Popping Up is our recurring look at new artists making noise on the music landscape. Because, hey—Madonna and Britney were once unknown, too.
Fusing soul, R&B and hip-hop into one delicious listening experience, ZZ Ward isn’t your typical new singing starlet on the rise. The LA-based, Oregon-raised artist dropped her debut mixtape Eleven Roses last month, and the 8-track collection includes ZZ’s incredibly raw vocals singing over samples from songs like Tyler, The Creator’s “Yonkers”, Childish Gambino’s “You Know Me,” and Wiz Khalifa/Curren$y’s “Rooftops.” She namechecks David Bowie as one of her musical idols (“He was unconventional, but his music was still so emotional and powerful”) but it’s clear from the first note out of her mouth that the blues is where her heart is. Head below to discover just who this wild woman is.
HOMETOWN: Though she was born in Pennsylvania, ZZ grew up in a small town in Oregon — and we mean tiny. Her home was located seven miles from the nearest town. “I live in L.A. now and I’m still getting used to watching out for cars instead of deer, bear or elk when I’m driving,” she tells us.
SOUNDS LIKE: Joss Stone mixed with Adele, but with some edge — and an extra coat of molasses on top.
HOW SHE DESCRIBES HER SOUND: Mixing blues with hip-hop, ZZ describes her style as “Dirty Shine” (or “Dirty Moonshine”).
WHY SHE RELATES TO THE BLUES: “My parents were blues-heads,” ZZ explains, “So they were always spinning John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters around the house. I didn’t like it at first, just like sushi when you’re a kid, but then you start to love it and find yourself craving it all the time.” Her dad (who was in a blues band himself) taught her to sing, but it was her older brother’s music collection that hooked her into hip-hop: “He listened to early ’90s East Coast rap a lot, and I thought he was the coolest member of my family at that time, so I stole his CDs.”
SHE MADE YOU A MIXTAPE: As we mentioned, Eleven Roses features biting, soulful remakes of modern day hip-hop tunes from the likes of Wiz Khalifa and Tyler, The Creator. As for the title, the singer explains, “In my experience, love seems to comes up short, like eleven roses to a dozen … it can be so close to perfect, but something is always missing.”
Take a listen to mixtape track “Better Off Dead”, which samples Tyler, The Creator’s “Yonkers”:
ALBUM PLANS: ZZ’s as-yet-titled debut album will be released this summer.
WHAT TO EXPECT: The singer tells us to tune in for beat-driven, bluesy songwriting, compliments of producers Blended Babies and Neff U. “The songs have a lot of different flavors. Blended Babies bring this effortless grit, and Neff U has this astounding ability to take a song and make it larger than life without turning it into a different piece. I love these songs and I want the world to love them, too.”
“The last two acoustic songs on the mixtape will be on my album and that’s the direction it’s headed,” she adds. “If you felt like you were getting to know me listening to Eleven Roses, you will definitely know me after you hear my record.”
THIS IS WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS: Catch an exclusive look at ZZ getting down to business in the studio with DJ Premier, whom she describes as “a legend, but so humble.” (Yes, that is Nicki Minaj — from her featured rap in Birdman’s “Y.U. Mad” — saying “ZZ” over and over. And that’s what we call a perfect sample. )