Interview | ZZ Ward: “If you want to reach the world, you have to work really, really hard.”

Photo by LeAnn Mueller

A year from now, things won’t be the same for ZZ Ward.

The multifaceted and absurdly talented artist who grew up in Roseburg, Oregon should take a deep breath now, because those 1.1 million views for her video, “Put the Gun Down,” will soon seem ordinary.

And the day is arriving when  you won’t have to Google her name to find out who she is (sure, you can do it right now).

ZZ Ward has it, whatever that is. After hearing her debut album, Til The Casket Drops, I thought of when I first heard Adele, The Civil Wars, The Lumineers, and Gary Clark Jr. Some fine company, sure, and I’m obviously feeding into the hype, but magic is magic, and it’s starting to unfold. All we have to do is listen.

She calls her sound “dirty shine,” which is loosely defined as a mix of blues, soul, hip-hop, pop, and whatever else Ward is feeling that very second.

Thankfully, we can still catch her at a small club. Ward, who writes or co-writes all of the songs on her debut album, will be performing at The Firebird in Saint Louis on December 3rd ($10), and will also be giving a special meet and greet performance at Vintage Vinyl the day before (12/2, 6PM).

We were lucky to catch up with ZZ over the phone before she hit the road, chatting it up about her debut album, her hip-hop and blues background, growing up in Roseburg, moving to L.A., and Kendrick Lamar. 

ZZ, how are you doing?

I’m great, how are you?

Great. I’m in St. Louis, and you’ll be here next week. Pretty sure it will be your first time here.

Yeah, it is kind of exciting. I really don’t know what to expect.

Well, let’s go back. You grew up in Oregon. Tell me about small-town Oregon, and how that led you to become a musician and how that environment inspired you.

Well, it’s interesting, I moved from Pennsylvania when I was six to Oregon. I moved from the suburbs of Philadelphia to middle of nowhere, really. Where I grew up, the population of Roseburg, Oregon was like 20,000 people, and I lived like a half an hour outside that town — on like a 23-acre farm lot.

So, you’re way out there.

Oh, I’m way out there, way out there! I mean, it’s crazy…you don’t really register things like that until you leave and then you go back. So when I’ve gone back from living in L.A., I’ve been like, “wow.” Literally, driving to my house, there will be like three deer, racoons, and owls flying across the road — I’m in the middle of nowhere. (laughing)

But, I think growing up there, if anything, I had to find ways to be creative with my time. It wasn’t like there were all these events to go to, or my friends were right down the street that I could walk to; it wasn’t like that. It was like I was home a lot if I wasn’t spending the weekend at one of my friends’ houses. And, I would just figure out ways to be creative. My dad was really into music — he was a songwriter and a singer, and he would kind of always be working on stuff to channel his creativity when I was growing up, so I saw that a lot, and that’s what got me into it.

Gotcha. That’s great. Do you foresee it being a little more difficult now to create not living in that environment versus now living in L.A.?

It’s definitely different in ways. When I’m writing music, if I’m trying to write sometimes…there’s people in the city, you know? People in apartment complexes, ambulances going. (laughs) I don’t know, though, it hasn’t really changed what’s inside of me, which is just this ability to really tell stories and describe things with lyrics and express myself with melodies — I carry those things with me wherever I go. It’s definitely changed as far as moving to the city — I’ve been here in L.A. for three years now, and it took a lot of getting used to.

Well, you’re able to express yourself in many different ways, which a lot of people are taking to, and that’s what I took to. I’m interested in how that came to be. And you mentioned your dad, but, your dad didn’t listen to rap music, did he?

No, he didn’t. That came from my brother, my older brother. He was really into hip-hop, and my parents definitely didn’t know I was listening to hip-hop because of all the bad words, but I would just kind of steal his hip-hop CDs, like his Jay-Z stuff, and his Nas CDs, and I always really liked hip-hop — I don’t know what it was, I guess the beats and the flow of the rap artist and the sincerity of it, the rawness and honesty of the lyrics. I just really connected with that.

And I started driving up to Eugene, which was the biggest city near me, which was about an hour and a half north of where I was, when I was 16 or 17. And I started to get into the local hip-hop scene, which was a very small scene, but we opened for Bone Thugs-N- Harmony and Mike Jones, when they’d come through Eugene. (laughing)

And what were you doing? Were you singing?

