Oregonian singer-songwriter Zsuzsanna Ward will forgive you if you can’t pronounce her name correctly – it’s not “Suzanna,” but “Zhou-zhanna.”
“Yeah, I know,” Ward quipped, prior to her show at the Fillmore Wednesday. “That’s why I go by ZZ.”
Judging by the trajectory of the 27-year-old’s career, music fans will know her name soon enough. ZZ Ward, who blends pop, blues, R&B and hip-hop, released her debut EP in May 2012, and her first full-length album, Til the Casket Drops, in October. First single “Put The Gun Down” made the Billboard Alternative chart, and the New York Times declared her “energy evokes Tina Turner’s, her chops Aretha Franklin’s and her soul Etta James.’”
But before all that, Ward was a teen who enjoyed both the blues (performing with her father’s blues bar band since she was 12) and hip-hop (listening to her brother’s Nas, Jay Z and Notorious B.I.G. albums).
A few years ago she decided to pursue music as a career and moved to Los Angeles, Since then she has worked with Freddie Gibbs, Kendrick Lamar, Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, and Michael Fitzpatrick of Fitz and the Tantrums.
The Bay Bridged caught up with Ward and her Border Terrier Muddy Waters on their tour bus after she flew in from L.A., where she had performed on The Tonight Show the previous day.
What did you do growing up in Roseburg (Southern Ore.)?
“I did a lot of music. There was not a lot to do. And rafting. But the last time I went, it was a lot harder than I remembered. In school, I did sports. I was better off sitting in the dugout banging on stuff and making noise. They put me in the outfield, however, which I guess is an important position.”
Besides listening to your brothers’ hip-hop albums, how did you become involved in that genre?
“I’d play blues with my dad, at first. On trips to Eugene, he’d sneak me into (local bar) Good Times to play. I would do a lot of hip-hop shows in Eugene. And once I opened for Mike Jones and Bone Thugz-n-Harmony at the McDonald Theater (in Eugene).
What did you do prior to breaking out last fall?
“I was playing shows, but I was not touring before the record came out. I was writing a lot.”
How did you come to work with the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs?
“I was a big fan of Kendrick, and Freddie Mohammed of A Tribe Called Quest (through word of mouth) they listened to my music, and they liked what they heard.”
The New York Times compared you to Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin and Etta James. That’s a huge compliment, but it’s also a lot of pressure. Did you ever feel it?
“I’m flattered – I don’t take it too seriously because those people are legends, and I will never be them, but I don’t feel any pressure about it.”
Who do you want your fans to know you as?
“I hope people know me through my music and my creative voice.”
How has Muddy Waters adapted to life on the road with you?
“Muddy loves it on tour. She’s used to going to a different city every day. She’s 8 months old. I thought it would be fun to have a dog on tour. I had dogs growing up all the time.”
You’ve described “Move It Like U Stole It” as a song about dating a dork. Is it a personal story or were you “in character?” Is there a second theme in there?
“It’s about when you end up being with someone; eventually you end up seeing them for the dork that they are. It doesn’t matter how cool they are.”
Follow writer Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter and RomiTheWriter.Tumblr.com.