Posted October 4, 2023 by Jeff in Tunes

ZZ Ward Embraces Her Bluesy Roots on ‘Dirty Shine’

ZZ Ward Dirty Shine
ZZ Ward Dirty Shine

Born in Abington, Pennsylvania, singer-songwriter ZZ Ward grew up in the small town of Roseburg, Oregon, on 23 acres of farmland. Weaned on her dad’s record collection which included titles by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Etta James, and Big Mama Thornton, Ward started singing the blues at age eight. Then, inspired by her hip-hop head older brother, Charlie and his Nas and Jay Z records, she began to see similarities in blues and hip-hop.

At 16, she ventured out to clubs and began singing and performing with R&B and hip-hop acts. ZZ began building a name for herself regionally as a wildly eclectic blues artist. She busked, booked her own tours, and sold demos in parking lots to save enough money to leave her small town. A major label deal followed, and Ward released her debut album, Til the Casket Drops, in 2012. She’s just returned with a new set of songs. Dubbed Dirty Shine, the album finds her rediscovering her blues roots while simultaneously embracing the hip-hop she’s always loved.

Fans can expect even more output ahead, with a slate of additional singles, including “Evil On the Inside,” a darkly swaggering track with a cathartically candid narrative about backstabbing friends, appropriately due out in October on Friday the 13th. She spoke about Dirty Shine via phone from her Los Angeles home.  

Talk about when the songs for Dirty Shine began to come together.

The songs are a combination of songs that I’ve really wanted to put out for a long time and that I didn’t have a chance to put out and newer songs that I have come up with in the last year or so. It’s something I’m really proud of. I believe in the album. The concept of the album gets lost these days with streaming and singles and artists who aren’t encouraged to pursue an entire body of work.

You worked with several award-winning producers, and frequent collaborators, including Ludwig Göransson (Star Wars, Creed, Childish Gambino, Adele, Kendrick Lamar), Oscar and GRAMMY winning producer Mike Elizondo (Encanto, Twenty One Pilots, Carrie Underwood), GRAMMY winning writer/producer Jason Evigan (Troye Sivan, Dan + Shay), GRAMMY-nominated Dave Bassett (Elle King, Vance Joy, Alice Merton), iconic hip-hop producer S1 (Eminem, Drake, Lorde) and the alt-rock producer-duo Mark Jackson & Ian Scott (Bishop Briggs, Dorothy). Talk about what that was like. How’d you achieve some consistency between songs?

My whole career, I’ve worked with a lot of different producers. Generally, I would write with them, and if we love the song, we use it. That’s generally how it’s gone. The feeling behind the music is important. I’m not trying to stay in one genre. I don’t think about it. It would extinguish my creativity. What’s important is to make music that moves me and makes me feel empowered. I hope that music will make the listener feel something. That’s my goal. It’s not so much to fit in. There were so many incredible producers on this album. I’m so fortunate to be able to work with such talent. Great songs raise their hands, and I want my fans to be able to hear everything.

I love how noisy the album’s intro song is.

That goes back to what I said earlier. I really take pride in an entire body of work. People don’t really do intros anymore, but I think it sets the tone and makes the listener feel like they’re having an experience. They put on a record, and it becomes a significant part of someone’s life. Someone will put on Til the Casket Drops, which is my first album, and be nostalgic. It represents a certain period of time in their lives and in my life. I hope that this album will make people be able to continue to feel that experience.  

“Ride or Die” really hits hard. Talk about what Vic Mensa brings to the tune.

That’s a song that I wanted to put out for a very long time. I am so happy I was finally able to share it. Vic is on that track and just murdered it. He’s such a talented lyricist. It’s amazing what he did. He incorporated my name and where I’m from. It’s amazing what someone can do who is a really good rapper. I’ve been fortunate to work with some incredible rappers. I just love having Vic on that song.

“On One” also sizzles. How did the idea first come to you?

I write about whatever I’m experiencing in my life. I don’t pull any gimmicks. It’s my safe space and allows me to say what I really want to say. I have more courage to say the things that I want to say than I do in real life. It’s a declaration to becoming a new mother and finding a new sense of power and self. It’s about feeling stronger and more motivated than I’ve ever felt before.

Talk about making the Zombie-Western love story “On One” video with its choreography and stunning visuals.

I’ve been making music with my brother Adam, and my brother Charlie has taken my photography for me. My brother is an independent film producer and director. He has a show called Three Guys & a Couch. He has an independent feature film called Wally Got Wasted. Seeing him work independently and take on these enormous projects and then seeing them to completion has been inspiring to me. We teamed up for this series of music videos. We have had a ball doing it. I get to be creative in a way that I could never be creative with a major label. He’s been making these movies, and we are having a good time experimenting and trying things and pushing the boundaries. I’ve been inspired by Quentin Tarantino when it comes to the videos.

Talk about what the live show will be like.  

I played some of these songs acoustically, and that’s one experience. To pull them together for the tour and play them to the fullest extent possible and really, really take them home is going to be really tough. I’m really, really looking forward to it. You never know what song is going to raise its hand. We’ll hit it pretty hard right before we go on tour so we’re slamming when we finally go on the road.



Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].