The young California-based blues singer started early.
[This story is a slightly edited encore presentation of a story that first ran in the spring before ZZ Ward's previous visit to New Orleans to play the House of Blues.]
"You asked me how long I'd stay by your side," ZZ Ward sings. "So I answered with only just one reply / 'Til the casket drops / Till my dying day." The song is the title track from Til the Casket Drops, the debut album by the young Los Angeles-based blues singer. Before that, she released the Criminal EP last spring and a mixtape, Eleven Roses, last February. Eleven Roses highlighted the things that separate Ward from her soul-singing contemporaries: a grounding in hip-hop and an emotional intensity. In her songs, love and loss come with physical-bordering-on-criminal impact.
"When you're a songwriter, that's where you can be who you are and feel comfortable expressing yourself to whoever it is who's listening to your music," she says by phone.
"I'm pretty normal and awesome," she says with a laugh.
Ward was born Zsuzsanna Ward in Pennsylvania, and moved to rural Oregon where she grew up with the blues as a part of her musical upbringing. Her father was a blues musician, so she heard it in the house and connected early on to high-powered singers such as Etta James and Tina Turner. She appreciated how real and emotional the songs were, "authentic music where there was no separation between them and the songs they were singing," Ward says.
She realized the strength of her voice early on, and while her father didn't push her, he supported her efforts to pursue her love of music. She developed control of her voice and learned to command a stage singing at blues jams in Eugene, Oregon while in her early teen years. "You don't have a lot of time to prove yourself," she says. "Or you learned to prove yourself real quick."
Like most normal teenagers growing up in the last decade, hip-hop eventually entered her musical vocabulary, and Ward started singing hooks on rap tracks for groups in Eugene. She began making her own music - a version of what she does now - and opened hip-hop shows in Eugene by the time she was 16. That may not have been the path her father would have picked for her, but he drove her to her shows anyway. "He had to support it or I'd probably go without him," Ward says, laughing. "He saw that I had a gift."
She eventually moved to Los Angeles, where she signed to Boardwalk Entertainment. She fine-tuned her sense of her art, and did so with enough sensitivity to hip-hop that Freddie Gibbs and Kendrick Lamar make guest appearances on Til the Casket Drops. The imagery in her songs sounds as right for the blues as hip-hop, and she knows how to fit her voice around beats in a way that sounds contemporary while she displays the pipes of a classic belter.
In an interview, she said that she didn't finish any song that didn't appear on Til the Casket Drops, but it wasn't as simple as starting and finishing 13 strong songs. "I don't try to control my writing; I follow it," she says, and she has learned to trust her process. For the title track, she began writing one song, but another idea occurred to her part way through so she abandoned the first to pursue it. "I was distracted by something that was awesome," Ward says. The result was "Til the Casket Drops," and it set the tone for the songs that followed. "I always ask myself, Do I want to sing this for the rest of my life?"
ZZ Ward will play the Flambeau Stage Friday at 3 p.m. at Voodoo.