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A Soulful Session With ZZ Ward

On the verge of releasing her second album (“This Means War”), ZZ Ward spoke with Where about her second album and powerful, bluesy vocals .

On the verge of releasing her second album (“This Means War”), ZZ Ward spoke with Where about the creative process, finding her voice and growing up surrounded by the blues.

ZZ Ward at Bonnaroo 2014
ZZ Ward plays at Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in 2014. (©David Barnum)

You were in your first band with your dad at age 12. What is it like growing up as a musician?

My dad got involved in the blues when I was about that age. My parents would listen to Big Momma Thornton and Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. There was blues around me all the time. It gave me an opportunity to start to sing in front of people. Also, to get an education on such an integral form of music. It taught me how to play with other musicians growing up and things that I learned early that I still use now when I’m onstage—timing, space, dynamics of the live show. I learned a lot from that.

What major lessons did you learn from your first album that helped to shape the second?

I learned a lot from putting out my first album. I think mostly from touring for two and a half years. You learn what works better than other things playing live—what makes people want to sing, what makes people want to move, what gets people excited. I incorporated a lot of those lessons into the second album. The second album is more rhythmic than the first. I tried to make things really singable. I wanted to make it simple so people could feel like they were on this journey with me. Also, to write about things that are very authentic to me and what I’m going through in my life, because I have to sing these songs for the rest of my life, so it was important to me to make sure I was connecting with the storylines.

What has been the most surprising part of breaking into the mainstream?

I don’t think about that as an artist because I don’t know what “mainstream” is. Some of the hardest questions I get as an artist are like, “What genre of music are you?” Well, I don’t know. It’s like saying, “What kind of person are you?” I’m a different type of person every day! It just depends how I feel. The only thing I can really say about the new album is I don’t know where it lands, but I’m sure the world will decide where it fits in...and they’ll let me know. [laughs] I’m just trying to write the best songs I can possibly write, and with that, hopefully they reach more people than they’ve ever reached before. And that just comes with evolving your craft and fine-tuning it.

ZZ Ward
ZZ Ward performing at the Hermosa Beach Summer Concert Series in 2013. (©Justin Higuchi)

Has there been an evolution in your music's influences?

For sure, in the sense that on the first album I was really concerned with how people would see me as far as me mixing my biggest influences of blues and hip-hop together. I was almost strict in the way that I wouldn’t even play electric guitar on the first album because I wanted it to have this back-porch blues feel, so I’d only use acoustic guitar. When you’re mixing two kinds of music together like that you’re already doing something different, so I wanted to make it pretty simplified. On the second album, I felt a little bit more free. If it felt good, I wanted to try it. I didn't want to feel scared of where those sounds or influences would lead me.

I feel like my voice is pretty identifiable as far as my influences go. I’m inspired by a lot of really powerful female singers like Etta James and Tina Turner, when she sang the blues, and Big Momma Thornton. My voice is the way that it is. People will know my voice—that’s kind of what the first album established for me—my sound and my identity—so I felt like I could take a little more chances on the second album.

What were some of those chances you took?

“Lonely” was one of the first songs that I ever tried production on. If I came up with a cool synthesizer line that made me want to move or would make my fans get excited and it felt like it was supporting the song, then I would just go with it. On the first album, I’d be like, “Oh, I don’t know, that might be a little too dance-y. I don’t want to use that synth line.” On the second album, I was just like, “You know what, let’s just jump into it.” I don’t want to hold back at all on the second album. I just feel more confident in my artistry on the second album.

ZZ Ward promo
ZZ Ward's new album, "This Means War," includes her latest single "LOVE 3X." (©Brian Bowen Smith)

That comes across in “This Means War”—there’s a theme of empowerment and confidence in the album.

It’s a different phase of my life. The first album was about wanting to be in this relationship and being heartbroken because I couldn’t be in this relationship with someone. The second album has a lot of different storylines and it’s mostly about, now that I’m in a relationship with someone, the battle has really just begun. “Marry Well,” for example, is about being a strong woman and enjoying being a strong woman, and also being with someone that supports you in doing that. So it’s embracing being in a relationship and having fun with it.

You’ve been called a “festival darling” thanks to performances at Coachella, Bonnaroo and Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Music Festival. How is playing a festival different from playing a club show?

I think the biggest difference between playing a festival and playing a club show is that you can make so many new fans at a festival. At a club show, people are dedicated to you, they’ve bought a ticket, they want to be there to see you. At a festival, somebody might stumble over that was at another stage and then they’re a new fan—that’s the most exciting part about playing a festival, that energy of music discovery. I have such a good time playing at festivals.

Is there an added layer of pressure at a festival, since the opportunity of gaining new fans also means many people haven’t yet heard your music?

I think there is, but there’s so much pressure on every aspect of being a recording artist that I wouldn’t say a festival, in general, is something where I feel pressure because it’s something you can’t control. All you can do is put music out and play as much as you can and really put your heart into every aspect of your project. At some point, it’s not in your hands anymore. I don’t feel too much pressure about people showing up for festivals. We’ve had really great turnouts at so many festivals. We just played [BottleRock Napa Valley] and there were 16,000 people out there. It always has a way of working itself out.

ZZ Ward at Bonnaroo 2014
ZZ Ward's high-energy performance gathers crowds at Bonnaroo 2014. (©Adam Macchia)

How was the audience at Shaky Knees?

They were so great. I was just overwhelmed! I really was. It was such happiness. I hadn’t played in like six months and I was up there for an hour or whatever—and halfway through I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t want to get off the stage!”

How well do you know Atlanta?

I’ve been there a couple times. It’s beautiful. I was there for the Shaky Knees performance and it was such a good time. There was this one [neighborhood] that I went to and I walked around—I think it was called Little Five Points. It was so rad! I love that place. So there are some times when I get to check things out. There’s this spirit about Atlanta, and you feel that when you come through and you play music for a city and they’re just ready to have a good time. I just love Atlanta—[it has] this charm for me. For us, as artists, it’s all about the fans. It’s all about the people that come out to watch us, and their energy and their spirit. That’s the thing that keeps bringing us back to these cities. The people of Atlanta are wonderful and have this incredible excitement for music about them.

Who is your favorite artist from Atlanta?

For sure, Outkast! Actually, Neal Pogue, who [mixed] my album, lives in Atlanta. “This Means War” was [mixed] in Atlanta! Neal did some of the Outkast albums.

Are you familiar with Nashville?

Yes, I am. I love Nashville! I went to Nashville early on before I was even signed. I worked on music there—I was recording some songs there. I lived in a hotel for two or three weeks there. There’s just this spirit of music in Nashville. And it’s not just country music, either, because I don’t play country music and they loved me. They’re always so great to me when I come through.

What are some of your favorite places to eat?

Virago is amazing—we always go there for sushi every time we go. The Patterson House has the coolest, freakin’ rad drinks. And Whiskey KitchenNoshville is the best! Honestly, when I was in Nashville, I remember after two weeks of being there I was like, “God, I feel so sick! My stomach hurts all the time.” And then I was like, “OK maybe I should stop eating fried pickles.” Everything is so delicious and good there.

What’s your favorite neighborhood?

Franklin. It’s super cute!