An artist born with music flowing through her veins, ZZ Ward comes fully equipped with an amazingly soulful voice that truly sets her apart. By all accounts, 2012 was a banner year for the up-and-coming blues-hop/soul singer. Releasing the mixtape ‘Eleven Roses’ in February, the ‘Criminal’ EP in May and her full-length debut ‘Til the Casket Drops’ in October proved she was nothing if not prolific. Ward’s hard work and tireless dedication to her craft have established her as an artist to watch in the coming years, alongside note-worthy peers such as Allen Stone, Gary Clark Jr., and Alabama Shakes who are making old-school blues and soul their own. Since her debut release, she has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, had her music featured on ABC Family’s ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ MTV’s ‘Awkward’ and in promos for ABC’s hit series ‘Nashville,’ and completed a 50-date headlining American tour with sold-out dates in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Denver and Nashville. Ward is still in awe of the buzz that has continued to build around her and her music this past year and looks to keep it going throughout festival season in the US. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with ZZ Ward to discuss her musical roots, the creative process involved in bringing ‘Til The Casket Drops’ to life, life on the road and much more!
Thanks for taking time out to talk to us today. We are very excited to spread the word on your amazing music.
Tell us a little about your first memories of music and how it came into your life?
My Dad was always into music, so that was probably the main reason I got into it. He was always singing and listening to music. He really appreciated music and it was something that was exciting. To see that growing up, it made me respect music a lot and develop a love for it. My parents would always listen to blues and my brother listed to hip hop. I just got into it all through them and discovering all types of different music. I loved listening to authentic, sincere artists. I guess that is what inspired me to start with.
What was it about music that made you pursue it professional, as opposed to taking a different path?
I don’t know. To say that music is a huge part of me seems like a huge understatement! Music is everything to me, so there wasn’t really anything else I ever wanted to do. If I would have always been into medicine or something like that, maybe I would have gone another route. For me, I went to school every day by an hour bus ride because I lived in the country. I would listen to music and look out the window, thinking about how much I wanted to be a famous singer, which is hilarious considering where I lived! [laughs] I was staring off at cow fields! [laughs] How the heck am I going to do that? It is what I have always wanted to do.
Who were some of the artists or people in your life who kept you inspired through the years?
I was very blessed to have people around me that were really supportive of what I was doing. People who were in my family and close to me would see me sing and recognize that I had a very big voice. The power I have in my voice today, I also had when I was twelve or thirteen. I am definitely much better now but even back then, I did have powers! [laughs] I feel my voice really touched people around me. I think I felt that and it is what got me going at first because people around me started to act like I was talented and started to say I was a good singer. I don’t think it is something I would have recognized if they hadn’t said anything. It’s jot something you say to yourself, ya know! “Oh my gosh! I am really great at this!” [laughs] I think it is something other people have to tell you.
You released ‘Til The Casket Drops’ in October of 2012. It is truly a remarkable piece of work. How has your life changed since that release?
Thank you. I have certainly been on the road a lot. That is the biggest change! I have gotten to see the country in a way I have never gotten to see it before, so that has been really cool. I have been able to visit a lot of cool places and having fans is really wild! After putting out a record, I now know I will have people listening to my music for the rest of my career. That is an amazing feeling because up until this point, I was always writing for me. Now I know when I write, other people are going to hear it. That is really cool and the biggest change overall.
I was curious to learn from where the title of the album originated and what it means to you personally.
“Til The Casket Drops” basically means going to war for someone you love. It is an album about a relationship and the ups and downs of that relationship, that there is no relationship that is perfect and there are many different sides to it. That is really what the album is all about.
What can you tell us about your songwriting process and how they came together for this album?
My songwriting process usually brings with me writing something that means something to me in terms of a storyline. I usually try to write about the things I am going through, that is the main thing. That makes it easier for me to be really authentic in my work. I think anybody who writes songs, whether it is Jay Z, Nas or Willie Dixon, the people who write songs that I grew up listening to were genuinely feeling these things they went through and writing about. I think that is the most important thing. I was really fortunate to work with a lot of amazing producers on the record — Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, Neff-U Ron Feemster, who did over half the record, and Ryan Tedder also produced on it. It was a really wonderful process.
Looking back on the process, what do you consider the biggest challenge in bringing it to life?
Honestly, finding the right team of people to work with was the biggest challenge. You probably wouldn’t think of it as the biggest thing but it is. Finding the right people to work with, especially with creative stuff and being able to respect each others talents, can be challenging. I say that because not everyone is on the same page with what you want and not everyone has the same ideas. That being said, I worked with a lot of people before I found the right people to work with on this album.
I imagine working with this very talented group of people was a great experience for a young artist. What did you take away from the process?