I was singing. I was writing choruses for local rap artists that were in Eugene. So, they would rap, and I would come out and sing the choruses. So, I think that growing up singing the blues with a full band behind me, and also doing hip-hop shows, and I’ve also played a lot solo, so…all the different types of performing have shaped me as an artist.

You know, you said something interesting that I think is really important, that in hip-hop and rap, the lyrics are very important, and they have a strong message, and I think that a lot of people don’t really realize that. Can you talk about what lyrics mean to you as an artist?

Yeah, I think that with the blues, there’s this sincerity and storytelling and emotion. And I think with hip-hop, you know, every artist and every song is different, but a lot of hip-hop, for me, it was really talking about the artist’s life, and where they were coming from, and that they wanted more from their life. So, I could totally relate to that in my own way, being out in the middle of nowhere, not really having a lot of opportunities at my fingertips, so I had to kind of go chase it, and I could relate to that.

Was it hard to leave your surroundings in Oregon?

It was very hard, yeah. It was really hard. (pauses) I think about it sometimes, and how scary it was. It was really daring. And especially just not knowing where I start; I mean, you know you want to do music, but…a lot of things, a lot of people — there’s this big mystery on how you get your music out there and what you do, and I think everyone’s path is kind of unique to them. You just have to figure it out as you go.

And with anything, starting out is always the hardest part. Did you just keep writing songs? Did you just keep building on things you had learned?

Well, when I moved down here, I definitely did write a lot. (laughs) I don’t think I really thought about how much I would write until I had some friends recently say, “Wow, it’s really crazy to see how far you’ve come. We remember the nights when you said you wouldn’t go out with us because you said you were going to write.” And yeah, I really did. I would stay in and write. Because you really have to dedicate everything to it.

Do you feel that was a big sacrifice?

No, I don’t feel like it was a big sacrifice considering what’s come of it. (laughs) It was just the things I was doing. Sometimes, you have to think: if you want to reach the world, and reach people super far away from you all over the world, you have to work really, really hard. And you have to sacrifice things, and if you didn’t sacrifice things then you might not reach those places.

Photo by LeAnn Mueller

How does it feel to perform this music live? Are there challenges each night to get the sound that you want?

Oh yeah. The most challenging part is sound, it really is. I don’t think the layman would think about that. The crowds are great, my fans are incredible — they are always ready to have a good time, and they don’t care if you mess up or trip or whatever. They just don’t care. That part is always there. And even my band — we’re not always perfect every night, it’s just not going to happen. (laughs) And perfection is just not fun anyways.

And some of these songs can get emotional, like “Last Love Song.” Is that one hard to perform, or are you able to get in that moment and get out of it?

I think that, it’s interesting — the good thing is that I have to be careful how many songs like that that I write. You do have to give a lot of yourself every night to sing a song like that. I’m sure there are a lot of artists that write an entire record like that, and that would be challenging and draining to have to do that every night. But, I think the way that I’ve done it is with one song, and I can handle it. And the thing that will always pull me through is my fans, and if it means something to them, I’m going to do it every night.

Absolutely. It’s always an interesting thing — when I go to shows, I think everybody is sort of secretly wanting to feel something without having to show it.

Oh, definitely. Definitely. And every city is different. I just played a show in Atlanta, and they were wild from the very beginning. But sometimes, crowds come out, and they really do want to have a good time, but they don’t know where to get started with it, and I kind of have to lead the room, and let them know that we’re all here to have a good time.

Finally, how was it working with someone like Kendrick Lamar, who has a cameo on “Cryin Wolf.” How did that all come about?

Well, I did this mixtape, and I flipped his song, and I flipped a Freddie Gibbs song. And it got some attention, and they liked what they heard, and they wanted to work on this record with me. “Cryin Wolf” is definitely an obscure, different song, and Kendrick is incredibly talented, you know, he’s such an amazing storyteller, and I think it really shows how amazing he is to go to a song and really make it his own.

ZZ Ward w/ Yellow Red Sparks + Felix and Lyons | The Firebird, St. Louis | December 3rd, 8:30 PM | $10

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