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.
On the stilettoed heels of her Tony Award for Broadway’s Kinky Boots, ’80s legend Cyndi Lauper performs Friday at George Washington University’s alumni weekend.
Lauper’s headlining concert marks a stop on the pop icon’s She’s So Unusual tour, which wrapped up its Australia leg earlier this month. The tour commemorates the 30th anniversary of her debut album. At her Friday show, as she’s done on every stop of the tour, Lauper will sing the entire She’s So Unusual record, including perennial karaoke favorites “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Time After Time.”
Already an Emmy and Grammy winner, Lauper snagged the 2013 Best Original Score Tony for Kinky Boots. The Broadway hit follows a struggling shoe factory that turns to making footwear for drag queens to stay afloat. Harvey Fierstein adapted the book from a 2005 film of the same name and invited Lauper to write the music. In her acceptance speech in June, she gratefully acknowledged Fierstein’s call, saying, “I’m so glad I was done with the dishes and answered the phone.”
Lauper plays the Charles E. Smith Center Friday at 8 PM. Tickets are still available exclusively to GW alums who register in person for Alumni Weekend at the Marvin Center Great Hall starting Friday at 11:30 AM. For more information, visit GW’s website.
Nobody tells you what life after college will be like. You know there aren’t any more required reading lists, term paper all-nighters, or reality-TV-themed frat parties. You can’t play wine pong and be productive the next day—this you know, albeit reluctantly. But no one’s really prepared for the freedom: freedom from a set schedule, from planning out your life in semesters, from a simple understanding of what success looks like.
That freedom hit Nicholas Petricca hard when he graduated from Ohio’s Kenyon College in 2009. His band, Walk the Moon, was writing its first album, and what may or may not lie ahead became a central theme of their eponymous, major-label debut. Fortunately, Walk the Moon set Petricca and bandmates Kevin Ray, Eli Maiman, and Sean Waugaman on a well-lit course through the unchartered territory. The Cincinnati quartet’s first single, “Anna Sun,” spun in heavy rotation on alternative rock stations across the country last year and was touted as the “song of the summer” by MTV and Seventeen magazine. The band also played Lollapalooza’s mainstage and toured with fellow indie rockers Fun through 2012. Ahead of Walk the Moon’s pair of shows at 9:30 Club this weekend, Petricca gave us some insight into what it’s like a year after such riotous success.
You played the 9:30 Club in January. Are you looking forward to coming back to DC?
The 9:30 Club is actually one of my favorite venues in the country. It’s probably in my top three. It’s a great room, and I always love the people who come there. The crowd is always just, I don’t know, ravenous or something.
Your shows are always so energetic. Do you and the band have any pre-show rituals to get pumped up?
We do have a secret huddle that happens, which I can’t really tell you about. We don’t let people film it or anything. Besides that, we try to be pretty serious about warming up vocally, because vocals are a big part of what we do. We even had a band visit to our ENT, our ear, nose, and throat doctor, and he gave us some pointers. It was pretty cute, all four of us in a tiny little doctor’s office.
Your songs have this nostalgia for youth. DC is often characterized as a young person’s city. Do you have a specific type of listener in mind when you write, and have you ever been surprised by the fans who come out to see you?
That’s an interesting question. I guess the listener in mind, sometimes, is me. We wrote the last record right after college, and so a lot of what I was writing about was this enormous experience I just had, and the abyss of the unknown adulthood ahead, you know? So I was kind of writing for the young, reluctant, or adventurous adult. But to answer your second question, we’ve totally been surprised by who comes to concerts. We’ve been really fortunate to find that the age limit has no bounds. But that doesn’t really change the writing. If I was just writing to try to be honest with myself, and it affected people of many different age groups, then it would be silly to try and change that.
You mentioned writing from your college experience. “Anna Sun” is named for one of your former professors. Why did you decide to name it after her?
Like many things in the band, it was kind of by accident. The entire song was written, and it was all about this college thing. But then it had this part in the song that was just like [sings melody of “Anna Sun”]. And we didn’t know what was gonna go there. And my buddy [Nick Lerangis], who was in the band at the time, just started singing her name. She has this beautiful name, and she was one of our favorite personalities on campus. And it just worked perfectly. So the song isn’t about her, but it is about college, and she was one of the more inspiring professors at college and has a very cool name.
