The world may not have ended in 2012, but 27-year-old ZZ Ward certainly put out music like it was her last year on earth. The sultry-voiced songstress (born Zsuzsanna Ward), based in LA by way of Pennsylvania and the boonies of Oregon, churned out a mixtape, Eleven Roses, an EP, Criminal, and her first full-length album, Til the Casket Drops, all in the same year. And while her particular blend of old-school blues, soulful pop, and modern hip-hop—which she’s dubbed “dirty shine”—may have just begun to attract the really big crowds, Ward has been performing since the ripe old age of 12, when she joined her first band with her blues singer father.
Ward’s powerful voice and slick blending of genres have earned her some big-name fans including Michael Fitzpatrick of Fitz and the Tantrums, who co-wrote “Save My Life” off her album; and Kendrick Lamar, who agreed to contribute a verse to her song “Cryin’ Wolf” after hearing her sing over one of his tracks on Eleven Roses. Ward takes the stage at 9:30 Club this Saturday, and we caught up with her beforehand to talk about achieving a balance of genres, interacting with fans, and her most surreal experiences as a performer thus far.
Between putting out an EP, an album, and a mixtape and now the tour, you’ve had a hugely busy year. How do you keep from burning out?
I just try to pace myself. I don’t party when I’m on the road, and I try to be a big part of my scheduling so I know what I’m doing and what I’m agreeing to. You learn that over time. If you have a jam-packed day full of stuff, you learn not do anything that’s totally out of your reach. But that’s a cool thing about traveling—you have cool things all around you, a lot of variety.
Your father was a musician when you were growing up—did he have any good tips about life on the road?
He didn’t know anything about touring! He even says now, “I had no idea how much work it was going to be to be a recording artist.” You live out here. The thing is so many people want to do music, it’ll either make or break you. You can handle it or you can’t; you either fight or you don’t fight. I feel blessed every day that I’m on the road and get to do music for a living. I love it. It’s a learning experience every day.
Have you had any surreal experiences as a performer?
There have been a lot of surreal experiences. I was on the Tonight show for the second time recently—it was less surreal than the first time I went on, but still really special. When you’ve wanted to do something your whole life . . . it wasn’t like it was an easy path; if it was easy it wouldn’t be as gratifying. It’s been challenging to go through some things. So that and playing for huge crowds, like 10,000 people.
And what do you still have to check off the list?
I want to travel outside of the States more. I got to go to Europe a few times, but I’d like to go to other countries. It’s the most amazing thing, to be a touring musician and see the world, I think.
Besides the tour, eventually I would like to get more into writing again. It’s hard to do that in balance with touring; you have to go away for a while, and I don’t know when that time is going to come. It might seem like I drop off the face of the earth for a while, but I’m doing a lot of touring now, so I think I’m kind of there right now.
You have a presence on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. Is that all you, or do you have someone to manage it?
I’m very involved in it, but there are some things I don’t do. If there’s some kind of contest going on or certain things that are more about general information, I don’t write all of those things—some of my team help me. But all the dumb things I write, and the Instagram pictures, are me. There’s never anything that goes out on my social media that’s like, “Hey, I really like this,” or acting like I’m saying something that’s not me. I’d never let that happen, ever.
How do you think having that direct interaction with fans affects your experience as a performer?
It’s really special. That’s what touring is all about: going out to these cities and playing and meeting these fans. That in itself creates lifelong fans; without that it’s just a little less personable.
Your music spans genres from blues to pop to hip-hop. When you were making your album, did you consciously try to balance them to make something that hangs together as a cohesive whole?
I was definitely thinking of balance. I’m combining vastly different styles of music, and I think you have to do that with grace, so when I made this record I was conscious of a balance. I would try things in production that might be outside the lines of what I was going for, and I would throw it away if it didn’t work.
I think the biggest challenge was finding the right producers to work with, finding the right people to see your vision with you and help create it. It definitely took some time—I think a good song can be done a lot of different ways, and production can also define a style and define a piece. I worked with [producers] Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Michael Fitzpatrick, Blended Babies . . . everyone was very empowering and wonderful to collaborate with.
Since you have that heavy hip-hop influence, do you think you’ll ever try rapping?
No [laughs]. I’m very influenced by rap in the way I swag my words and the rhythms I find when I’m writing. I’ve done it before, but I think the way I sing is closest to rapping I’ll ever get.
ZZ Ward is at 9:30 Club Saturday, September 28, at 5:30 PM. Tickets ($18) are available online.