From a childhood spent listening to her father write and sing the blues, to performing and producing with some of hip-hop's most notable names, ZZ Ward is intent on building her own legacy. Informed by the classic voices of Etta James and Billie Holiday, and the sincerety of Muddy Waters, blending styles to a contemporary sound with modern beats, here is an artist whose approach is as ecclectic as it is prolific. Buzzine's Andrew Shaw caught up with ZZ Ward during a rare and quiet moment in the musical mayhem of SXSW 2012, to talk about roots, realities of the music industry, and the arrival of her highly anticipated debut album....
Andrew Shaw: This is your first time at SXSW as a performer. The Eleven Roses mixtape is buzzing everywhere; the Criminal EP is slated for release in just a couple weeks, and you’ve got an album coming out this summer. Where do you start the introductions? What’s the first impression you make on people: “This is what I’m doing…”?
ZZ Ward: My project is back-porch blues meets hip hop, so the mixtape was just kind of me reimagining Wiz Khalifa’s songs and Tyler the Creator’s songs, and Childish Gambino’s songs, so it was just me putting my spin on hip hop songs that I love, and bringing my bluesy flair to that. So that’s what the mixtape was, and then my album is just bluesy beats driving really authentic songs… It’s just the next step to the mixtape. And I think that’s the first thing people will think of when they hear me, is ‘back-porch blues’.
AS: So, how goes your progress on the album?
ZZW: Good. We just have a couple songs that we’re finishing up production on, and it should be out in July.
AS: Between the mixtape, the EP, and the upcoming album, how did you go about the song selection?
ZZW: Well, we had a lot of songs. I wrote the album before the mixtape, so a lot of the songs that I wrote for the album are gonna be on the album, but then the mixtape was rather fast: I wrote it in a few weeks. When I wasn’t writing my songs for my album, I loved Tyler the Creator’s “Yonkers,” so I just sat down and I started singing some melodies over it, and that’s how it all started with the mixtape.
AS: You’ve been very busy in the studio; I was looking up the names of the people you’ve worked with... There’s The Blended Babies, Nephew, Ryan Tedder, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Fitz of Fitz & The Tantrums… What do they bring?
ZZW: I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many amazing producers on this record - They are all very unique in different ways, but some of them are such legends, and others, like Blended Babies, are legends in the making. They just really help me craft my sound. They help take my songs and not change them, but just make them bigger and better than they already were.
AS: You worked with Fred Gibbs as well on the title track of your EP. How did that specific collaboration come about?
ZZW: I was always a huge fan of Gibbs, and he’s one of my favorite rap artists. I wrote over his track, “Oil Money,” and he got on the track, and when he was in the studio, he went in there and did his thing, and it was amazing. I really had nothing to say. He’s such a talented rapper. He goes in there, he’s like a soldier. It was amazing to have him on the song!
AS: As artists, you’ve got incredibly different vocal styles, so what is the mutual ground that you share with Gibbs?
ZZW: I think Gibbs and I are both very authentic, real artists. He’s talking/rapping about many different things than I’m talking about on my record. But it still comes from a very authentic place.
AS: Yours is a modern blend of classic sounds. So, aside from how you handle the instrumentation and your own lyrical content, are there any particular songs that are definitions of where you’re coming from?
ZZW: Yeah, there are certain songs that were definitely influenced by older blues songs. Etta James has a song called “Waiting for Charlie to Come Home,” and I wrote a song called “Charlie Ain’t Home,” which is gonna be on my record. So definitely I took the music that inspired me growing up and put it on this record.
AS: You just mentioned Tyler the Creator, and that track - when you sampled “Yonkers” – in hindsight it seems a really obvious choice… it’s just a kickin’ sample: But what was the process that led you there to start off with?
ZZW: I love Tyler the Creator, and I think he’s totally doing his own thing in music right now, and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him. So I just love the way he, in that song, was saying he was a little bit crazy, in his own words, so it inspired me to write… I just started singing a melody to it, and it inspired me to do my thing on it.
AS: Tyler's video for “Yonkers” is hugely explicit and in your face, whereas your “Better Off Dead” clip releases enormous tension, but feels like you are still perhaps holding something back. Do you think that’s an important thing for you as an artist – to always hold something back?
ZZW: Yeah, well I think I’m a little bit different. I give a little, and then I say a lot in my music, but still, you can make up your own stories about what it is, because it’s going to relate to everyone in a different way.
AS: So you tease…
ZZW: ... I guess so. [Laughs]
AS: [Laughs] How much fun is it to adapt those collaborative tracks for live performances, when you’re just out there alone? It’s an entirely new dynamic to go from a collaboration in the studio to carrying the weight of this material out there on stage alone – the spotlight is on you...
ZZW: I’m ready for it. I wrote all these songs, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with all these great producers, and now we’re in the studio together producing these songs and making magic, and now it’s my job to go out there and stand up for it and show people what it is. So I’m ready for it.
AS: Showing people ‘what it is’… What does make a perfect night on stage for you?
ZZW: I obviously want things to sound good, and I want the music to sound good. But I think the most important thing is connecting with the crowd. I want people to have fun, I want people to connect with the music and leave with memories, and leave feeling connected to the record.
AS: With that kind of connection in mind, what has been your ultimate rock-star moment so far?
ZZW: Probably getting to work with DJ Premier, Ryan Tedder, or Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Being able to work with those people in the studio really make it all worthwhile.
AS: Talking about making it all worthwhile, in closing, what is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your short but prolific time in the music industry?
ZZW: That’s a good question. I’d say just to be you and do what kind of music is natural to you, and don’t be somebody else. I think that’s what I’ve been doing – really embracing who I am as an artist, and I’ve been embracing my sound, and it feels good. I feel like I’m in a good place with it all.
ZZ Ward's 'Eleven Roses' Mixtape is available for free download from her official artist website.
Her debut full-length album is slated for release during the summer of 2012 on Boardwalk/Hollywood Records.