Some parents are ecstatic when their child expresses an interest in taking music lessons. But that wasn't the case for Seattle singer-songwriter Kristen Ward, who headlines Wednesday, December 20, at Conor Byrne.
"I didn't have any vocal training," says Ward. "My mom refused to put me in singing lessons as a kid. She said, 'You can do it when you're older and your voice has developed. But you can't do it now because they're going to ruin your personal style. You have to develop your own sound first.'"
Smart lady. One of the most distinctive elements of Ward's debut album, Roll Me On, released on the Chroma imprint earlier this year, is her earthy, full-bodied vocal timbre; think Christine McVie with more oomph, Linda Ronstadt at her rawest. Lucinda Williams rates among Ward's favorite artists, and you can hear a little of that in her own delivery.
Ward didn't tap into the magic of her own pipes overnight ("My voice dropped when I got a little older"), but in the meantime, she followed her mom's advice, even going as far as to drop out of high-school choir when the director kept pushing her to trill like more of a girlie-girl. "Finally, I said, 'Screw this,'" she recalls. "I just wanted to go have beers with my underage friends and sing at parties. So I got used to singing in front of my friends."
Typically, adolescents assume their parents don't know what they're talking about. But Ward's mother could speak with authority about music: She also wrote and performed her own songs, even going so far as to record and release an album of her country-bluegrass originals when Ward was in middle school. "From the time I was a kid, we were always singing. Mom would just sit there with a guitar, and we'd sing old John Denver and Carole King songs before bed. I grew up around musicians. We had band practices in the basement. I didn't know any different."
Even though country music was out of vogue when the singer was a teen, she couldn't help but be exposed to it: "My mom had always loved country—good country, not the crappy radio stuff."
At 14, Ward began composing her own ditties and testing them out on Mom's colleagues. A decade later, she has an album of her own to show for her studies, although the 12 songs on Roll Me On were composed exclusively in a six-month run shortly before the making of the record. "Lowdownville" sets a downtrodden lyric ("I was really heartbroken over this guy who'd dumped me on my ass," Ward admits) over a midtempo beat and Duane Eddy–style guitar licks, courtesy of producer Brad Zeffren. Organ and harmonica enrich the sensuous, smoldering "Clean As Coal," while "Dark Night of the Soul" is a rough-hewed rocker about spiritual growth.
And yes, that is Ward's mom, Julie Neuffer, providing backup vocals throughout the album. "She's got a real gift for singing harmonies," Ward says. Maybe it's something genetic.