Have you told her that the song is named after her?
Yeah, a couple years ago we sent her an e-mail and said, “Hey, professor, we’ve got this song, and we just wanted your blessing.” And she was like, “Oh, that’s great. Would you send me the lyrics?” And we’re like, “Sure, why not?” And she wrote us back, saying, “I love the song, but some of these lyrics are a little too suggestive. Would you please change this and this?” And she gave some suggestions. And we’re like “Okay, professor, we’ll get right on it.” And we just never really did. [laughs]
When the legacy acts at Saturday’s Virgin Mobile FreeFest first hit it big, a considerable swath of the 50,000 people in attendance were still in middle school. MGMT, the Avett Brothers, and Vampire Weekend as the veteran players? Sure, why not? If Merriweather Post Pavilion is going to be jammed with the youngest millennials, best not to bring on any acts whose relevance can only be explained by an older sibling or, Billboard charts forgive, a parent.
Nevertheless, the EDM-heavy lineup, filled with oontz-oontz-ing deejays unfamiliar to people born before 1990, featured a clutch of satisfying performances on an warm afternoon that gave way to a soaked evening. And, yeah, that even included “Blurred Lines” lothario Robin Thicke, who strode onto the festival’s outdoor stage in a crisp, black suit while rain poured down on a throng of fans clogging a debris-soaked mud pit. Did the kids know that Thicke, just a few weeks removed from that Miley Cyrus moment, is 36? If so, they didn’t seem to care, grinding up against strangers while the man himself, backed by his band and a trio of lithe, leather-clad backup dancers—the 2010s version of the Robert Palmer girls—twisted and thrusted their way through songs that aren’t “Blurred Lines.” (He closed with the monster hit of 2013, naturally.)
Swedish duo Icona Pop, authors of the 2012 club jam “I Love It,” made a bolder statement about not being pegged as a one-hit wonder. They screamed at the crowd to party harder even as the skies opened up.
The crowd obliged. And some partied too hard, perhaps the result of snuck-in booze or other supplies. (Admission might have been free, but unless one could reach the tiny deck selling $5 National Bohemian cans, beer started at a not-so-economical $9.) People joked (probably?) about snagging a dose of “molly,” the club drug du jour. The occasional reveler collapsed mid-set. Reports floated of a man who got so blasted, he stripped bare and dashed across FreeFest’s carnival area before being tackled by security.
Georgetown has a rich history as a venue for live entertainment, though not in recent times. Once there was the Cellar Door, the Bayou, and the Crazy Horse, among other clubs, and now it’s down to basically Blues Alley. But that’s about to change with the opening Thursday night of a new waterfront music club, Gypsy Sally’s. The club, which will offer food as well as music, promises “local, regional, and national Americana acts” in a venue that includes a room for listening to classic LPs.
The opening act is Jim Lauderdale, a Grammy-winning singer and songwriter out of Nashville who has collaborated with Elvis Costello and Ralph Stanley. The show begins at 8 PM, and tickets are $20 online. At 10 the Wil Gravatt Band takes the stage.
Gypsy Sally’s slogan is “where the music never stops,” and the club already has a variety of acts booked through November. The main events will happen in the club’s music room, but there’s also the Vinyl Lounge, a separate eating and drinking space with no cover charge that Gypsy Sally’s website promises is “the perfect spot to wax poetic about the good ol’ days of vinyl.” The venue also contains an art gallery.
Gypsy Sally’s is at 3401 K Street, also known as Water Street, practically under Key Bridge and above the new Malmaison restaurant. Generally there’s plenty of street parking. The nearest Metro stop is Foggy Bottom, or Rosslyn with a connection on the Circulator bus.
Coincidentally, Gypsy Sally’s is only a few blocks west of where the legendary Bayou was located. That iconic music and dance spot was plowed down years ago to make way for the AMC-Loews movie theater.
