative, and one of those ways was music. My parents got me into the blues [with acts like] Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf… I just loved the sincerity of their voices and the simplicity of the blues. And at the same time I was getting into hip hop. I started stealing my brother’s CD’s – Jay Z, Nas, Biggie, OutKast. I loved hip hop beats and I loved the way that rap made me feel. It made me feel powerful, driven.
I started playing with my father’s blues band locally at twelve years old and learning how to play with other musicians, and by 16 I went to Eugene, OR for a 16 and older club night that had a hip hop scene. There were a lot of local hip hop acts that would come and perform and I started writing choruses and hooks for them. We would open for Mike Jones and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony when they would come through Eugene at the McDonald Theater. So I was eventually in these two worlds of music.
Collegian: You were sitting in the middle and going with each.
Ward: Yes. It was always there, and when I got around to writing “‘Til The Casket Drops,” I sort of found my stride in writing and embracing that hip hop sound as well.
Collegian: What were some of the choruses that you wrote?
Ward: I don’t remember specifically. I would just kind of write to their rap songs. And it was cool because performing hip hop meant that I only had a microphone and had to learn how to work a crowd, while playing blues live meant working a crowd along with playing with blues musicians. Both scenes gave me stage chops.
Collegian: When did you begin creating the “11 Roses” mixtape?
Ward: I was writing songs for my debut album, and [“11 Roses”] became this cool side project. I was listening to hip hop songs that I loved and one song that I did was Tyler, The Creator’s “Yonkers.” It was the beat that he created, and he did not even have a chorus. I just decided to sing over it one day and over other rap songs, finished it and then released it.
Collegian: What was the response you received from the blues and hip hop community?
Ward: I never knew how it was going to be received. I would not have done it if it was not me. The cool thing is that I have a lot of younger people that are not into blues coming to my shows and older people who enjoy the blues coming to my shows and getting a taste of hip hop. When I do a cover of Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face” and people of all ages are singing along, it is pretty incredible. It seems like it has been well received.
Collegian: “Last Love Song” is my favorite song from ‘Til The Casket Drops. What prompted you to write it?
Ward: That was a song written from a really bad heartbreak. It is interesting, or bittersweet, because you have to be in a sweet spot to write a song like that. I was not so heartbroken that I did not want to do anything; I thought, “You know what? I need to write about this. I feel it in my body, I have to express myself.” It is tough to live through those moments, but to be able to capture those moments as a writer is a great way to share my gift with people.
Collegian: You are about to embark on the “Down and Dirty Shine Tour?”
Ward: I just finished a two-month summer tour, and I will be going back in early September for the Dirty Shine Tour. We will being starting in California and will go all over the nation, along with Canada.
Collegian: Do you like touring, and what acts will you bring onstage?
Ward: I love touring. The stage has become my home. I do not think I ever expected to tour this much, to play live, but that is where people want to see me. Me and my band, we love traveling and getting to see so many people. We bring a strong energy that people can feel when they come to the show.