In 2004, producer Danger Mouse gained notoriety when he decided to release a free viral album that married contemporary hip-hop to classic rock.
As bold as it was experimental, The Grey Album took the a cappella vocals of Jay’Z’s The Black Album and mashed them up with instrumentals created from a variety of samples from The Beatles’ 1968 classic The White Album. The result was a richly layered compilation of tracks that not only complimented their respective genres, but also blurred the line between them to create a refreshingly original sound. And despite appeals from The Beatles’ copyright holders to take it down, The Grey Album went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed (even taking the #1 spot on Entertainment Weekly’s list of best albums of 2004) and influential albums of the new millennium.
Since The Grey Album’s release, more and more artists have opted to pay homage to music’s earlier days by blending their own sounds with those of decades past. Indie artists such as Camera Obscura and She & Him mix their Lite FM-ready folk-tinged sound with that of 1960s girl groups and nostalgic doo-wop. In 2006, Christina Aguilera released Back To Basics, an album that combined her pop-star-of-today persona with both that of a flapper and a WW II-era pin-up girl. The following year, British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse exploded onto the scene with her international smash single, “Rehab.” Full of soul, slick jazz and sass, Winehouse masterfully blended the defining elements of Motown with the attitude of contemporary hip-hop. Her success inspired a whole wave of “new vintage” musicians such as Adele, whose album, 21, has remained on the Top 20 Billboard chart eighty-two weeks after its release.
The latest entry in this parade of husky-voiced chanteuses is Pennsylvania-born ZZ Ward. Confident, aggressive and sexy, Ward’s music goes down as smoothly as the last shot of Jameson at the end of the night. Her self-described “dirty blues with beats” signature sound should answer any question about how a Dr. Dre-produced Joss Stone song would resonate.
On October 16th, Ward will be releasing her first album, Til The Casket Drops (via Hollywood Records). And earlier this month, the singer released a 4-track EP to give listeners a taste of what to expect from her eagerly anticipated debut. These two releases come following a busy summer in which she toured across the country with Fitz & The Tantrums and Allen Stone.
Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of attending a showcase that Ward put on at New York City’s singer/songwriter hot-spot Joe’s Pub. Gearing up to the release of Til The Casket Drops, the set list was comprised of a generous sampling of the album’s offerings.
Immediately getting the audience pumped up, Ward opened the show with her upcoming record’s title track. A stomping love song marinated in retro flavors, “Til The Casket Drops” found Ward soulfully pledging her lifelong commitment to her partner.
“You asked me how long I’d stay by your side, so I answered with only just one reply,” Ward sang, building up to the song’s warm, smoky chorus. “Til the casket drops, til my dying day, til my heartbeat stops, til my legs just break.”
On “Criminal,” Ward fused sultry nightclub jazz with ‘90s R&B in a way that would make you believe that Shirley Bassey and Lauryn Hill somehow had a lovechild. It’s basically what the James Bond theme Alicia Keys recorded (“Another Way To Die”) should have sounded like had it not been a collaboration with rocker Jack White.
Other standout selections from the evening included “Charlie Ain’t Home,” a cheeky modern response to Etta James’ “Waiting For Charlie To Come Home,” the somber and defeated break-up ballad “Last Love Song,” and the soaring and anthemic “Home,” which had the audience belting out the words to a song most were hearing for the very first time.
Yet no song had the crowd on its feet more than the one Ward played during her encore, “Blue Eyes Blind.” Clearly the track with the most mainstream radio potential from Til The Casket Drops, “Blue Eyes Blind” is an upbeat feel-good song that could easily do for Ward what “Mercy” did for Duffy. Showcasing the singer’s thick-as-honey voice and brazen swagger, this is a song that Ward will no doubt be closing her shows with for a long time to come.
With Til The Casket Drops, ZZ Ward has created an album that is as gorgeous as it is unique. It’s a record that will surely be remembered as one of the strongest debuts of the year.
A compilation of moody folk-tinged pop/rock, that record established McCarley as the Mandy Moore to Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson’s Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Her star may not have shined as brightly as those of her genre peers, but McCarley was still grounded—and certainly talented—enough to become a force to be reckoned with in her own right. Hence the placements on soundtracks for movies like He’s Just Not That Into You and TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill.
But for her sophomore album, My Stadium Electric (released exclusively via iTunes last week), McCarley stepped up her game to emerge from the shadows and steal the spotlight on center stage as an indie pop songstress exploding with crossover appeal.
Although both Love, Save The Empty and My Stadium Electric are distributed via Universal Republic, the latter has a significantly more apparent major record label stamp on it. After all, McCarley’s debut was completed independently before it was picked up and released by Universal Republic. Thus, it’s a far more stripped-back and raw collection of songs.
