Last year, ZZ Ward went for a walk before headlining a show in Minneapolis. She passed First Avenue, the former Greyhound station that became one of the best-known rock clubs in the country thanks tomany, including Prince. “I want to play there,” she said to herself.
Last month, she played there – and sold it out.
That’s about how things have gone for Ward since the October 2012 release of her debut full-length, “Til the Casket Drops.” One accomplishment quickly eclipsed by another, slightly-bigger accomplishment.
“I don’t know that it’ll ever happen this exact same way again,” Ward said via phone from Chicago. How could it? There are only so many firsts in any career, and the 27-year-old blues singer (with a hip-hop twist) seems bent on fitting them all into a single album cycle.
For example, she was on Conan O’Brien’s show at the beginning of 2013. She was on David Letterman’s by the end of the year. Most of the other late-night franchises (and a few in the morning) invited her to appear somewhere along that timeline.
This year began with another headlining tour, one that stops at Sacramento’s Assembly on Tuesday on its way to Southern California’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. After that, a few dates opening for Eric Clapton. In June, Ward is scheduled to check the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival off the to-do list.
And there’s the matter of “Last Love Song,” the steam-gaining third single off that debut record (after “Put the Gun Down” and “365 Days), an aggrieved but sturdy ballad tallying what won’t be as a relationship ends. The table the couple won’t sit at in the house they won’t buy, etc.
Ward – Zsuzsanna, if you’re wondering about ZZ – was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Roseburg, Ore., a town of a little more than 20,000 about 180 miles south of Portland. Her father had a blues band that played around. She said she was about 8 when she began singing with them. At home, the stereo played history: Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker. She picked up piano and guitar and a cross-generational appreciation for stylish headwear.
Rap was also a family affair. “My brother listened to hip-hop – Nas and Jay-Z,” she said. She sneaked his copy of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” out of his room and claimed it for her own. As Ward got older, she’d go north to Eugene, where a college crowd meant a hip-hop presence in clubs. She’d open for groups like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony when they’d come through town.
Ward moved to Los Angeles at 20 and went to work trying to find gigs, trying to make contacts, trying to find her voice as a writer. The path to “Til the Casket Drops” was long enough that producer-writer-manager Evan “Kidd” Bogart found her on the old MySpace. Ward signed with his Boardwalk Entertainment Group.
“He encouraged me to do what felt natural,” Ward said, “and not think of what was popular at the time or what people would think was popular at the time.”
Not that soulful belters have ever been out of style, but an example of Ward’s sense of “natural” was released as a mix tape while she was at work on her debut. On “Eleven Roses,” Ward kept the foundation of some of her favorite hip-hop songs and added her own lyrics and vocals.
That got her some early attention. “Til the Casket Drops” features guest appearances by rappers Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs. A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad lent a hand with “Charlie Ain’t Home,” a song inspired by Etta James’ “Waiting for Charlie (To Come Home).” Michael Fitzpatrick of Fitz and the Tantrums helps on another track, “Save My Life.” That song, like much of the rest of the album, wrestles with mid-20s worries of love and elbowing out a little space in an increasingly adult world.
Old and new, new and old. “Til the Casket Drops” sounds like a timeless vocal from an antique radio dropped into a laptop and blasted out to the club. It was released on Hollywood Records, part of the Disney Music Group, and so there were some obvious promotional advantages from the start. A four-song EP, “Criminal” preceded the release, and a video for “Til the Casket Drops” was tied in to the season premiere of the ABC Family show “Pretty Little Liars.” It has been full speed since.
The next album is in the back of her head, but there are more shows and more moments. Asked if there was anything big planned for the tour, Ward said, “Coachella. I don’t have to do anything to make it big. Ending my tour at Coachella and getting to see OutKast is big enough.”