If you play Six Degrees of Separation with Kendrick Lamar and Eric Clapton, it only takes two steps to make a connection between 2013’s hottest rapper and the rock legend.
The link? L.A.-based blues-pop singer ZZ Ward. Lamar appeared on her album “Til the Casket Drops,” and she’ll open for Clapton this spring. Before that, she returns to the Visulite Theatre, which she sold out last fall. She plays Wednesday.
The vocal powerhouse provides that link for quite a few disparate artists. She covered Son House for her Record Store Day release, and EDM heavyweight Paul Oakenfold remixed her latest single.
For a freshman artist, the 27-year-old Ward is quite connected. Though in line with contemporary blues, rock and pop, Ward’s album features Lamar and rapper Freddie Gibbs and production by OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, Fitz from Fitz and the Tantrums, and hip-hop producers Neff-U, Pete Rock, and A Tribe Called Quests’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
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That may sound like an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink recipe for a debut album, but the bluesy vocals, hip-hop beats and contemporary adult pop comes across seamlessly.
“There is no formula,” she says. “I grew up listening to blues (from her dad) and hip-hop (from her brothers). I sound like a blues singer.”
Ward began performing with her dad’s band when she was 12 and writing songs as a teenager in Oregon.
“At 16 or 17, I sat down and wrote on a Hammond B3 – this really sad broken heart song,” she says. “It became my way to vent about situations I was going through. I think that started the storm.” She remembers thinking: “Wow. This made me feel so much better, and every time I sing it makes me feel good. Even if it’s sad, I get it off my chest.”
Ward (birth name Zsuzsanna) tried other career paths briefly.
“My mom’s a psychiatric nurse,” she says. “When I was 16 or so in the summer I was going to college to try to become a nurse. I worked in a hospital for two weeks and it just felt wrong.” Waitressing was worse.
“I got a job at a diner,” she says. “I worked there one day. Everyone was getting my name wrong from my name tag. I kept looking out the window at the highway. I remember going up to the boss and saying, ‘I’m sorry you wasted this print on this name tag, but I can’t work here.’ When I was in parking lots selling my music I felt like I was fighting for the right thing.”
She moved to L.A., and while working on her debut album (which was released by Hollywood Records in late 2012), she released a mixtape of reworked versions of tracks by Gibbs, Lamar and Childish Gambino that attracted her future collaborators.
“It got me out of writing songs for myself and my record,” says Ward, who is now honing in on what she wants to say on her follow-up.
Gibbs was so impressed with her song “Criminal,” which samples his “Oil Money,” he offered to add a new verse to it. The EP certainly started a buzz.
So will other pop artists follow the traditionally hip-hop trend to stardom?
“Please tell me if they do,” she says, laughing. “Because it would be cool if I inspired that.”