Roseburg, Oregon—population 21,181—is not known for much outside its logging town roots. NFL player Troy Polamalu went to high school nearby and Everclear's Art Alexakis spent a few years there. But the biggest thing to come out of there is ZZ Ward, the singer-songwriter whose blues-meets-hip hop background has made fans out of everyone from Kendrick Lamar (who appears on her debut album Til the Casket Drops) to Fitz and the Tantrums.
We caught up with the singer to discuss her blues and hip hop roots, and playing in her dad's band as a teenager.
You started fronting your dad’s band at age 12. Do you remember your first song?
Yeah, I sang my first song in his blues band. It was an Albert King track called “As the Years Go Passing By.” I just really liked to sing and I would always go watch him and his band play. Since I was a little kid, he’d be like, “Do you want to sing in front of people?”
Were you scared at first to perform in front of adults?
Well yeah, probably. I’m an extravert when it comes to being on stage and an introvert off-stage. But when I was a little kid, I’d be really nervous; like my whole body would shake. By the time I was 16, we used to play four-hour sets in bars. I’d go in and they’d draw these big X’s on my hands so I couldn’t drink.
Do you still get nervous?
No, thank God. I just do it so much now that it’s fun for me. I feel like this is what I’m supposed to do with my life, so I’m going to enjoy it. Since I was little, music is all I ever saw myself doing. To be honest, there’s really nothing else. There was no back-up plan. If I would’ve tried to do something else in my life, I would’ve always felt like I did the wrong thing.
Your dad was big into blues. Where does the hip hop influence come in?
My brother. He was really into hip hop so I started to take his CDs when he wasn’t looking, like Jay-Z and Nas. I really liked Outkast and Missy Elliott. I like the swag and the confidence of the artists I was listening to.
Do you remember the first hip hop album you were ever obsessed with?
Probably Nas’s Illmatic. It just inspired me and made me feel like I wanted to conquer things in life.
But there was also the blues influence in the house.
Yeah. Since I was 12 or 13, I really liked female singers that were powerful. Women like Big Mama Thornton, Tina Turner and Etta James were really inspiring to me. The women that could just sing the blues; I wanted to be like that.
The blues is not exactly a “cool” genre for a 13-year-old girl today. Did you get made fun of for liking it?
Totally. I liked different music, but there were definitely times growing up where my friends would be listening to—I’m not going to say what artist ‘cause I don’t want to sound mean—but certain artists’ one single on repeat in their cars and I’d be like, “Oh God, I can’t take it.”
Your music feels like anti-pop songs in that there’s romance through morbidity. Was that your goal or was it more of a natural process?
I don’t think that was my goal when writing it. I think “‘Til the Casket Drops” is probably the title that’s most like what you’re talking about. Other than that, there are definitely some intense phrases and lyrics used in the record, but that’s the way that I just express myself.
How much of that is based on personal experience versus creating stories?
Most of it is based on personal experience, but I think that we all are certain people in this world, and I happen to be an over-thinker, so it works to my advantage being a songwriter.
What about the song “Cryin' Wolf,” your Kendrick Lamar collaboration about a drunk boyfriend harassing his girl.
I was in the studio with [production group] Blended Babies, and I heard that track. Maceo Haymes from [Chicago funk group] The O’Mys was singing on that and I said, “Is he drunk?” They were like, “Yeah, he was in the studio and he was drunk on whiskey. We were working on this beat and just having a party in the studio and we said, ‘Go in and just sing something.’” So he was authentically wasted when he laid that part down. I was like, “This is the stuff as an artist I’m dying for; this different, creative obscure piece.” It inspired me to write a song about being with someone that’s been drinking too much.
How did you link with Kendrick?
I flipped one of his songs and actually one of Freddie Gibbs’ songs on my mixtape and I was a big fan of Kendrick’s and of Freddie’s. They both heard what I did and believed in what I was doing and liked my sound. They wanted to be a part of my record so I was super thrilled. Coming down to L.A. from Oregon and being totally new to the music scene; all this stuff for me is incredibly exciting. It will always be exciting.