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Guitar Girl'd: ZZ Ward Talks New Album, 'Til the Casket Drops'

ZZ Ward is a 21st-century twist on blued-eyed soul. An enthralling collection of contradictions. Gutsy. Gorgeous. And just downright skilled.

With hip-hop beats meshed with a Latin feel and Ward’s signature growl, her album’s title track, “Til the Casket Drops,” sets the stage for this well-written, innovative, collection of catchy cuts. Happily divergent from the typical singer/songwriter vibe, Ward moves to a different drummer, literally!

Her writing style and powerful voice are well showcased throughout. With elements of R&B, rap, hip-hop, soul, rock and a few other curves thrown in for good measure, Ward’s Til the Casket Drops is a nonconformist triumph — and one of the most distinctive albums I’ve heard this year.

She calls her music “dirty shine.”

“It’s about embracing your authentic self, doing what makes you happy and committing to it," Ward says. "That’s the message people have been getting from that phrase, so it’s inspiring.”

Produced by Neff-U (Michael Jackson, Ne-Yo, Mary J. Blige), Til the Casket Drops is Ward’s debut full-length. But this artist has spent several years in the spotlight honing her writing and performance skills. Ward has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Conan, Last Call with Carson Daly and Jimmy Kimmel Live. She’s also had her music featured on ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars, MTV's Awkward and in promos for ABC's series Nashville.

Now traveling throughout the summer and into autumn on her “Down and Dirty Shine” tour, Ward took a few moments to give us the scoop.

GUITAR WORLD: You’ve been touring a lot in support of your new album. In fact, you've just announced more dates.

Yeah, totally. That's the name of the game right now. We're just getting out there, going all over the country. We just went to Europe. We went to London and Paris and played some shows there. It's a whole different world over there. It's crazy. To go to a whole different region just to play music is so fascinating to me. I mean everything is different there. There are acts there that are huge that we haven't even heard of, especially in France.

What made you pick up the guitar in the first place?

When I was like a little kid, my brother borrowed an acoustic guitar from his friend. I would play with the strings a little bit, but I never learned a chord or anything. So, the first time I actually got into guitar was through the guitar player in my dad's blues band. Mike was a really great guitarist; he played a lot of blues. He could probably play any style, and he started giving me lessons on guitar.

He gave me kind of nontraditional lessons. If I would've gone to a different teacher, maybe they would have taught me scales and things like that. But he would really teach me whatever I wanted to learn. If I'd be like, "Can you break down a solo for me?" or "Break down a blues song for me." Then he would break it down for me, show me the chords, which is really cool for me as a writer. Because eventually, I would learn chords, and then I would kind of make them into other things, 'cause that's always the way I worked. I was really good at being creative with things instead of doing the norm, I guess.

I got into it later when I was like 17, though. It wasn’t really early. It was a great tool to write songs.

He really kept your interest going.

Yes, and the first guitar I had was a black electric Ibanez, and I'd play it through a little amp. And it sounded horrible. It sounded so bad. And it's so funny, because I would really recommend, when you're first starting out, as they say, to, "Just get some crappy guitar. Learn on it." Maybe that's the right way to go, but it made such a big difference when I had a good guitar.

Was it hard to play? Sometimes I think people will buy those low-end guitars to start, and they're so hard to play that it's discouraging.

Yeah, it was hard to play. I remember the day I went and got a good guitar, he went with me, I brought him because, you know, I’d go up to Guitar Center in Oregon and I wouldn't know what to get. I brought Mike with me, because he knew what was what.

Everyone goes there and sits down and plays, and I wasn’t comfortable with that. So he would sit down and play, and I'd be like, "Yeah, I'm with him." And then we'd pick a guitar. I have a Fender Stratocaster that I actually never play now. And then I have my Martin, which is my acoustic, my electric-acoustic.

Is that what you play live?

No, actually. I play Collings. Collings is amazing. It's the best guitar I've ever had. The feel is incredible.

Do you play electric, too?

I don't play electric live. It's really interesting with that. For some reason, I really like the organic sound. Maybe one day I'll get into it with writing but for me, I just like the organic sound of an acoustic guitar.

Let’s talk about your writing. How do you get started?

I try not to be limited by the guitar. I try to come up with melodies and stuff first, just vocally, before I come up with chords. 'Cause sometimes coming up with chords kind of limits you to what you're writing, I think. But I use guitar as my main instrument for writing.

That's interesting that you write on acoustic guitar, because your songs are not the typical singer/songwriter style.

Yes, I keep things very rhythmic.

And you do some crazy, interesting things with how things are processed, and the instrumentation. What was the recording process like? Who else played with you?

There’s a producer named Neff-U. He's produced over half my record, and we just had a ball. It was so much fun. He's a good guy. And Neff-U's main instrument is keys. So, he plays a lot of keys on the record and the beats. He lays the beats, and we're in there producing together. He was producing, but I was there supporting him.

Right. Giving him input.

Yes, definitely, lots of input. I'm full of input.

And then we would bring some studio musicians in for certain things. We didn't have a certain band that we would have play on the record. Although, Eric Walls, who's my guitarist who plays with me live now, he's one of the best guitarists I've ever heard in my life. He's amazing. I'm very fortunate to play with him. He plays on "Charlie Ain't Home." So, he actually, is on the record.

Do you have any guitar influences?

I would say, for me, as a guitarist it's more people who are songwriters that utilize the guitar to write great songs. So, I'd say Tom Petty, I'd say Jack White. I mean Prince is obviously amazing. Those would be some. For me, it wouldn't be people like, you know, Jeff Beck or Slash for me 'cause I'm not a lead player. Although, I think they're incredible. I was actually surprised when I saw Prince play guitar, 'cause I had no idea he was so good.

Did you play the songs live from the album before you went in to record them?

Not really. And I'll tell you why. If you take a song that you wrote that has no production to it and no instrumentation and you play it with a band, then you're relying on the band you're playing with to come up with parts and make stuff up. So I chose not to do it that way. I played one of my songs live and I couldn't get the band to play it the way that I heard it. There's an art to sitting in the studio, and then producing something and taking the time to really create something.

So, after I did it once, then I was like, "No, we gotta find the right producer to work on this record." And then, from there, that was the step I took. We produce it, then we play it live. I'm a solo artist. That's the way I work.

That makes sense. So, is there a particular song or two off the album that you really dig playing live?

I like when we go into the more broken down stuff just because I like to change. So, I like playing "Charlie Ain't Home" and plus, on some of the songs like "Last Love Song.” With "Charlie Ain't Home," I kind of pushed myself to come up with more picking patterns instead of just basic chords to write the song.

Do you have a bit advice that you want to share with other players out there?

I would say figure out what you're into. Figure out if you want to be a songwriter or if you want to be a lead player or if you want to be a guitarist in a band. Try to really think about what you want to do, and then focus on it. Because I think there are different ways to approach a guitar based on what you want to do. That's what I would say.

That's cool. And so, next for you is touring, touring, and touring?

Yes, Touring, touring, touring.

Check out new dates and more at zzward.com.

Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents Dean Markley, Agile Partners, Peavey, Jammit, Notion Music, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the founder of the Women's International Music Network at thewimn.com, producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.