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ZZ Ward Blends Soul With Hip-Hop Beats, Taps Ryan Tedder for Debut LP

Hollywood Records

ZZ Ward has a voice reminiscent of an Adele or Emeli Sande. If you know anything about the latter two, you’re aware of their soulful vocal stylings and abilities to mesmerize audiences with their words. This Oregon-bred songstress can do just that. Give her a mic and a stage, and she’ll belt out an acoustic set, proving her talent comes from deep within.

Fresh off the release of her ‘Eleven Roses’ mixtape, the singer introduces listeners to her meld of hip-hop, R&B and soul. The eight-track effort features rap-dipped beats like Tyler, the Creator’s ‘Yonkers’ and Wiz Khalifa’s ‘Rooftops’ paired with honestly lyrical storytelling. She’s bidding farewell to romance on ‘Last Love Song,’ fighting against her own insanity with ‘Better Off Dead’ and delivering love-scorned hurt on ‘Criminal.’

While music enthusiasts warm up to that project, she’s hitting the studio to wrap up work on her debut LP, to be released in August via Hollywood Records. Major players like Ryan Tedder and DJ Premier have already logged recording sessions with the chanteuse, who now resides in L.A. Looks like this LP won’t settle in just one genre-driven box.

Read on as the busy, piano-playing entertainer — she’s currently performing close to 10 shows at SXSW in Austin, Texas — hits some hot topics in her life, including how she got her moniker, why she finds Nicki Minaj to be inspirational and what song finds her getting intimate with a dork.

For someone who’s never seen your show, how would you describe the experience?

I grew up doing a lot of different kinds of performing. I sang in my dad’s blues band since I was 12. I’ve also done a lot of hip-hop shows — I opened for Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Mike Jones. I think the show for this record is just good music. I leave it on the stage every time I perform. Some of the material I perform is from the mixtape and some is from the album.

On your ‘Eleven Roses’ mixtape, you sing over beats by Tyler, the Creator, Wiz Khalifa and Childish Gambino. Why did you choose to go that hip-hop route?

I’ve always really loved hip-hop since I was a little kid. I used to steal my brother’s CDs — Nas, ‘The Chronic’ and Jay-Z CDs. I just always really liked the driving rhythms and the flow of the rappers and the honesty of the music. I got involved in a local hip-hop scene in Oregon so we started opening for all the rap artists that would come through on tour. Basically while I was writing this record, I was listening to Tyler and Wiz Khalifa and Freddie Gibbs. I loved what [Tyler ] did with ‘Yonkers.’ It was genius, what he was saying. There’s a space where he goes to the chorus; I started humming something. I got the instrumental and that’s how the mixtape started.

So do you rap, since you mentioned starting off with a hip-hop group?

No, I don’t rap. I think if you rap, you should be able to freestyle. I can’t freestyle. I definitely have learned to sing on a hip-hop track from rap artists. Just saying things with conviction, there’s a lot of things that I’ve learned from their vocal stylings.

You worked with DJ Premier on a track for your new album as well as songwriters like Ryan Tedder. Why are you choosing people that are so different?

DJ Premier‘s a legend. Ryan Tedder is amazing. I think it’s just listening to the songs I’ve written and thinking, “Who can bring the best out of this song?” Ryan worked on ‘Last Love Song.’ I just thought it would be a great song with all the other songs he made so amazing, so I thought that would be a good song for him to get his hands on. It’s on my mixtape, acoustic. It will be on my album, produced.

Let’s talk about a song that will be on the album that fans haven’t heard.

There’s a song on the record called ‘Move Like You Stole It.’ It’s about hooking up with a rather dorky guy and just kinda being like, “OK, it’s time to do it so move like you stole it.” It’s an upbeat, driving song. Neff U produced that.

What was your studio experience with Neff U like?

He’s definitely one of my favorite producers that I’ve gotten to work with. He has a way of really crafting things. Most of the songs Neff U produced I had already written. So he just has an ear for listening to the song and just making it bigger and netter than it already was without changing it. I don’t think every producer is capable [of that]. You have to know what supports something and what changes it and makes it different from who the artist is. He’s really good at making it bigger than what it is.

Tell us the story behind your first name, ZZ.

It’s a nickname. My name is Zsuzsanna. There’s two Z’s in my name. It’s kind of a mouthful. I was named after my mother. It’s my grandmother’s name too. It’s Hungarian.

Which artists who are out now are you inspired by?

Really anyone that does their own thing. I respect people that do things that are different and things that are unique to them. Nicki Minaj‘s crazy and I love her music. She just rocks it. On the male side, Tyler, the Creator. Just anybody who’s doing their own thing and not letting anyone stop them.

Watch ZZ Ward’s ‘Better Off Dead’ Video

Watch ‘Learn About the History of Rap’

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Learn About the History of Rap

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