ZZ Ward, a Blues Diva With Hip Hop Connections

ZZ Ward

Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.

I remember clearly the day I first heard ZZ Ward’s voice. I was doing the dishes and playing iTunes on shuffle while I scrubbed pans and soaped silverware. I often download new music then forget it’s there, making shuffling a little game of musical roulette. I’d just heard the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice,” followed by Pharcyde’s “Passing Me By,” when this throaty hum of a voice set against an organ’s eerie throb came through the speakers. “Can’t get back what he stole/ He’s just a criminal,” the voice purred, over a piano-driven backbeat, like Massive Attack merged with Alicia Keys. Who the hell was this?

The answer was ZZ Ward, a young, blonde, perpetually fedora clad blues singer from rural Oregon whose breakout mixtape Eleven Roses featured a combo of original compositions, like “Criminal,” the track I’d just heard, and cheeky, bluesy reinterpretations of some of today’s raunchiest rappers, including Tyler, the Creator’s “Yonkers” and Childish Gambino’s “You Know Me.” I became an instant fan. Her debut full-length is out in September and features collaborations with Ryan Tedder, Kendrick Lamar, Pete Rock, Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Freddie Gibbs, among others. When I found out Ms. Ward would be in town, playing at Rockwood on the Lower East Side, I made sure to be there.

That club looks like the set of Rent, which was meant to look like the Lower East Side in the '90s, when things were actually gritty. Last night though, I could have bought a gourmet red velvet cupcake on the corner or picked up a banker before heading inside. Ward’s semi-abstract motto, she later told me, is “dirty shine” -- as in, let’s keep it grimy but glittering, which made her the perfect antidote to all the soulless slickness surrounding us. I can’t remember the last time I saw people at a rock show in New York City really dancing. Not nodding their heads or, obliterated on some mood-enhancer, gyrating in a club at two am. I mean like, shaking it stage side with not-even-that-drunk-yet smiles on their faces as a band plays. But that’s what the show was like. Ward, wearing a sheer white blouse, black bra and leather pants, took us through a sampling of her sultry, sexy, outspoken modern blues songs. “This one is called ‘Last Love Song,’” she told us, tuning her guitar. “I didn’t know what I was going to call it. I just knew I’d written too many songs about this one person and I didn’t want to write about them anymore.”

Where did this girl come from?

“I started playing with this blues band when I was 12 or 13,” she told me post-show, as she arranged herself on the red velvet couches backstage. “I was covering Muddy Waters’ ‘Make Love to Me.’” Ward’s dad is a blues singer, and he wasn’t shy about introducing her to the facts of life via Etta James and Robert Johnson. But Ward’s other primary musical love is hip hop, hence her obsession with covering her rapper peers. The blend is intoxicating and makes for a particularly good live show; Ward brings the wit of hip hop plus the musicianship of traditional soul music. “People come to the show because they want to have an experience,” she said. “They’re here to have a good time and I’m here to help them with that. I only have one chance to make a statement and I don’t take that for granted.” A member of her crew approached and she handed him her blue bottle of sparkling water. “I asked for flat,” she said pointedly. Gotta love a new diva in training.