You might be more familiar with Empire of the Sun’s Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore in the guise of their stage alter-egos, the Emperor and the Prophet. The Australian duo’s first album, 2008’s Walking on a Dream, went gold in the US, and the lead single from 2013’s Ice on the Dune, “Alive,” has been in constant rotation all summer, despite Rolling Stone’s description of the album as a “lobotomy on the dance floor.” Their happy-go-lucky, electronica-tinged dance tunes may not have the most complex of lyrics (sample: “Lost my eyesight/can’t you help me see”), but when combined with their utterly over-the-top performances—complete with headdresses, face paint, and backup dancers dressed like space aliens—they achieve a sort of ridiculous decadence that pushes their music beyond typical pop, harking back (intentionally) to larger-than-life icons like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury.
Also unusual about Empire: One half of the pair, Littlemore—also the frontman of the dance band Pnau—does not go on tour. Littlemore called us from California, where Empire is now based, before the band’s two shows at 9:30 Club this weekend to talk about his decision to skip the touring shows, the purpose of the costumes, and the musical legacy he hopes to leave behind.
What made you decide not to do any of the touring shows?
It was very convoluted. I guess [touring is] really Luke’s thing. When we first came on the scene in 2008 and started getting offered some shows, we kept saying no to them because we had 30 minutes of music and they wanted 90-minute shows. Then I got a job offer from Cirque du Soleil, so I worked at the circus for about a year, and Luke was on the road. I like writing and creating more than the touring; I guess everyone is different.
So what can you tell me about your songwriting process?
It’s different every time. I think most songwriters tend to approach things from different angles, to try to trick themselves into a new idea. Sometimes we try to start from text, some kind of musical element, a beat or a drumbeat or a bass; rarely do we start with a melody. Things come out of the minutiae of what’s being created around it. We both write melodies, and it’s very collaborative; writing sessions are very free, which can be quite frustrating, introducing new ideas without finishing or encapsulating one to completion. It does feel a bit like a hippie camp, with people throwing ideas around—it feels quite wayward.
How has your sound developed from your first record to your second?
I’d say the first record was much more heavily directed by Peter [Mayes, an Empire producer and fellow Pnau member] and me. With this record, Luke’s been on the road a lot more, and it’s more empirical, for want of a better term. The harder-edged sound you feel on this record is coming more from Luke’s wishes and aspirations, while the first is probably a bit closer to what we originally set up to do: like a cassette your older brother made for you and you found that has all your favorite tunes from your childhood. It lives right now in this moment in time. It has a place—now, or it could be the future.
When most 16-year-olds get grounded for throwing a party while their parents out of town, they sulk in their rooms. Chevy Chase native Olivia Mancini, on the other hand, used the time to teach herself to play the guitar. She stuck with it through college and after; she played bass in the DC-based Washington Social Club and now tours the US and Europe with multiple acts including Astra Via and Olivia and the Mates. It’s with the latter that she’s releasing a new album of folky, head-bobbing tunes at the Birchmere this Friday with Matthew Sweet.
Mancini is now based primarily in New York but finds herself back in DC often. We caught up with her by phone to talk about the new album, balancing band life and graduate school, and why it’s great to be a performer in Washington.
So how’s your day going?
Pretty well! I actually just finished typing an interview with Matthew Sweet that I did last week. It was a really cool turn of events—it was for the Vinyl District blog and we interviewed each other, so I got to talk to one of my musical idols, and I’m opening for him next week at the Birchmere. I pressed send right before you called.
I continue to be a big Matthew Sweet fan—I’d say starting from tenth grade on. It could be one of those conversation-starter questions: “Who would you like to talk to, living or dead?” He was on my list, and having never met him it was a bit nerve-racking [to interview him].
What’s on the schedule leading up to the CD release?
My band is doing a number of shows this week and next, supporting our CD release, so we’re doing a ton of practicing and playing in next two weeks, really getting ready for the Matthew Sweet show, which is the end of the string of shows.
This isn’t your first time playing at the Birchmere, right?
I’ve played at the Birchmere before, but never headlining. I grew up in Washington, but I had never been there until the first time I played there. It’s a cool place to sit down, have dinner, drink a pitcher of beer, and watch your favorite bands.
Do you have a favorite local venue?
There are so many more choices in DC now than when I was growing up, and they all have something to offer, something special about them. I love Black Cat, and the smaller venues are equally as charming; then there’s new spots like the Dunes, a few indie spots, and some houses, concert houses, popping up in past couple of years.
