ZZ Ward

by Dan MacIntosh

The bluesy belter talks about her Etta James answer song and her songwriting philosophy.

ZZ Ward represents the influence of a natural stylistic evolution, as her music incorporates both hip-hop and blues. Purists might argue that the blues is a more organic musical form, but the best rappers are always singing the blues, albeit in more modern vernacular. Two of hip-hop's best, Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs, appear on Ward's 2012 debut album, Til the Casket Drops.

Ward is a guitar-slinging natural blues singer, as comfortable belting out a Loretta Lynn country song as she is writing an Etta James answer song. Her second album, The Storm, offers aural/scientific proof of her pivotal role in music's evolution.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): What is the process of writing songs for you? Is it the same every time?

ZZ Ward: It's definitely not the same every time. When I'm writing, sometimes I'll start with a melody. Sometimes I'll start with a lyric. Sometimes I'll start with a track, and I'll write over it. I think it's important to switch it up when you're writing because it's about that moment. It's the songs that happen between the songs that you're looking for, and the only way to get there is by continually switching it up and trying different things.

Songfacts: What is the weirdest thing you've done to spur creativity?

ZZ: I remember when I was first writing songs, I had this really weird little keyboard that had, like, four different keys on it and I would come up with different melodies.

Songfacts: And how was your creativity affected?

ZZ: Because sometimes when you don't have a lot to work with, it forces you to be especially creative on top of it. You think about all those software instruments and recording programs, like Logic, ProTools and Ableton, that we have at our fingertips right now. It's an endless amount of stuff.

Songfacts: You don't know where to start.

ZZ: Nowhere to start. Exactly. If you can start in here (points to heart), I think that's the best place to start.

Songfacts: Songfacts is really interested in talking about specific songs and the meaning of songs, so, I'm going to put you on the spot and have you come up with two or three songs you're most proud of, and then tell me a little bit about those songs.

ZZ: Yep. There's a song on my new album called, "If U Stayed," and I'm really proud of that song because I really captured a feeling and an emotion in that. It was a real experience that I was going through where I had moved on from this person I was with, and I had a glimpse of them at their new life. And I started to second guess everything that had happened for that moment.

I knew at that moment that I wanted to write about it and capture a real emotion because that's what it's all about for me. I grew up listening to a lot of blues, a lot of really authentic music where you can feel somebody's pain. So, if I ever have a moment like that, I try to capture it. I wrote that song really, really quickly because I was expressing what was on the edge of my chest.

Songfacts: Do the best songs come quickly?

ZZ: Not always. I heard a podcast about Leonard Cohen and how he wrote "Hallelujah" and that took him so long.

Songfacts: There are a lot of verses to that one.

ZZ: Years and years to figure that song out. But then you look at other songs that were written in a half an hour. A lot of people will tell you that the best songs were written really fast, but I don't think that's necessarily true.

Songfacts: They might need an incubation period. Maybe you might have that initial idea, but experience comes later. I just reread the book The Great Gatsby that I first read in college, and it's a totally different book now that I've lived some. Songs, maybe it's one thing when you've started, but after more life experience you'll say, "Now I know what that's about."

ZZ: I definitely agree with that, but as I became a creator I realized my way of creating is different than the next person's. I had to find out how it worked for my brain.

It's different for everybody. I think that if you put people in a box with how they're supposed to create, that's not what that's all about. It's not a 9-5.

Songfacts: Although there are people who do that.

ZZ: All the power to them.

Songfacts: And they're very good at it.

ZZ: Absolutely. There are a lot of amazing songwriters that are really quick. There's a beauty in that, too, but I think there's a beauty in individuality as a writer. And everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses.

Songfacts: What's another song you're really proud of?

ZZ: There's a song on my record called "Cannonball." I wrote that one about a situation my brother was in. He was in a relationship, and it was not working out for him. He was trying to end it, and he couldn't. I had thought about when I was in situations like that.

Songfacts: Does he get writer's credit for that?

ZZ: (laughter) No, he doesn't. But I'll always be his shoulder to cry on. It reminded me of something like a cannonball, where you really, really want to end it with this person, but you're so scared to feel the pain. The hanging on every time you go back in takes the pain away, so you keep doing it.

Songfacts: What's a song that's really resonated with your audience?

ZZ: There's a song called "Charlie Ain't Home," which is on my first album. I grew up listening to Etta James, and she had a song called "Waiting For Charlie To Come Home." I would listen to it when I was growing up, and it was very haunting. It was all about her waiting for this guy, and her life didn't start until he got home.

And so, it was a very emotional piece, and I was sitting around one day when I was working on my first album and I thought, "What if I flipped it? What if I flipped that song so that, instead of waiting for Charlie to come home, it was about what was happening when Charlie wasn't at home?" So, my song is called "Charlie Ain't Home," and it's a very sexy song.

Songfacts: And I can hear Etta singing that, too.

ZZ: Absolutely.

Songfacts: Did you ever get to see Etta perform live?

ZZ: I did, and it was wonderful. I saw her perform when I was 16, maybe. It was up in Oregon, and Susan Tedeschi opened up for her. It was a great show. She's one of my biggest vocal influences.

Songfacts: She has a tough life, but tough lives also lead to great art.

ZZ: I was listening to, I think, "A Sunday Kind Of Love" - it was on a movie the other day. I thought it was so interesting, the dichotomy of her music, because it's such a beautiful song. A lot of singers at that time were singing love ballads, and what she brought to those love ballads was this right-on-the-edge longing for something that she didn't have, and it comes through in her voice. It's really something magical.

Songfacts: Who are the songwriters that have inspired you? You mentioned Leonard Cohen, but I don't hear a lot of Leonard Cohen in your music.

ZZ: Not a lot of Leonard Cohen, but it's about being inspired by songwriters and having your own voice. I would say David Bowie and Prince. I don't sound like them, but what inspires me about them is their ability to reinvent themselves. Their ability to keep writing and keep having a voice.

Songfacts: You were at that Loretta Lynn tribute. Obviously, there was something about her that made you say, "I want to be a part of this." How did she inspire you?

ZZ: I wanted to be a part of that tribute because I know Loretta Lynn had a kind of tough life. Her husband was not faithful to her. She stuck with him. Not only did she stick with him, but every song she wrote was real. It was a real thing that she was going through. It connects with people. I sang, "The Home You're Tearing Down." And, oh my gosh, the emotion in that song! And every night she would sing it. So, anybody that puts their heart and soul into their music inspires me.

December 7, 2017
More at zzward.com

More Songwriter Interviews


Be the first to comment...

Editor's Picks


MetallicaFact or Fiction

Beef with Bon Jovi? An unfortunate Spandex period? See if you can spot the true stories in this Metallica version of Fact or Fiction.


LecraeSongwriter Interviews

The Christian rapper talks about where his trip to Haiti and his history of addiction fit into his songs.

Kevin Godley

Kevin GodleySongwriter Interviews

Kevin Godley talks about directing classic videos for The Police, U2 and Duran Duran, and discusses song and videos he made with 10cc and Godley & Creme.

Movie Stars In Music Videos

Movie Stars In Music VideosSong Writing

Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Mila Kunis and John Malkovich are just a few of the film stars who have moonlighted in music videos.

Emilio Castillo from Tower of Power

Emilio Castillo from Tower of PowerSongwriter Interviews

Emilio talks about what it's like to write and perform with the Tower of Power horns, and why every struggling band should have a friend like Huey Lewis.

The Evolution of "Ophelia"

The Evolution of "Ophelia"Song Writing

How four songs portray Shakespeare's character Ophelia.