The first rap record to enthrall Zsuzsanna Ward was "Illmatic" by Nas.
Better known as ZZ Ward, the genre-defying singer-songwriter grew up in Oregon, far from the dangerous New York surroundings Nas memorably depicted on his 1994 album. But as all great writing does, it resonated with her.
"Even though I was growing up in a completely different place than he was, I still felt this connection to feeling like there was something bigger for you," Ward said on the phone from Los Angeles last week. "I love the confidence in it. It felt like he was trying to make something his own."
Ward, who brings her Last Love Tour to Rams Head Live on Saturday, is familiar with forging her own musical lane as she has spent the past two years surprising and winning over fans with her hybrid mix of blues, hip-hop, pop and folk.
Combining disparate influences is risky, but Ward proved to be a deft singer-songwriter on her 2012 debut album, "Til the Casket Drops," where she collaborated with rapper Kendrick Lamar ("Cryin Wolf") and inspired Adele comparisons two songs later on the sparse ballad "Last Love Song."
Early on and unsurprisingly, not everyone understood Ward's sound, but she refused to stray from what came naturally.
"If they didn't get it, I just didn't waste my time," Ward, 27, said. "If you try to craft music to make people like it, you just get lost. There's no integrity to it."
She has followed her instincts since her first release, a free February 2012 mixtape called "Eleven Roses" which found Ward singing over beats previously used by rappers Tyler, the Creator, Wiz Khalifa and Freddie Gibbs.
At face value, "Eleven Roses" is an attention-grabbing gimmick, but Ward's talent shines through much of the inherent awkwardness. Gibbs, a gravel-voice realist, took notice, too, and made sure the two collaborated for a track on "Casket." The result is "Criminal," a twinkling slow burner that finds the two artists not just sharing space, but owning it.
Ward said the talent and focus Gibbs and Lamar brought to the studio sessions fueled her own will to create.
"When Gibbs came in ... he spit his verse and I was like, 'Oh my God, I have nothing to say,'" Ward said. "It was just so inspiring working with both of them. To see another artist in a different way, it was just like, 'Wow.' It makes you want to work harder and write better stuff."
The concept of working harder was not confined to the studio. In the past year, Ward did her late-night TV rounds, headlined her second U.S. tour and played many of the major summer festivals. She said it was easily the most time she has spent on the road ("It's like you're a gypsy") and the constant touring has significantly improved her stage presence.
"I remember two years ago, getting on the stage and just being like, 'This feels so foreign to me,'" she said. "Now I'll take the mic and lay on the ground. You just get so comfortable being on stage."
If there was a catalyst to Ward's maturation, she credits the energy coming from the audience.
"It's like you're both meeting at this one place — they bring it, you bring it and that's the only way you're going to have a good time, you know?" Ward said.
Her foreseeable future includes many of these moments, as Ward will headline her own tour until April, make her rounds on the festival circuit and find time to open for Eric Clapton on his tour.
Ward admits she is still figuring out how to write new music while on the road, but the singer-songwriter is not rushing the process. The songs will come only after she thoughtfully considers the direction her second album is headed.
"Am I still in this place where I want to talk about the things I've talked about on 'Til the Casket Drops' or am I in this new place in my life right now?" Ward asked rhetorically. "I'm really just thinking about what I want to say on this next record. I'll let you know when I find out what it is."
If you go
ZZ Ward performs March 1 at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live, downtown. Grizfolk and The O'My's will also perform. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $17-$100 . Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun