Storytelling through her sadness
ZZ Ward’s soulful, hip-hop tinged take on the blues
The blues have always been the soundtrack to ZZ Ward’s life. Growing up in Roseburg, Ore., her parents listened to greats such as Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson and Big Mama Thornton, and she was drawn to the music’s raw expression. As a teenager, she’d often go over to the neighbor’s house and play sad songs she’d written on their piano.
“My neighbor, she would cry when she heard my songs,” she said. “From a young age, I could feel that the pure emotion coming out of my heart, and my soul was touching people. Feeling that gave me the confidence to know there’s something special about my gift and what I’m doing.”
Ward (real name Zsuzsanna Eva Ward) is a blue-eyed blues player with a knockout singing voice and longstanding affection for rap and R&B. Speaking with SN&R from the passenger seat of her tour bus, the Los Angeles-based artist is set to play Ace of Spades on Tuesday, March 6. The white-hot rock ’n’ roll duo Black Pistol Fire opens.
Around the same time that she was regularly bringing her neighbor to tears with piano music, she started digging into her older brother’s 1990s hip-hop albums—stuff like Jay-Z and Nas.
“I wasn’t supposed to listen to them because they had curse words, so I obviously would,” she said. “I loved the beats, but I also loved the storytelling of hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar is one of my favorite artists; I love that he’s telling stories that are real for him.”
As a matter of fact, Ward collaborated with Kendrick on her debut album, Til the Casket Drops (listen to “Crying Wolf”). Her second album, The Storm, was released in June last year and promptly hit No. 1 on the Billboard Blues Albums Chart. It’s a blues record, to be sure, but it’s also heavily laced with rap.
For an example, check out “The Deep” featuring rapper Joey Purp. The song is built around a sample of “As Long As I’ve Got You” by The Charmels, which is especially familiar to fans of old-school hip-hop because it was also sampled for the 1993 classic “C.R.E.A.M.” by the Wu-Tang Clan.
As for the song’s inspiration, Ward wrote it about an on-and-off relationship with an ex-lover.
“You keep going back, because in some ways it makes you feel good,” she said. “It’s hard to figure out if it’s making you feel better or worse in your life.”
Indeed, it’s pretty easy to understand what she’s singing about: “Every night I, I give you up/ Every time, I swear it’s too much/ But I ain’t tryna say it’s done/ ’Cause gettin’ some is better than none.”
As for what’s next, Ward is touring heavily this year in support of The Storm. She doesn’t really get tired of the lifestyle: She always appreciates coming home, but gets restless for the road after a couple of weeks.
“I’ve always wanted to be a touring artist,” she said. “As a kid, I used to watch tour buses drive by on the freeway. I just wanted that life. I thought, ’How cool would it be to wake up in a different city every day?’ And that’s what you get out here: a lot of playing on stage, meeting a lot of fans.”
And connecting with people and moving them with her music is why Ward got in the business in the first place.
“For me,” she said, “it always starts with a good story and real, authentic emotion.”