ABOVE: ZZ WARD
Zsuszanna Ward, better known as "ZZ," was born with a voice as big as her name. The Oregon native—petite, spunky, and blonde—has a soulful voice that sets her apart. Ward released her debut record Til the Casket Drops, which incorporates elements of R&B, hip-hop, rock, and pop music, all of which she loves, last fall. Since the album came out, Ward has been keeping busy on tour, which she'll continue to do throughout festival season in the US.
For the upcoming sixth annual Record Store Day this Saturday, Ward is releasing a 7" single, a cover of Mississippi blues singer and guitarist Son House's "Grinnin' in Your Face." The track, which we're pleased to debut the video for here, punches up the classic with the addition of sharp guitar riffs, and places Ward alongside contemporary acts like Allen Stone, Gary Clark Jr., and Alabama Shakes as an artist who's making old-school blues and soul her own.
We spoke with Ward about her Record Store Day single and working with Kendrick Lamar.
ILANA KAPLAN: Record Store Day is coming up—my personal favorite music day of the year. What made you choose "Grinnin' in Your Face" as your 7" single?
ZZ WARD: I feel like "Grinnin'"—especially because of the whole Record Store Day concept—is really gritty, you know? It's something that's really kind of special and unique. I think the song, the cover idea of me covering an old Son House song is something exciting that brings people in.
KAPLAN: You're obviously a huge blues fan; where else do you get your inspiration?
WARD: A lot of blues, rap too. Muddy Waters. Big Mama Thornton. I love Jay-Z, Nas, and Outkast.
KAPLAN: On that note, how did you end up working with Kendrick Lamar?
WARD: I had been listening to Kendrick and was definitely a big fan of his. I put one of his songs on my mixtape. It was a mixtape where I ended up writing my own songs over beats I really liked, over hip-hop songs I loved. So, that's how I first started to want to work with him. I had a song called "Cryin Wolf," which is a very different song. It's one of the most obscure songs on my record. Kendrick agreed to rap a verse on it. If you've heard it, it's really cool. He's such a storyteller. It's just great.
KAPLAN: Your big single has been "Put The Gun Down." How did you decide this was going to be your single? How did you come up with it?
WARD: I came up with that out of real-life experiences, which is a lot of times how I write. It's my songwriting diary, in some ways. As far as picking a single, I think that it was one of my favorite upbeat songs that I had. That's my two cents. Obviously, I'm not the one who always calls the shots on what's going to be a single.
KAPLAN: How long have you been trying to "make it" as a musician? Was this always your dream?
WARD: It really was. I used to ride the school bus to school and just listen to music with my headphones. I'd stick my head out the window and just think about how much I wanted to be a singer. I always wanted to do it, but I think I was always in the wrong place. I didn't really have any opportunities. So I left LA four years ago and I really just left my old life behind. I threw everything into pursuing music.
KAPLAN: Will you be performing on Record Store Day anywhere?
WARD: I don't know that I am. I've kind of been back off the tour for a little bit, so we've been in and out of the studio. We've been getting into writing mode a little bit. I don't think we're playing anywhere on the day.
KAPLAN: Are you writing songs for your next record or songs in general?
WARD: No, not so much working on the next record yet. Touring has been a new part of my life in a lot of ways. We've just been touring massively since the record came out and before. Learning how to write while all that is going on is a new thing.
KAPLAN: You're from Oregon. What's been the biggest transition for you moving from Oregon to LA?
WARD: The city was different. Driving in the city was different. I remember that was so scary for me when I first came down here. Now I don't care at all.
KAPLAN: Your voice speaks to so many different genres. Who do you hope to work with on future tracks?
WARD: I think Alt-J is really cool. I think Azealia Banks is dope. Gary Clark Jr., I'd love to collaborate with him.
KAPLAN: Have you been playing "Grinnin' in Your Face" on your tours?
WARD: We have! We've been playing it out. What's the coolest thing in the world is when you have fans that know the lyrics to your songs. That's amazing! Such a great feeling! When I go out there and am playing "Grinnin' In Your Face" and people are singing the lyrics to it, that's amazing to me. I'm actually taking a song where people wouldn't know it, and I'm bringing it back. It's a really cool feeling.
KAPLAN: Putting your own twist on a song or 7" must be really cool.
WARD: Yeah. My parents used to play it back in Oregon. They really loved the blues. That's how I got into the blues. That's how I got into "Grinnin' in Your Face." It's just him clapping and singing the song. It's so powerful. You don't need the frills and thrills to make something amazing. I think that's what inspires me with the blues.
ZZ WARD'S SINGLE "GRINNIN' IN YOUR FACE" WILL BE RELEASED THIS SATURDAY AS A 7". TIL THE CASKET DROPS IS AVAILABLE NOW. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST AND A COMPLETE LISTING OF HER UPCOMING TOUR DATES, PLEASE VISIT HER WEBSITE.