I spoke to another local band, Shark Week, recently, and they said they find as a band it’s easier to be cool in Washington but harder to be cool outside of it. Do you agree?
Washington is a smaller place. It has fewer venues, so if you’re looking for something to do on a Friday night you can check Washingtonian, the Post, City Paper, and see names you more or less recognize. But in New York, every other doorway appears to be a venue. So I would agree that it’s a little easier to establish yourself in Washington, whereas in New York there’s that competition factor—in addition to the bands that live there, there’s an unknown amount of bands who would love to get the chance to play New York.
Would you say the music community here is more supportive?
It’s certainly something I think about. I don’t wanna offend anyone in New York; I have met many wonderful musicians, and started playing with them, but not unexpectedly there’s more pressure up here. It’s less of a community and more of a competitive environment; you’re just competing for audience members, for shows. A lot of bands and musicians [in New York] are vying for the same thing, but in DC everybody knows everybody, so there’s a lot of sharing of bills and everybody working together to promote the show. There’s a real camaraderie in the DC scene that we haven’t quite tapped into yet.
Here’s something we thought we’d never say: Drink for cheap at P.O.V. Lounge. The W Hotel’s swanky rooftop, home to fantastic White House views and $15 drinks, is putting on its first P.O.V. Live concert this Friday—for free. The band is Austin-based the Eastern Sea, who’ve played festivals like SXSW and New York’s CMJ, and specials during the event include $5 Heinekens and $8 Rock & Rye and Summer Sangria cocktails.
To attend, RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. Doors open at 8, but you should probably get in line early.
A Grace Potter and the Nocturnals concert is memorable thanks equally to their rootsy rock tunes and the seemingly indefatigable energy of Potter, its charismatic frontwoman. We talked with Potter, whose band comes to Wolf Trap August 15.
How did the Nocturnals end up with a song on the Lone Ranger soundtrack?
Disney called me, and I love [director] Gore Verbinski’s work—and of course my boy, Johnny Depp. That experience has happened before, trying to create for a movie soundtrack—for Tangled, we had an original song. The Lone Ranger was different because they wanted that old, dusty railroad sound and we’re relatively electrified. I wrote six songs for the movie, but the one that wound up on there was a Roy Acuff song called “Devil’s Train.”
It seems like you’re basically touring all summer.
It’s not nonstop, but it’s pretty close. Once we’re on the road, we have to harness that momentum, especially in the summer. People have been saving money all year for favorite bands, and the excitement grows—it’s hard to let them down and not do a summer tour. This one is particularly extensive. We’re opening for the Allman Brothers and Robert Plant [in other cities].
How do you keep from burning out?
Usually I sleep till 11:30 or noon—that whole “nocturnals” thing is not a myth. I take my time to wake up and go slow. I save my energy up for evening, and then all bets are off—I just go for it.
What are you most excited about with this tour?
It’s a relief to finally headline [on some dates]. As exciting as it is to open for people—we know how to compress what we’re capable of into 35 minutes—the thing that defines us is that every show is different. Something that’s lacking in so much live music now is they treat their show like a roller-coaster ride, where you turn the “on” button on and do the same moves over and over again. As exciting as it is to see once, if you see it six times you realize you’re getting the same show over and over. Live music is a conversation between fans and the band, and our job is to continue that conversation.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. August 15 at Wolf Trap. Tickets ($30 to $40) available at wolftrap.org.
In an effort to raise awareness about the importance of healthy living, Michelle Obama and her Let’s Move campaign against childhood obesity are forging an alliance with hip-hop stars to release an album. Songs for a Healthier America, featuring artists from Matisyahu to Ashanti to noted rapper Dr. Oz, will be released to schools in the New York City area at the end of September before being rolled out to other cities at a later date.
The album is a collaboration with Partnership for a Healthier America and Hip Hop Public Health, a New York initiative that uses music to connect with kids on the subject of health. While it’s easy to raise an eyebrow at the idea of hip-hop stars promoting healthy lifestyles, White House assistant chef Sam Kass told MTV News that the album attempts to reach out to kids “in a way that’s not preachy.”
The record’s track list is below, and you can see the video for the first single, featuring Doug E. Fresh, Jordin Sparks, and FLOTUS herself at the top of the post.