For My Stadium Electric, the record label assisted in the creation of the album from day one. While McCarley did work with Love, Save The Empty’s primary producer Jamie Kenney, she also enlisted the help of new collaborators like songwriter Dan Wilson (Adele’s “Someone Like You”) and producers Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Kelly Clarkson, Foster The People), Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Pink, Fiona Apple), Ben Allen (Gnarls Barkley, Animal Collective) and Mark Treppe (Jason Mraz, Train).
On her new album, McCarley decided “to take a giant step away from the heavy introspection of Love, Save the Empty to bring out a more playful side that she can show off in her live act,” wrote The Huffington Post in a recent feature about the musician. “So touches of Fergie and Katy Perry are more visible here rather than her biggest songwriting influences – Fiona Apple … and Patty Griffin.”
The result is an incredibly well put together album that has all the elements of both a mainstream pop and an indie singer/songwriter record. It’s got quirky lyrics, lush vocal harmonies and a refreshing reliance on instrumentation not entirely generated by a laptop. And it’s also an expertly produced upbeat record that layers in synths to make the songs explode with radio promise.
But fear not. Just because McCarley has allowed herself to be influenced by a major record label to go down a significantly more mainstream route doesn’t mean you’ll be hearing her singing “Call Me Maybe” anytime soon. While her sound has indeed morphed into something new and more confectionate, McCarley is still an artist whose music remains true to its roots and is unafraid to pack a punch.
On “Just Another Day,” for instance, the singer even criticizes her label for its high level of involvement in the creation of her album. In this track, McCarley acknowledges the shifting direction of her music while also firmly refusing to sacrifice her artistic identity.
“Need, need to please the boys club. Which one of you is the leader? Numb, numb, the dummy has his thumb down on everyone,” McCarley challenges before asking, “Hey, where are all of the dreamers?”
It is clear that to her, the pop-fortified sound of My Stadium Electric is a natural evolution rather than a stunt to break the Top 40. Thus, the album doesn’t play like a musical departure for McCarley, but rather more like a game of dress-up where she’s trying on lots of new accessories. But whatever new colors she splashes on, the canvas underneath remains the same.
Other standout tracks include the iTunes single of the week, “Amber Waves,” a sugary piano-pop ode to letting oneself getting immersed in new love. “Pop Gun” is a cheeky percussion-heavy anthem of reclaiming oneself from an all-consuming relationship, while “What I Needed,” “Re-Arrange Again” and “Survey” are all tender, ethereal ballads that solidify McCarley’s status as a master of her craft.
My Stadium Electric is the type of album that could be equally appreciated inside of an intimate coffee shop or bursting through the speakers of a large amphitheater. Don’t be surprised if both happen in the very near future.
The October release of the singer’s third album, The Haunted Man, promises to show both a more vulnerable and confident side of the indie darling than did her critically acclaimed first two albums, 2006’s Fur and Gold and 2009’s Two Suns.
Having already garnered multiple BRIT Award nominations (the British counterpart to the American Grammy Awards), Natasha has also toured with musicians such as Coldplay and headlined two sold out shows at the Sydney Opera House. With an accomplished resume like that, it may seem like the chanteuse has already lived her dream. But Natasha has only just begun to raise the bar for herself.
I caught up with the singer about The Haunted Man, how she feels she’s evolved artistically, her future aspirations, the summer Olympics, and more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: What does the title, The Haunted Man, signify to you?
NATASHA KHAN: It’s the name of one of the first songs I wrote for the album. I actually decided to call it that quite late. After shooting the front cover and thinking about how the album is about letting go of relationship patterns and ancestral things that get passed down, plus the fact that there are some songs about soldiers being away at war and wounded men and things like that, I decided in the end that title seemed to encompass a lot of the themes on the record.
Speaking of the cover, it gives the impression that the album has a much more stripped down feel than your previous releases. Would you agree with that?
Yes, I think that’s true. I think in general, the artwork tends to be quite synonymous with the record. When I stared writing and making the songs for the album, my intention was to create something much more stripped back. I wanted it to be more bold and direct and a bit more upfront. I think visually, the front cover is obviously very raw and quite natural. There’s no retouching or Photoshopping or adornments. I’ve used a lot of objects on my covers before. There’s not so much of that here. I just wanted it to be like you say, stripped down and much more direct. And I think it works well with the sonics as well. The vocals are much more upfront and there are far less reverbs and washes of sound. It’s got a lot more space in it, I think.
You kicked off your last album, Two Suns, with a song called “Daniel.” Now you’re launching your new record with another single simply titled after someone’s first name, “Laura.” Can you tell me a little bit about who the muse of this track is and what your relationship is to her?
