Jazz Aspen Labor Day Experience: ZZ Ward
Like just about anybody born in the 1980s, ZZ Ward is a hip-hop kid who was shaped by sounds of Jay-Z and Nas. But Ward also has the blues in her blood.
The daughter of a blues singer and harmonica player, she started singing and playing in her dad’s band as a child in Oregon.
As she matured as a musician, it was only a matter of time before the sounds of blues and hip-hop started melding in her performances. She’d be going to Freddie Gibbs shows, she recalled in a recent interview, and she’d be singing hooks for rap artists. But then she’d pick up her guitar and play straight blues in her bands.
Once she started writing songs, however, what poured out was the poppy hip-hop and blues hybrid sound that has helped Ward make a name for herself.
“The scenes were so separate and the opportunities to express myself in either genre were so separate,” Ward said last summer during a swing through Aspen. “But when I started writing, that was when I was able to put them together in my own songs and stories.”
Ward will play the main stage of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience on Saturday, preceding performances by Luke Combs and John Mayer.
Ward has found a loyal fan base here in Colorado. She started coming to Belly Up soon after her debut album, “Til the Casket Drops,” was released in 2012. Since then she has made regular stops playing to full houses in ski country and in Denver.
“I love playing in Colorado,” she said. “People get into it, and that’s a dream for an artist — to find people who get into it and they’re right with me on the journey of that live show.”
Her most recent record, 2017’s “The Storm,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard blues chart and she’s been mixing those songs with older material, classic and offbeat covers.
“At this point I have a lot of material,” she said. “So it’s fun to put together a live show.”
Early on, it was her bluesy cover songs that helped make a name for Ward — novel takes on Drake or Nick Jonas with slide guitar and harmonica.
“I never want to cover something that’s a straight-up blues song,” she said of her eclectic cover choices. “It just depends on whether I can put my own spin on it.”
The closest she might come, she said, is in her version of Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” which fills in the stark a capella and hand claps of the original with a beefy full band treatment.
While Ward is no secret to blues-heads and the crowds she’s won over with her tireless concerts, she recently found a massive and mostly new audience as NASCAR’s theme song performer — the equivalent of Hank Williams Jr. and Carrie Underwood’s ubiquitous NFL spots for racing fans.
Since 2018, NBC’s racing broadcasts opened with Ward singing a cover version of Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” As she recalled, network execs had heard her song “Ride,” a collaboration with blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. featured on the “Cars 3” soundtrack, and sought her out.
“They loved the feel of that song and how it lent itself to making you want to move and move fast,” she said. “They saw that and they were like, ‘This is our girl.’”
This big break is a full-circle experience for Ward. As she recalled, in her time as a kid playing in her dad’s blues band, Petty’s songs were in constant rotation.
“We did ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ all the time,” she recalled of the late rock legend. “He was such a great writer that a lot of people can sing his songs. It’s a testament to how talented he was that his songs are so sing-able. … I wish it could have been a duet.”
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