ZZ Ward is 27, but her voice goes back generations.
Soaked in gin or whisky, and American heartbreak and despair, it conjures up jazz and country and blues and R&B. ZZ Ward doesn’t ignore modern pop — her songs seem to fit comfortably into the adult alternative format that vaulted her album into the Billboard Top 40 a year ago — but you can hear traces of Nina Simone, as well as more recently lost souls such as Amy Winehouse.
Ward is scheduled to play the Life Is Beautiful Festival on either Oct. 26 or 27, following a short break (according to her website) from a frenetic touring schedule that has her playing 19 shows in September alone.
Earlier this week, she called from Arizona (“Tucson? I think?”). How does she maintain the relentless touring for well over a year, since her first EP dropped in May 2012, followed by a full LP in October 2012?
“I have a really good team, a really good band that is my family out here,” she says. “I love my fans. That will make or break you on the road. I’m just really fortunate to have a great team.
“It’s been a year, it’s been an incredible year, but I’m going strong still. I think it can only happen like this once. You’re a new artist one time.”
Her voice sounds older than her age.
“I’ve always had people ask me, ‘Where does that voice come from?’” she says, with a hint of weariness. “I don’t know. Maybe when I’m 35, they won’t be asking that anymore.”
Ward says she doesn’t want to think too much about her voice. “People will compare it to other artists they’ve heard before. It’s like people talk about movies or restaurants, it’s a little bit like this and that. I don’t know; for me, I can’t compare myself to other things, to other artists.
“As far as the sound of my voice, I don’t want to think about it too much. That takes the magic away from it.”
Ward also has worked in the studio with a swath of contemporary artists, among them Kendrick Lamar, Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, and Fitz of contemporary blue-eyed soul masters Fitz and the Tantrums. She’s interpreted works by Etta James and the late blues giant Son House. And, clearly, Ward is influenced by progenitors of her gender.
“I grew up listening to a lot of blues. That’s what I love.” But her style is not strictly blues, or R&B, or rock. “I think it’s hard to describe my style to people. It’s my style. It’s back-porch blues and hip hop.”
Ward says that for now, she’s able to balance touring, recording and a personal life. “I think right now, for me, my career is the most important thing other than my family and close friends. I’m not trying to rush things.
“I think I’m supposed to see the world right now,” she says.