ZZ Ward with special guest Zach Heckendorf
ZZ Ward is someone you haven’t heard before…Wait, let’s amend that: With early praise from Esquire (“damn near NSFW”) and Marie Claire (“will raise goose bumps down your spine”)—not to mention buzz-building appearances at South by Southwest and on Last Call with Carson Daly—this bold new voice may indeed have captured your attention already. And if that’s the case, then surely you know the deal: ZZ Ward is doing something all her own. Based in Los Angeles, Ward forged her one-of-a-kind sound growing up in small-town Oregon—“out in the sticks in the middle of nowhere,” as she puts it. “There was nothing to do, so that gave me a whole lot of time to play around with music.”
Growing up in Oregon, Ward’s dad owned a pair of Hammond B-3 organs, and she learned to play those; guitar came a little later, as did the remarkable vocals she first honed singing with a blues band at the age of 12. Then, at 16, Ward entered the world of rap—which she’d first discovered thanks to her older brother’s CD collection. The result is a sound that Ward calls “dirty shine”: the bone-deep wail of old-fashioned blues crossed with the big-city gloss of cutting-edge hip-hop. “People wanna know what my music is, because they’re comfortable with what they know,” she explains. “But I’m just doing what’s authentic to me.” It’s that sense of commitment she inherited from some of her idols: Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton and especially Tina Turner, whom Ward says sings in a way that “leaves no separation between her and the song—she puts everything she has into her performance. That’s what I wanna do.”
A chance meeting with A-list tunesmith Evan “Kidd” Bogart—who’d run across ZZ’s MySpace page while checking out up-and-coming artists from Oregon—resulted in Ward’s signing to Bogart’s Boardwalk Entertainment Group. Once there, she began work on her debut album Criminal with a jaw-dropping array of collaborators, including Ryan Tedder, Pete Rock, Theron “Neff-U” Feemster, Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest), Ludwig Goransson, Blended Babies and Fitz (of L.A.’s Fitz and the Tantrums). Between studio sessions she cranked out Eleven Roses, a free mixtape on which she offers her interpretations of recent tracks by Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino and Tyler, the Creator. For Criminal she borrowed the beat from “Oil Money” by Freddie Gibbs, who was so impressed by Ward’s remake that he asked to contribute a guest verse to the official version on the EP; something similar happened with Kendrick Lamar, whose cameo in “Cryin’ Wolf” comes after Ward used his “Look Out for Detox” on Eleven Roses. And so it is. But for this exciting young artist on the cusp of a breakout, those tears also serve as a reminder of where she came from. ZZ Ward hasn’t forgotten anything. Now you won’t forget her.
Offstage, up-and-coming singer, songwriter, and guitarist Zach Heckendorf appears to be an ordinary teenager: a hip-hop-loving, T-shirt and jeans-wearing, shaggy-haired kid with a shy smile and modest demeanor. But when Heckendorf grabs a guitar and jumps on a stage, the 18-year-old Denver native is transformed. Gone is the shyness. Gone is the reluctance to draw attention to himself. In their pla
ce is a natural-born entertainer deploying rapid-fire lyrics and jittery acoustic grooves with all the confidence, charisma, and innate musicality of performers twice his age. During shows in New York and Los Angeles in December, Heckendorf mesmerized crowds with original songs like “All The Right Places,” the first single from his debut album The Cool Down, and silenced the hold-outs chattering in the back with an astonishing cover of Dr. Dre’s “Forgot About Dre,” spitting every line with impressive intensity and speed.
“Entertainers have the power to make someone’s day or ruin it,” Heckendorf says. “So I do everything I possibly can to bring people raw joy, which means setting an example by shedding all my insecurities and going as hard as I possibly can when I’m onstage. That’s the only way there can be a real give and take between the audience and me.”