ASPEN - She got her start with a blues band in Oregon. Hands shaking and nervous, the 12-year-old belted out Muddy Waters' "I Just Want to Make Love to You."
Her father had asked her to sing it. A longtime bluesman, he introduced her to Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Big Momma Thornton. Occasionally, she'd join him and his band on stage. Her brothers, who were listening to Jay-Z, Nas and OutKast, turned her on to hip-hop. With those two influences, the young ZZ Ward began developing her sound.
At 16, she and a girlfriend drove from their hometown of Roseburg, Ore., to Eugene for a local hip-hop show. Ward approached the man running it and asked to sing. He listened to her demo, and soon afterward, she was part of the local act, opening for headliners such as Mike Jones and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. From there, she went walking around Oregon, telling people about her music and selling CDs in parking lots.
"But the longer I did that, the more I felt like I was getting away from what I really wanted to be doing," the 24-year-old Ward says. "It was more like I was turning into a saleswoman rather than really getting to play music."
She began booking her own performances, which in Roseburg consisted of county fairs and talent shows. Within a few years, she had "exhausted all options" in the area. She needed something else, something bigger, so she moved to Los Angeles, where three months later manager Evan Bogart discovered her on Myspace.
Alone in her apartment, Ward began writing the songs that would appear on her debut album, "Til the Casket Drops," released in October. Many of those songs deal with pain, loss and heartache. Asked how much of the record comes from her personal life, she answers with a laugh, "Um, all of it? Yeah - all of it. Definitely."
She points to "Last Love Song" as the most personal: "No more 'You're the only one' 'cause that's all done with now/This is the last love song I'll ever write for you."
"It's funny," she says, "because I'm very much an introvert when it comes to not being on the stage. But I feel really comfortable when I'm on stage, or songwriting, to talk about what's going on."
Another song, "Cryin Wolf," started with Ward listening to a song by the O'My's, a band that collaborated on the album. Ward says the singer, Maceo Haymes, sounded like he was drunk. She was right: He had brought a little whiskey withhim into the studio. When he got into the booth, he was told to "make something up." Those drunken vocals - along with Ward's personal experience of having a drunken stranger threaten her - were the inspiration for "Cryin Wolf."
Ward had to go through a handful of Los Angeles producers before finding the right one for the album.
"It's almost like, in some capacity, getting into a relationship with somebody," Ward says. "It works with some people, and it doesn't work with others - to have that right fit."
That right fit was Theron "Neff U" Feemster. The first day working together, they recorded "Put the Gun Down." Leaving the studio that day, Ward says that she knew it made sense and that Feemster was the one to produce the album.
"Working with (Feemster) in the studio, there's no ego going on, and that's really incredible about him," Ward says. "He really just wanted to support the songs. He really loved the songs that I had written."
As far as writing, Ward has a simple rule.
"I don't really finish a song unless it conveys an emotion for me, whether it makes me feel sexy or it makes me feel angry and it makes me feel empowered," she says. "It has to give me a feeling with just me in a room on guitar."
She wrote more than half the album in her Los Angeles apartment. Every song that she finished writing went on the record. But Ward says she's not sure what the process will be next time.
"My next record may be different," Ward says. "There's a lot of variety in creativity for me, and I try not to get stuck in one way of doing things. Because there are so many songs out there that are yet to be written, and who knows how you're going to get there, you know?"
This past fall, Ward headlined a 45-date tour, selling out in Los Angeles; New York City; Denver; Austin, Texas; and San Francisco. She performed at 2012's South by Southwest in Austin and will return in 2013 at the end of her current tour, which kicks off with a 9 p.m. show Wednesday at Belly Up Aspen. She joins co-headliner Delta Rae, a folk-rock band from Durham, N.C.