In the past few years, Seattle has launched several extraordinary female voices, including the old-school country wail of Neko Case, the powerhouse pop of Brandi Carlile and the slithering noir-country of Jesse Sykes. All have earned exceptional respect on the national level, and seem poised to have long, thrilling careers. Is Kristen Ward the next in line?
This raw, fresh talent is showing signs that she just might be ready to make a huge steps forward. Like Case, Carlile and Sykes, Ward has a rich, full voice; and, like the others, she is hard to pin down, wandering into several musical territories. While “alt-country” is perhaps the best way to describe her, like Case, she has elements of classic country; like Carlile, she easily slides into balladeering; and like Sykes, she has dark, femme fatale accents. Ward’s new album is called “Drive Away,” and perhaps she will – from Seattle, that is. While she hasn’t performed outside the Northwest, this powerful recording might her ticket to ride right away from the waiting that’s been the theme of her life, the past few years. Ward has been paying the rent by waiting tables as she waits for her music career to take her places. Last week, the soft-spoken, dark-featured (imagine a younger sister of Angelina Jolie) Ward sipped a beer at a Belltown bistro and discussed the curious back story to “Drive Away.”
First, there’s the rock star cameo.
Gary Westlake, her guitar player, is part of the Pearl Jam camp and plays in Mike McCready’s Flight to Mars side project. He shared some of Ward’s demos with McCready, then told Ward that McCready wanted to play on the album. “My mind set is I don’t expect things to happen until they happen,” Ward said. But she booked the studio time, and McCready showed up as scheduled. He ended up playing guitar on “With You Again.” While that’s one of the album’s strongest songs, the jump-out cut on this album is “Shoot Me Down.” Oddly, it’s not Ward’s voice that makes this so memorable, but a fascinating harmonica breakbeat. That’s Ward playing harmonica on the song, which also features the talents of drummer Mike Stone, pedal steel guitarist Kevin Suggs and guitarist Brad Zeffren. The latter also produced the album, as he did on Ward’s previous recording, “Roll Me On.”
Another unusual element of “Drive Away” is the way it was financed. Ward didn’t make much money on her first album, but she promoted it heavily on MySpace, giving away free copies. That helped her build a huge e-mailing list, and, when she was ready to make her second album, she sent out a mass e-mail asking fans to contribute to production costs. Many responded, and Ward ended up raising nearly $10,000 from her fan base. “Most of the donations were $30 to $50,” Ward said. “But a woman from Illinois gave $1,000 – she flies here to see my shows. “I ended up raising enough money to pay for studio time and recording costs. … Without [the donations], it would have suffered, sonically. It would have been basement recording style.”
Speaking of suffering, Ward says she has put her personal life on hold, to throw all her energy into her music: “Everything in my life is ready to happen. I work as a waitress, I have no mortgage, I have no husband – I don’t even have a boyfriend.” Ward takes a swig of beer, and continues. “You give up things to do music. There’s days when I think, ‘I’m done. I can’t do this anymore.’ But deep down inside, I know I can never stop.” Even with seed money from her fans, it’s up to Ward to promote and distribute her album. Struggling musicians can relate to Ward’s dilemma. “You spend thousands of dollars – everything you do is for this one thing. It’s like a black hole that everything goes into.” It’s quite a dangerous bet for an individual to make, risking that time, energy and finances will disappear into nothingness. But with a few of the right connections, Kristen Ward’s talent might launch her into orbit as Seattle’s next rising star.
By Tom Scanlon – Seattle Times staff reporter