ZZ Ward is a marketable commodity. Her sleek mix of blues grit and hip-hop hustle makes easy concessions to those obsessed with “authentic” rock ‘n’ roll without forsaking the earworm hooks that dominate mainstream radio. There’s a Hollywood Records insignia on the back of her 2013 debut, Til the Casket Drops, stamping her music as a product of the mega-successful Walt Disney Company — no bastion for labor-of-love art projects. She’s talented and, as the City Paper discovered during a recent phone interview, quite sincere, but she’s in her current position because she makes accessible and distinct pop songs that are easy to sell.
“I did think about it, but I didn’t care about it,” Ward says, addressing her style’s marketability. “[When] I started mixing blues and hip-hop, it was not popular. It was definitely me going against the grain, and there was definitely a moment when I thought, ‘You know what? I’m not going to care about what anybody thinks. I’m just going to make what feels good to me.’ To write about things that are authentic to me is the best that I can do. I think that’s why people connect with my music. They connect with the honesty and the rawness. That’s what I try to keep intact.”
Raw is a bit of a stretch, but her songs don’t want for passion. Her booming warble is rich and just a little rough, and she deploys it with confidence no matter the subject. Her tunes pinpoint the shared lineage of dirty blues rhythms and grinding rap beats, honoring the heritage but never failing to have fun with it. On her album’s pounding title track, piano and drums march with steely menace as Ward croons gravely. Like much of the album, the melody is predictable, and the lyrics rely too heavily on cliches — “A house made out of glass will surely shatter/ So we built a fortress of red bricks and ladders.” But there’s no question that Ward enjoys her music.
“If you’re in the studio all day, and you’re making hip-hop and blues music, and then you get into your car and put on a country radio station because that’s what you enjoy, then why are you making hip-hop and blues music?” she reasons. “That’s not what I do. I go into the studio and make hip-hop and blues music, and then I get into the car and put on The Chronic. I’m making the kind of music that I love, so I don’t think that specific sound would ever change so much.”
But the problem with debuting so successfully is that your early style can come to define you. The three acts playing after Ward at Mix 95.9’s Jingle Bell Ball tonight — the Fray, Daughtry, and Avril Lavigne — all became big quickly, each bolstered by strengths so rigorously defined that they were only a few steps removed from self-parody. In the intervening years, each has struggled to move forward — Daughtry mired in the middle ground between modern rock and modern country, the Fray forever chasing the soaring emotionalism of their 2005 hit “How to Save a Life.”
But Lavigne’s is the most applicable example. When she arrived with 2002’s Let Go, she too was straddling a stylistic divide — in her case, alternative rock and bubblegum pop — sidestepping grunge pretense while stealing some of the genre’s comfortably rough intensity. After three discs dominated by sk8ter bois and a life fraught with juvenile complications, she tried to grow up on 2011’s Goodbye Lullaby.
That record broke four years of studio silence, and it boasted tasteful arrangements that relied more on acoustic guitars and pianos and less on low-rent drum machines and distorted chugging. A few songs — like the potent and pensive “Not Enough” — did find her sounding more adult, but she still included a few saccharine singles — like the cloying break-up tantrum “What the Hell.”
On this year’s Avril Lavigne, she’s back to old tricks, singing about being 17 and kissing a boy outside of a “record shop.” He tasted “like cigarettes and soda pop.” After a halfhearted attempt to move past her trademarks, the 29-year-old is once more peddling the same bad-girl cuteness that made her famous when she was actually 17.
Ward could easily fall into the same trap. Her songs can still improve, and there’s plenty of juice to be squeezed from her hip-hop and blues fusion. Still, there’s a limit to how far you can push a style that’s so thoroughly codified. But Ward doesn’t see it that way.
“There’s so much room for me to experiment with my sound,” she says. “But I hope that I can always stay a timeless artist. I think that’s really important. A lot of artists that I really loved growing up are timeless, like Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, people where at the core of everything, there’s a great song. That’s really what I strive for and hope I can do in the future.”
In the cases of Petty and Dylan, there was also reinvention, something that’s hard to imagine happening for Ward. There’s a reason we’re astounded when Kanye West recasts his hubris as a crushing electro odyssey (Yeezus), when Arcade Fire mutate their earnest epics into a winking, Talking Heads-obsessed sprawl (Reflektor). Such sudden shifts are damned difficult after an artist attains mainstream success. Pressures — from personal vanity to a label’s bottom line — make consistency the safer bet.
Ward is happy with her current trajectory, and if she’s lucky, she’ll stay that way, refining and expanding her style in a way that builds on past successes. Anything more might prove too strenuous.
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