I think the biggest lesson learned was that everyone is different and it is an art to work with other people. A lot of the people I worked with taught me that it is possible! They were all fun to work with! Neef-U, for example, is an incredible producer and is so inspiring. He is so positive and makes the process a lot of fun. Even having people like Kendrick Lamar or Freddie Gibbs in studio, you see that everyone has a different process. If you are able to learn from other people, then there are so many other people to learn from in this industry!
You mentioned some of those terrific guest spots. How did those originate? Where the planned early on or something that came about during the process?
It definitely happened through the process. I have been a big fan of both Kendrick and Freddie. They both liked what I was doing, so I asked them if they would like to be a part of my record. I was definitely very excited by that! I look forward to collaborating with more people in the future!
You are getting ready to hit the road in support of the album but where are you in regard to new material. Are you an artist who is always writing?
Yeah, I am definitely writing, when I am into it. Right now, I am a brand new artist and I just put the album out in October. We have only released the first single from the record and I know there will be more songs. It is interesting because sometimes I think “Gosh, these people who have heard my record have been my fans for a year but a lot of people have still not heard my record. We are definitely going to go out and promote this record a lot. I will be hitting a lot of the festivals this summer as well. Getting the word out on the album is definitely a priority for me right now.
Absolutely! Speaking of your live show, what do you have in store for fans when it comes to a live performance?
You know, what I tell people about my live performance is that me and my boys, we have fun! That is the main thing we really enjoy playing! I think that is what it all comes down too. When you watch bands at peak of their success start to fall apart because they aren’t getting along anymore, I think that is when the live shows start to go downhill. It is a little different for me because I am a solo artist but my guys and I really get along well. We are all friends, we have fun out on the road and we love playing! It is amazing! Touring can be hard because it is such a different lifestyle and a new hotel room everyday. At the end of the day, you get to go out there, see fans, play your music for people and we all love it! Every time you come to see us play, you are going to see an energy, a great energy you can feel. It will be an experience!
With such a heavy duty tour schedule ahead of you, are you doing anything differently to cope with life on the road?
The biggest change for me is that I will be bringing my dog this time! It is going to be really different! [laughs] That is the biggest change for me — the new addition to my family! She is pretty wild. Her name is Muddy Waters and she is a Border Terrier. She is so full of energy!
Do you think the road will take a little bit of the puppy out of her? [laughs]
I don’t know! I don’t know! [laughs] The cool thing is I have played a couple of shows where I have brought her along and she has been on seven plane rides already, she is only 16 weeks old! Everybody loves having her around. I always thought people would be like “Oh Gosh, not a dog!” That is not the way it is at all. People are so excited and people can’t wait to come off-stage and see her. It is really funny!
You and your band seem pretty tight at this point. Do you guys have any pre-show rituals you take part in? I know a lot of people do.
Yeah, we have this one little cheer we do before we head out to the stage. We all put our hands in, I say something specific about where we are playing to get everybody into the right head space and we say “L7’s!” Which means “square”. L7, if you hold your fingers up and make L and 7, it means your square. At the end of the day it means you are a good person. That is what we always try to remember before we go onstage — we are all good people and shit happens! [laughs]
Speaking of shit happening, have you had a Spinal Tap moment yet?
Yeah, I have definitely had some of those moments! [laughs] I have played live so much through my life, I think those moments kind of add something to a live performance!
How do you feel you have evolved as a musician since your early years?
I think I am a lot more comfortable on stage, for sure. That just happens with time. Also, I think the more you go, the more you realize what your sound is and what kind of artist you want to be. That is a really nice thing that starts to happen. I couldn’t have had that after my first record. There are so many people you meet that are trying to help decide what you should be or what you should sound like. At some point, what I did with this record, was decide I was just going to sound like me. That was it. Now, I feel that way even more!
What is the best piece of advice you can pass a long to aspiring artists looking to you as an influence?
I would say to try to do as much on your own as you can. Write your own songs. I think the biggest mistake that people tend to make is waiting around for someone to make a career happen for them. There are so many things you can do to get your music out there and off the ground. There are so many music websites and even sites like Kickstarter where you can get people to help fund your project. There are so many things you can do on your own. That is the biggest thing I would tell people because you have to believe in yourself before other people will believe in you.
What else do you have in store for us for 2013?
There is probably going to be a new music video. That would be pretty cool. There are definitely going to be a lot of live shows coming up. I would definitely encourage people to come out and see me in your city! If you can’t see me in your city, make a road trip out of it and feel what it is like to be on tour! [laughs]
There are always new things coming up and it is quite a ride!
Great! Thanks for your time today ZZ! We look forward to talking with you again soon and we will be spreading the word on your music!
Thank you so much!
For the latest news, information and upcoming tour dates, visit ZZ Ward’s official website at www.zzward.com!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.