I think we all know Lauras or have been a Laura at some point in our lives. I think there’s a universal Laura which the song has progressed into and its kind of taken a life of its own. But a very close girlfriend of mine, who has a different name, initially inspired it. The song is a product of a very heavy, debauched party that I had. The next morning, she draped her arms around me and asked, “Can we bounce on the tables again?” The song kind of came out of that compassion and sadness in the aftermath of being crazy and losing yourself. But I think that relates to our society’s ways of dealing with loneliness and pain, because so often all we want to do is just escape. To be the life and soul of the party and the person that all the boys love is often quite a tragic character. That was an idea that fit really well with the more traditional songwriting structure I was thinking about. There’s a whole balance between being traditional and lyrically being quite subversive and a bit dark.
How do you feel that you’ve grown as an artist since the release of Two Suns?
I guess one way is production-wise, I feel a lot more confident in the studio. I was able to do a lot of the demos and early incarnations of the songs just on my own at home. For example, doing string and horn arrangements for “Laura” and “Winter Fields,” I did on my own and really enjoyed doing beat programming and those kinds of production techniques. I felt I could bring the songs to a cohesive space quite early on. And obviously working with lots of different people to develop the songs and take them through lots of different layers and refine them into where they finally ended up took a lot of confidence. As an artist, I usually like to be in control of everything. The collaborative process was very long and detailed, and for me, that was quite risk-taking. Plus I think I’ve also grown as an artist vocally. I’m not too frightened to be really far up in the mix and take away all those washes of reverb. I also think putting out much more intimate emotional subject matter has been a growth area as well. Obviously also posing naked was a pretty confident thing to do and I don’t think I would have been able to do that before. So overall, as an artist, I do feel far more confident and don’t care what people think as much.
You collaborated with Beck on a track for the soundtrack to the movie, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Is writing music for film and/or other mediums something you’d like to continue to explore further in your career?
Definitely. I love the idea of doing music for films because I really enjoy orchestrations and arrangements of orchestral instruments. I’ve always been informed by film scores and been inspired by not just films themselves, but the music in them – sometimes almost more than other people’s albums. In my year out, I directed some dance films for a dance company that are friends of mine, and I have made animations and I do lots of life drawing and things like that. So I think other mediums really come naturally to me and I’m always keeping them going, even though at the moment my output is based in music. But I put all those other disciplines into the making of this record. It happens to come out as pop music at the moment, but I think there’s definitely room to grow there.
This fall you’ll be embarking on a European tour in support of the release of The Haunted Man. Do you have plans yet to bring this tour stateside?
Definitely, yeah. I think the beginning of next year will be the first tour — the big cities tour. But yeah, I’m really excited to bring it to America because we always have really great shows when we come here.
Tell me a little bit about your songwriting process. Do you like to write your lyrics first and then music to accompany them? Is it the other way around? Or do you prefer to write your songs in one fall swoop?
The best ones always come in one fall swoop. You write the music and then the lyrics and melody just come and 10 minutes later, you have this fully formed thing. So that’s a real gift from the heavens when that happens because you’re always hoping for that – but that’s not how it works across the board. The music and chord structures always come first for me. Then around that, I’m able to develop a melody. And then depending on the melody, the lyrics will fit in syllable wise. The rhythm of the words is denoted by the melody. That’s generally how I do it and it’s usually in that order. But it could also be that it comes from some light beats or a big bassline and the melody will come from that. But usually, it’s some kind of musical structure and then the vocals on top.
You play a variety of instruments, including the piano, bass, guitar and the autoharp. How old were you when you starting learning how to play these and what do you consider your go-to instrument when you’re writing a new song?
I started playing piano at the age of 8 or 9 at school. I had lessons but I was really bad at learning other peoples’ music. I just wanted to play my own stuff. So when I was 11 or 12, I started writing my own music on the piano. I carried on lessons for a little while but I never really had that much formal training. Then around the age of 15 or 16, I got into Nirvana and Neil Young and artists like that, and I decided I wanted to try the guitar. So I self-taught the guitar, which explains why I don’t play it that much and when I do, it’s quite conventional choices of notes. And everything else was also self-taught. I think everything comes from a keyboard-based understanding or a string-based understanding. If you can play guitar, you can get your away around a bass or pluck an autoharp. If you know how to play piano, you’ll know how to play all the synthesizers and understand them. I’ve gradually refined my understanding of various instruments through making three studio albums and playing all sorts of electronic instruments and doing drum programming. I like to turn my hand to anything really, because I find that it’s mostly about being expressive with instruments rather than being a virtuoso player.
Being from England, what was your favorite part of this summer’s London Olympics?
It was probably the opening ceremony. I also loved watching Mo Farah win his 5,000 meters, which was amazing. But the opening ceremony was good for us because we live in East London and all of our friends had a big party on a rooftop right near the Olympic stadium. You could see all the fireworks and they had a big projection screen where we watched the Arctic Monkeys and Paul McCartney and everyone was singing along. Everybody was dreading it in London. We thought it would be a real nightmare, but it ended up being a great bonding experience for the city and we all really enjoyed it in the end.
The Haunted Man will be released on October 23 via Capitol Records. Pre-order it here.