It’s always exciting when you come across a musician that is breaking new ground and creating a fresh and unique sound. LA-based ZZ Ward is one of those artists and is currently making waves in the industry by blending Blues and Rap to fuel some impressive songwriting. Ward is dropping a new album on June 30, entitled “The Storm,” and is kicking off a nationwide tour that begins tonight in Chicago, Ill. She’ll be making a stop at The Independent in San Francisco on June 8, and in anticipation of that performance, she was generous enough to take some time out of her rehearsal to sit down and chat a bit with Music in SF. We talked about when her interest in music first began, how she came about experimenting with Rap and Blues, and what first drew her to songwriting.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Los Angeles, at rehearsals, getting ready to go out there on the road and start this tour.
When does the tour start?
I start playing Chicago next week (Editor’s Note: this interview was conducted on 05.26.17), and that starts the tour.
What cities are you most excited about playing?
You know, it’s hard for me to pick favorites when it comes to cities. It really depends on the experience that night and playing on stage, the energy that the crowd is giving me. Most of the time it’s awesome. There’s rarely a show when I’m like, “Oh, there, they weren’t giving me anything.” That just doesn’t usually happen on my tours. Plus it’s going into the summer, so it’s going to be warm. I’m excited about that. Usually, it’s like a Fall tour, and I’m freezing!
We’re excited over here because you’re making a stop at the Independent in San Francisco. Have you played in San Francisco before?
I have. I’ve played San Francisco a lot. I love playing San Francisco. There’s great energy over there with a lot of really good music fans. I’ve had a lot of love in San Francisco. I can remember on the last tour, that was one of my favorite stops for sure.
Do you get a chance to visit the city at all while you’re here?
Not too much when I’m there. Our schedules are pretty tight. When we’re out on the road, we don’t have a lot of luxury time to hang out and do whatever. Things move pretty fast.
So, getting back to the music. You’re known for being one of the first artists to blend blues and hip hop together. Can you tell me a little bit about what made you want to go into that direction musically?
I grew up listening to my parents’ blues records. Artist like Muddy Waters, Big Momma Thorton. That kind of music was always playing around the house. So I just got this appreciation for blues very young in life. I love the raw authenticity of the voices of the people I was listening to. And right around that time my brother was listening to NAS, Jay Z, and Biggie. and so I used to steal his Hip- Hop CDs — because I wasn’t allowed to listen to them at the time — and kinda started to fall in love with Hip-Hop for kind of the same reasons; you know, that honesty and those great stories I connected with so much. So that is really where my young love for both Hip-Hop and the Blues began.
Then I just sort of started singing in my dad’s Blues band and would drive my 1990 Dodge Ram up to nearby towns around Eugene, Ore. I’d start opening for acts like Bones Thugs and Harmony and doing other Hip-Hop shows up there. So I was really doing Blues kind of separately. Then when I moved to L.A. I really started to embrace who I was and put those genres of music together.
In an interview with Speaker in Code you called your music “Dirty Shine.” Can you elaborate on that?
It kinda happens when you’re out there on the road and living fast. You’re playing shows every night. You kinda start to realize what you’re doing and begin to see it for what it is. For me, I’m out there playing these songs that are kind of raw and gritty. Then I’m out there putting on a show and just really being who I am and embracing the uniqueness of the music. So I think that’s where “dirty shine” came from.
Your first introduction to music came from your father, who was a musician as well. Can you share some of those earliest memories?
I used to watch my dad play, and what made me want to do it was watching him sing in front of anybody. He’d play the harmonica. He’d wear a fedora and play the harmonica. And when I was a little girl I was like “Whoa, that’s pretty cool.” I have some video of him playing the harmonica by the fireplace in our house growing up, and I was just so curious in the video. I was seven and I’d just be playing the harmonica along with him. It just seemed fun to play music and express yourself. It was just something that he raised me to do; to feel natural sharing music with people.
So what drew you to the guitar?
You know, I didn’t get into the guitar until a little bit later. I think I was maybe 17. I think what drew me to the guitar was that I realized that I liked to write songs. When I was maybe 14 even, I would sit down at one of the many Hammond B3 organs we had sitting around the house, and I would start coming up with some melodies. I didn’t necessarily go “You know what? I want to be a songwriter. I’m gonna start writing songs.” It came from a different place. If I was upset about a boyfriend at the time or something. I just felt this sort of anger or sadness in myself, and I just needed to get it out.
And so when I got into guitar I thought it would be great to give me something to be able to write songs with. That’s a tool for me to help me write my songs. The principal in my high school at the time happened to be my dad’s guitarist in his blues band. So during lunch, I would go over to his office and he would give me guitar lessons.
Most of the stuff that I’ve gone through on this album The Storm, stems from past relationships that didn’t work out. A lot of broken hearts that I didn’t want to deal with at the time that we broke up. I kind of just put it on the backburner. So, this album is really about cleaning out my closet for me; facing all my demons and talking about all of them!
Do you prefer electric or acoustic?
I generally prefer acoustic. The way I usually like to write songs is to try to capture the story of what I’m going through. A lot of times if I’m writing by myself I’m sitting in a room and not thinking about production sounds or anything like that yet. I try to start the song the same way that other bands would back in the day, like Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones; just sitting there playing the guitar in a room.
Where do you draw inspiration?
A lot of times I write about what I’m going through, or something that someone close to me is going through that they’ve shared with me. Most of the stuff that I’ve gone through on this album “The Storm,” stems from past relationships that didn’t work out. A lot of broken hearts that I didn’t want to deal with at the time that we broke up. I kind of just put it on the backburner. So this album is really about cleaning out my closet for me — facing all my demons and talking about all of them!
I really like your new single “The Deep.” Can you talk a little about collaborating with Joey Purp?
It was pretty much the same way all my collaborations come together. Luckily as an artist, I get to collaborate with other musicians that I like to listen to. I mean, I had Kendrick Lamar on my first album, and I’m a big fan of his. As for Joey Purp, I really like the way he raps. When it came to “The Deep,” I wanted somebody to rap on it and bring that flavor to it. And I just love the way that Joey raps. He has so much passion. He’s got raw talent and it just shines through.
Do you have any other collaborations on the new album that you can share?
I do. I have a song that I just released today called “Cannonball,” and Fantastic Negrito is doing a duet with me on that song. I’ve always been a fan of his. I like that he’s trying to keep the blues alive. He’s got a rootsy sound and I’d been listening to him for a while. The collaboration just kind of made sense. I always thought that he would sound great on this. We got lucky that he felt the same way and that he got on it. We also have Fitz, from Fitz and the Tantrums, with a song called “Domino.” We had collaborated on my first album already so it was great to do that again.
You’re a young and up-and-coming artist that’s starting to make a name for yourself. Do you have any advice for other musicians wanting to follow a similar path in life?
I think that it comes down to the love of music. Because once you start to make it in the music industry you start to realize that there are so many others things that you have to do. There are hours and hours you spend writing, in rehearsals, on the road flying somewhere, playing different cities; that you have to love the music. So my best advice to an artist starting out is to make sure you love your music. If you can sit in a room listening to the music for eight hours, you’re good. That’s what’s going to keep it alive for you. Writing your own music is also very important. Even if you don’t know how just start trying. You’d be surprised with what you can do.
ZZ Ward is playing on June 8, at The Independent. Doors 7:30 PM / Show 8:00 PM. This event is 21 and over.
— ZZ Ward (@ZZWard) April 21, 2017