ZZ Ward on the influence of hip-hop and blues and how they both come from the same place
ZZ Ward released her debut album, Til The Casket Drops, in 2012. Growing up, she honed a talent for writing bluesy R&B songs. Her knack for that can be heard prominently on that disc, and well as her proclivity for hip-hop, which is even more prevalent on her Criminal EP and her Eleven Roses mixtape. Ward has an upbeat, soulful voice that is best experienced live, whether she's performing her own material or working wonders on a handful of covers. We recently spoke with Ward about her love of hip-hop, how she survived her first two years in Los Angeles and the inspiration of "old-time masculine blues fashion" on her look.
Westword: What kind of band did you start when you were twelve? Where and when did you start playing live shows?
ZZ Ward: I was a vocalist in my Dad's blues band when I was twelve. They played locally around Southern Oregon.
In various places, it has been cited that you're influenced by Robert Johnson, Etta James and Big Mama Thornton. How did you become familiar with that music, and why was it perhaps more appealing to you as a developing artist than contemporary music?
I grew up in the middle of nowhere, thirty minutes from the nearest town in Oregon. My parents listened to the blues, and as a kid growing up with nowhere to really escape to, the blues became an acquired taste. If it wasn't the blues, it was the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Tina Turner, David Bowie and Queen. It wasn't until high school that I really started listening to anything contemporary, and then it was mostly hip-hop because that's what my older brothers were listening to.
Eleven Roses is a mixtape, which is usually what hip-hop artists release before their first album. Why did that format suggest itself to you for?
I was playing around writing a hook to Tyler, The Creator's "Yonkers," and my manager suggested I try writing a full song to the instrumental. That song was "Better Off Dead" off of my mixtape. I loved the process so much, and it really became an escape for me to try something different while writing my album. We decided that because of my love for hip-hop and its influences that it might be fun to write to more of my favorite tracks at that time. Then when we picked the favorites that I had written. It was so much fun to make!
On that mixtape, you covered Kendrick Lamar and Tyler, the Creator. In an interview I read, you said something about how you wrote some words over hip-hop beats. What made hip-hop beats especially easy to write to, and what is it about those two artists in particular that made you want to cover their songs? Did you view that process as a kind of remix?
"Yonkers" was something I was wearing out at the time, and I loveKendrick, and was a fan of all of his earlier stuff, as I was with Wiz [Khalifa] and [Freddie] Gibbs and a dozen others I wrote to that didn't make the cut. Because hip-hop inspires me so much, from the stories to the tracks, I really connect to the records. To me, it's the same as the blues. I just viewed the process as something fun and different.
What did Freddie Gibson say to you about our use of the beat from "Oil Money" for "Criminal". Is there a connection between the subject matter of the Gibson song and your own?
After flipping "Oil Money" for "Criminal," I connected with producers of the original Gibbs song, Blended Babies. They played Gibbs my version, and he loved it and came through the studio to put a new verse on my version. Blended Babies ended up producing a bunch of my album, including "Cryin' Wolf," "Lil' Darlin'" and my second single, "365 Days."
How did you make ends meet when you first moved to Los Angeles? Is there a type of job you would recommend to someone working on their music or art living in a town like that?
I lived off $200 a month that my Mom was giving me, and I crashed in my brother's living room for two years on an air mattress. Very glamorous! I would literally be calculating how many meals a week I could have at McDonald's. Music was my job. So for me, there wasn't a second job. I don't know if I'd recommend that route or another one to people. It's just what I had to do to make it work.
You have a very distinctive style of dress. What informs and/or contributes to your style?
I grew up on the blues, so I wear a fedora to pay homage to the blues artists I love. My dad always wore one, and I would borrow his. The fedora is the cornerstone of my wardrobe. I'm inspired by the old-time masculine blues fashion and add my own femininity to it.
As a multi-instrumentalist, on which instrument do you feel most comfortable, and what do you use to write with the most? Why is it easier with that instrument or instruments?
I write on both guitar and keys. I find that whatever I write on usually informs what kind of song I write, so there isn't a feeling of comfortability, more of a connection through the instrument I choose to start the song on. I also play blues harp, but I don't typically start a song playing it, or at least I haven't yet!
Is the title of "Move Like U Stole It" a kind of nod to Prince or another artist?
"Move Like U Stole It" is a song about hooking up with a dork. I feel like there aren't enough songs about being attracted to normal, nerdy, smart guys and honestly, it's the mind that turns me on the most.