“I’ve actually never been to Bumbershoot,” said Kristen Ward, somewhat matter-of-factly, sitting over mid-day drinks at the Matador in Ballard earlier this week. It was a somewhat surprising admission, considering that her performance this Saturday at noon the first musical performance of the entire festival, as it happens is her second appearance at Bumbershoot. “Even after I played last time, I just left. I had to go to work, or whatever I was doing. So, yeah. This is my second time going, but just because I’m playing.”
In Ward’s case, it all makes sense: Despite calling Seattle home since 2001 (she’s lived in Ballard for the last five years), she’s still more country than city, and just plain doesn’t like being stuck in such a big crowd, though she relishes the chance to play for them. Raised in Eastern Washington, she prefers getting out of town on her days off, up to the Skagit Valley or the like, to sitting around cafes or bars, and even mentions some vague plans involving a vintage Airstream trailer she recently bought that, ostensibly, gives her the chance to spend even less time trapped in the urban jungle.
In person, Ward is an unusually confident person, even casually dressed and sipping a bottle of Modelo, a confidence that carriers to her music as a singer-songwriter backed by a crack quartet of musicians. Since her 2006 debut, Roll Me On, Ward’s been getting attention from critics as much for her music as the simple fact that she’s among a sadly small group of female musicians who come across as strong and self-assured. Backed by her band, Ward is a force to be reckoned with, with Gary Westlake’s crunchy, classic rock guitar work competing with Kevin Suggs’ pedal steel and Ward belting out her lyrics of loneliness and bad choices in her deep, sultry voice.
Chock it up to her background. Her mother, Julie Neuffer, herself a bluegrass singer who released an album called Brand New Pearl in 1997, raised Ward on a steady diet of classic country and folk. “When we were kids, she would sing John Denver and Carol King. We’d all get together, and sit on my bed and sing songs! I mean, without trying to sound totally cliche, that was really what we did. We sang a lot together and played guitar,” Ward explains, and adds to the list Merle Haggard, Johny Cash, and Dolly Parton.
As for her father, who lives in Seattle (she split time between her parents as a child), “He has a totally different take on music, he listened to a lot of jazz, a lot of soul. He also likes folk, but it was kind of interesting: Between my two parents I just listened to everything.”
Her influences and voice, which is powerful and slightly husky in a bluesy way, inevitably get Ward comparisons to the likes of Jesse Sykes and Neko Case, as well as her music lumped in under the alt-country rubric, though Ward doesn’t particularly feel that fits.
“I say folk-rock a lot, but it’s kind of funny. I write folk songs, and I write rock songs and I write country songs, and a lot of my new writing is kind of throwback–even some of my old stuff–is a throwback to Eighties rock,” she explains. As for alt-country, “You could say that because there’s pedal steel there,” she says with a shrug.
Whatever the genre, critics loved it. Drive Away (2008), a polished recording that shows off Ward’s sultry, bluesy voice as well as her ability to craft powerful lyrics out of concrete images, earned praise in The Stranger , Seattle Sound , and the P-I , as well as air-play on KEXP. And, of course, the fact that Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready laid down a solo on the song “With You Again” helped. Ward still seems taken about by his contribution, and wants it made clear she didn’t go seeking it out. Her guitarist, Gary Westlake, has worked with Pearl Jam for years, and was on tour a couple years ago while they were starting work on Drive Away .
“They were in London on tour, in a hotel room,” she explains. “And I guess Mike said, ‘Hey, can I use your iPod?’ or something like that, to listen to. And he would up getting a hold of some of these really raw demos, which I could have strangled Gary for letting him show anybody those demos!” “I guess he was interested in being involved…it was just his genuine interest, which is amazing because I grew up watching him on MTV,” she said.
Ward has won a strong fan-base with her music, which has supported her rather novel approach to recording albums. Drive Away , her breakthrough, was self-released and recorded with financial support from fans, through pre-orders or donations ($100 or more even got you into the liner notes). She’s following the same process with the new record. It’s an intense relationship, and it goes both ways. Ward readily admits she is where she is because of her fans, and is moved to find out how much her work can mean to them.
“I had a guy at Neumos, I just played up there with Flight to Mars , and this guy came up to meet and he pulled me aside and he said, ‘You know, I’m living out here, my wife is still back in the Midwest, and I came out because I got a job, and I lost my job, and I miss her and I love her and it’s been such a challenge for me to be out in this new city by myself. And I listen to Drive Away all the time, and through the emotion in your voice and through your lyrics, you’re describing my situation.’” She pauses, fiddling with the mostly empty bottle of beer.
“And it’s funny, because I write this song, I record it, I sing it, but I sort of take it for granted. I mean, after it’s done, it’s done. I’m not feeling it like the day I wrote it. But it’s kind of a gift to others, because they can still feel it in their own way.”
The Sunbreak, Sept 3, 2009