'She is going to be a star," declares NPR, and it just might be right. Up-and-coming hip-hop/soul/roots singer ZZ Ward has definitely made 2012 count: She released her mixtape Eleven Roses back in February, followed up with the Criminal EP in May, and made her full-length debut with Til the Casket Drops in October.
Since then, she's appeared on Leno and released a live-in-studio video for "Save My Life," which finds Michael Fitzpatrick, who co-wrote the song with her, conspicuously featured on piano and backing vocals. It also doesn't hurt that her music has so far been featured on ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars, MTV's Awkward and in promos for ABC's Nashville.
Add to this the fact that hip-hop talents like Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs guested on Casket — and that she's coming to the end of a 50-date headlining American tour — and you could say it's been a dream year for her.
"This is the first year where I've played in cities that I've never been to, and yet I have fans there," Ward says. "They come out to the shows, they know the lyrics, and they've already connected with these songs. It's fun, but it's also very surreal."
Ward has been gradually working her way into the music scene since she was a teenager. Her dad fronts a blues band, and when ZZ was 13 he started letting her perform a song here and there to get her feet wet. Growing up in rural Oregon, her love of hip-hop and rap eventually took her to the nearby college town of Eugene, where she would sing choruses at underground hip-hop clubs for the likes of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony when they passed through. Despite these experiences, however, she struggled to reconcile her love of blues, hip-hop, soul and rock on a professional level.
"It took me a while to embrace the sort of music I wanted to make and just accept that making it for myself was enough," Ward says. "I just wanted to write songs that I loved. And so that's what I did on this record."
Ward's soulful vocals and lyrics on Til the Casket Drops echo the likes of Adele and Joss Stone, but also toss in dashes of Muddy Waters and Alicia Keys for good measure. It features 13 tracks that range from heartfelt ballads ("Last Love Song") to groovy up-tempo numbers ("Move Like U Stole It"). She also does bluesy songs like "Lil Darlin" that you might hear in some dive bar, and the funky hip-hop number "Charlie Ain't Home," which references Etta James's "Waiting on Charlie."
"It wasn't like I sat down and said, 'I should write a song called "Charlie Ain't Home" and it should be an answer to Etta James' "Waiting for Charlie"' or anything," Ward says. "I grew up listening to that song and there's just something really haunting about it to me. It's incredibly emotional. It really resonates. So I just felt really connected to the story behind that song, and decided to flip it a different way."
Somewhere along the way, Ward even acquired a nickname for her style and sound: Dirty Shine.
"It's funny, the phrase 'Dirty Shine' just kind of caught on," Ward says with a laugh. "It means shining dirty, being who you are, and rocking it."