By Dan Weiss
ZZ Ward’s late-breaking 2012 album Til the Casket Drops shares a title with a Clipse record. This isn’t exactly a coincidence; hip-hop loudly informs the 28-year-old blues-soul-rocker’s music, with Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs guesting on tunes and an early career singing hooks for rappers in the local Eugene, Ore. scene. And for whatever the information’s worth, her first single was called “Put the Gun Down.” While Lana Del Rey’s early hip-hop affections — say, the “Gangsta Nancy Sinatra” — were decorous, ZZ has actually written a song over the beat from Tyler, the Creator’s “Yonkers.”
On Thursday, we spent the afternoon shadowing the singer and her crew as they made way from a Holiday Inn to the That Tent stage at the Bonnaroo festival. It was the first day of Bonnaroo and the first ever ‘Roo appearance for Ward. She originally had a reservation at a Days Inn but, accommodations were shuffled around her so she could be with her one-year-old border terrier Muddy — as in Muddy Waters. It’s a girl.
“Even with the pink [rhinestone collar] on her, people still think she’s a boy,” shrugs Ward without a hint of annoyance.
We get into the van. The dog ends up in my lap, nonplussed. Ward’s been on tour longer than Muddy’s been alive.
Ward is proud of her variety of fans (“from older men to little girls”) but has no idea if there’s a specific type of ZZ Ward fan. “It could be five people, it could be 5,000 people, as long as they’re into what I’m doing,” she says. “I connect with cool people.”
Eugene was the closest thing Ward had to a rap scene growing up, and her dad would sneak her into blues clubs to sing at open-mic nights with bands capable of improv, from an early age (“they’d draw these big X’s on my hands”). “I’d just go up and say I want to sing ‘3 O’Clock in the Morning’ in C’.” She hesitates to call herself a bandleader but she does agree she’s a natural.
As our vehicle makes it way through festival grounds, conversation turns to Bonnaroo fashion.
“I thought we were gonna see more pasties, to be honest. It’s not at all like Boobchella,” someone says.
“It’s like they all sent a memo to each other,” says Ward. “’We’re gonna wear shorts and shirts with neon.’”
Her publicist adds, “If it rains, all these people in flip-flops are gonna be sorry.”
“Glad I wore my nature shoes,” says Ward. She’s wearing mesh leather mini-boots.
Looking out the window again, she deadpans: “I wasn’t expecting to see so much penis.”
(Photo by Jason Shaltz)
Once we’re out of the van, Ward tapes a couple of interviews in the press tent, and a photographer asks us if she can shoot Ward in front of a nearby giant bale of hay.
“I’ll sit. I’m from Oregon, I don’t care,” she says as the photographer directs her to walk down some stairs at different speeds.
As 6:00 pm approaches, ZZ and her band get backstage behind the curtain. They put their hands in a circle for their traditional huddle, road manager and all. They all shout “L7!” in unison. And whether that’s a Battleship question or a reference to the band (I didn’t hear “Pretend We’re Dead” as their walk-on music) the reason for the chant remains a mystery.
(Photo by Jason Shaltz)
Ward’s live show is far more hard-rocking than her album, where she could be the next Adele or Amy Winehouse. She moves effortlessly from harmonica to guitar to keyboard, and yells things between songs like, “It’s f–king gorgeous out, it smells like weed!” and “Everyone’s in a good mood, nobody’s wearing clothes.” She introduces the next song as a blues and launches into Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” now affixed with a harmonica solo. She only slows down for her current single “Last Love Song.” If it’s not a huge hit, one of the very nice people in her camp I’ve spent the day with should be fired.
“That was a great time,” Ward says to me after her set, Muddy’s leash in hand. “A lot of times I wish it could last longer than it does.”