ZZ Ward makes a serious breakthrough despite her label's Disney audience 

Teenage Wasteland

click to enlarge Blue-eyed soul artist ZZ Ward toured with Eric Clapton last year

Brian Bowen Smith

Blue-eyed soul artist ZZ Ward toured with Eric Clapton last year

ZZ Ward has always been a bit of a square peg in a round hole when compared to her label mates at Hollywood Records. The record label has relied upon sister companies within its corporate family, such as Disney Channel and Radio Disney, to promote and cultivate an audience for its artists. That is a little easier to do for a pop singer with a pre-teen audience than a grown woman who counts prime Tina Turner as a major influence.

Still, as Ward begins to tour on the strength of her new album This Means War, she realizes how peculiar her particular spot within the music business looks. For a young woman striving for authenticity within her music, the soulful singer understands how being signed to a label that had its first hit with Hilary Duff would look like a precarious position for an artist to be in, but Hollywood has been a great home for her since the day of her first showcase with the label.

"The whole staff came into this room to watch and listen," Ward explains. "I didn't know a whole lot about the label, which is good because that meant I didn't have any kind of prior judgment walking in, and I just met the people that worked there."

Ward performed six songs on acoustic guitar, and it went really well. "The folks there were really receptive and they were really positive toward me," she says. "At the end of the meeting, there was this guy that sat down and stayed until everyone had left and talked to me. He was so interested in my music and my story and inspirations. I really liked him and thought he was super down to earth, and afterward my manager asked me if I knew who he was. When I said no, he said, 'That's going to be the new head of Hollywood Records.' "

That man was Ken Burnt, who Ward says has revitalized Hollywood Records — beginning with herself. "They also have Grace Potter, and if you have seen either of us play, you know we aren't pop artists," Ward says with a laugh. "They've really been trying to reinvent themselves, almost like a boutique label. It's been a really great home for me. I know that they obviously have to get a lot of artists off of the [Disney] Channel, so there are entirely two different sides to it, but for me it comes down to the people that work there, and they have always been completely supportive of me and my artistry. I could not be happier."

Still, that sense of being a less-commer cially viable musician on a label more or less dedicated to pop stars that can grab the attention of the junior-high demographic would cause a few sleepless nights for any music artist. When asked if during the near three-year gap between albums Ward ever considered releasing a few mainstream radio-friendly songs directed toward 11-year-olds listening in the car with their parents, the singer lets out a long sigh before answering.

"I definitely think I learned more from promoting my last album on the road, and I would say to the audience, 'OK, guys, now you sing this part,' and no one could follow along on the harmonies. After that I said to myself, 'On the next album, I want to cut a couple of songs that are more Beatles-esque.' You know how it seems like there is always at least one Beatles song played at adult parties, and everyone can jump in and sing along on? Definitely on this new album I was determined to have a few songs where people, no matter the age, could join in on the melody."

"I had some girls come up to me after playing a festival in Florida," she continues, "and they said, 'We can't harmonize to any of your music.' It made me want to write more toward them. If an 11-year-old and a 50-year-old can sing along to my record at the same time, that would be great."

So it goes for Ward, a young singer raised by musician parents on the songs of blues artists Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson, only to be tempted by the popularity and commercial success of label mates like Lucy Hale and R5. While she says that there is no condescension toward her younger peers, nor envy for that matter, she does look back upon a day not long ago when the music world seemed less divided than it is now.

"There are just so many talented people out there now. I think about what Tom Petty said about how when he was first starting out there were only four bands that were actually popular," Ward says. "And that's crazy, because there are so many amazing people performing now."

"I appreciate a good song," she adds. "That's just how I feel. If it plays on pop radio or R&B, I'm judging that song on whether I like it or not."


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