Lauren Ruth Ward attacks every show as though it might be her last. But on a February night at Girlschool, an all-female music festival held at LA’s Bootleg Theater, she’s really going for it. Her blue-and-red streaked hair flies as she chants, “Oh, be my friend or hate my guts / It doesn’t matter, we’re all fucked,” from the song “Blue Collar Sex Kitten.”
Lyrics tumble out of Ward’s mouth faster than her song’s often breakneck tempos, as if she’s daring them to keep up—stories, riddles and insights from a queer singer-songwriter grappling with her message, her sexuality and her outsized ambitions, all delivered in a sandpaper voice that can swoop from a Grace Slick warble to a Janis Joplin growl.
“I am old soul AF,” she jokes over a glass of wine a few weeks after the show, looking 70s stylish in a red beret and tan jumpsuit. Ward, who’s playing Noisey’s Emerge Impact + Music fest April 6-8, has been experimenting with inserting “AF” into conversation lately. She just picked it up from her drummer, India Pascucci, whom she calls “my millen,” as in, “millennial.”
“She keeps me in the loop,” Ward explains. At 29, Ward is, of course, a millennial, too, though she’ll say otherwise. “Yeah, but I’m “fuckin’ not,” she insists, cheerfully. “I was raised in a small town by Baby Boomers.”
Maybe it’s that small-town upbringing, in a working-class suburb of Baltimore, that makes Ward and her music feel so fresh in spite of its nostalgic roots. Though she’s been performing around LA since 2015, her songs, which strap the heavy riffs of 70s rock to a lighter chassis, don’t really resemble what anyone else is doing right now. Her latest single, “Blue Collar Sex Kitten,” is a good example, with guitars that slam in and out of the mix and a psychedelic, Doors-like bridge that helps explain why, on another song, Ward calls herself the Lizard Queen—a sly feminist flip of the infamous Jim Morrison lyric, “I am the Lizard King / I can do anything.”
“Blue Collar” isn’t just part of a memorable song title; Ward brings a scrappy work ethic to everything she does that puts most other LA bands to shame. After our interview, she texted me a list she’s kept of every show she’s played since mid-2015—133 gigs and counting. She’s been hustling since she got her first part-time job at age 13, working at a movie theater and later a Marshalls department store, “paying for my own yearbooks and lunch money and clothes” when her single mom struggled to make ends meet.
After high school, she cut hair for a living, quickly working her way up to high-end salons and wedding gigs that paid, as she puts it, a “shit-ton of money.” She also played guitar and wrote songs and occasionally sang at parties, but never considered a career in music—until, on a whim, she auditioned for The Voice in 2012.
“This was very spontaneous me, just wanting to do something fun,” she remembers. The auditions were in New York, so she got a hotel room and “conned two of my friends and my boyfriend at the time into coming, like, ‘It’s gonna be fun! If I don’t make it, we’ll fuckin’ party. If I make it, we’ll party harder.’”
She did make it — almost. She was one of 147 finalists, out of 45,000 singers who auditioned, who were flown out to Los Angeles to appear before the show’s celebrity panel of judges. Once there, she was cut in the first round, and her final audition never aired. “But if I get famous one day,” she says now with a wry smile, “you know NBC is gonna fuckin’ air that shit.”
Even though the whole Voice experience left her a little dazed — especially auditioning for one of her childhood idols, Christina Aguilera, with a version of “Genie in a Bottle” that the show’s producers insisted she perform in a “super rock ’n’ roll version” that she hated — Ward came back from it feeling more determined than defeated, and more confident in her abilities as a singer. She started making YouTube singing videos and, on the basis of those, got herself a manager. Three years later, at 26, she broke up with her salon clients and moved to LA permanently, to chase a music career on her own terms. “My mind is, there’s more than one way to do it,” she says. “[The Voice] was just one experience that had to do with music.”
She had only a few friends in the city and no job. For the first time in her life, she gave herself permission to drift. “I am going to drink at noon,” she says she told herself. “And cry if I want to. And put my makeup on for nothing.”
“I dated Los Angeles,” she says, sipping her wine. For a moment, she sounds like she’s working out the lyrics to a new song. “She was my girlfriend. I gave myself to her. I devoted myself to figuring her out.”
The new city, she found, offered a blank canvas on which she could redraw the parameters of her life, including her sexuality. “I have never been good at being straight,” she says. “I had never been opposed to dating a woman … I was just so immersed into this hetero life,” she says of small-town Maryland, where she had no gay friends or other points of entry to queer culture.
In LA, however, she started going to LGBTQ clubs and immediately felt she had found her tribe.
Today she’s engaged to LP, a fellow female singer-songwriter she began dating in July of 2015. “She’s crazy and great and awesome,” Ward says of her fiancée, who’s written hit songs for Rita Ora and Rihanna. She also taught Ward some protips for surviving life on tour, like using a face steamer to preserve her naturally raspy voice.
Ward still openly sings about her past relationships with men; a line from “Blue Collar Sex Kitten” goes, “I’m a dyke, dated guys, won’t apologize for my tribe.” It’s a pointed lyric, aimed at some in the LGBTQ community who Ward feels try to unfairly “discredit my gayness” because she’s so open about her hetero past.
“I’m bisexual in the sense that I would never disclaim the amazing relationships that taught me who I am and how to love [but] happened to be with males,” she says. As for her current queer identity, “Why can’t I start right now? A lot of people come out late in life.” On another song, “Sideways,” she sings, “I’m okay with being a late bloomer.”
Like a first novel, Well Hell is full of these kinds of identity declarations. “I am a good woman,” Ward croons the album’s opening lyric on “Staff Only,” fighting off the self-critique of the verse that follows: “I was a bad daughter, left my mama high and dry.” (Ward admits that her relationship with her mother is complicated, but declines to say much more: “What I’m willing to let the world know about my mom and I is that my mother has loved me unconditionally. She’s a free spirit.”) On “Make Love to Myself” — which, despite its name, is about a deeper kind of self-love — she brushes off some overly aggressive dude with the old soul AF assertion, “I’m the real McCoy; you’re just a broken toy.” It’s the sound of a young artist getting to know herself, finding the power of her voice — a product of those early, often solitary months in Los Angeles, which she describes as a kind of belated childhood. “I needed to make that my conversation with myself,” she says.
Ward’s band has been together since August of 2016; live, they are a tightly wound unit, with drummer Pascucci and bassist Livia Slingerland giving each song an arena-worthy stomp over which guitarist Eduardo Rivera nimbly toggles between ragged power chords and clean, melodic leads. “Our live set is just bangers,” Ward says proudly, and she’s not wrong.
Rivera, whom she’s known since her Baltimore days from his D.C.-based band Paperhaus, was the first piece of her band puzzle. Their chemistry clicked and he became her co-writer, even though their tastes diverged pretty drastically. “She has an extensive knowledge of Led Zeppelin, but I could only name two Zeppelin songs,” says Rivera, who grew up more influenced by krautrock and post-punk bands like Can and Television. They found a common vocabulary in Well Hell’s mix of aggressive guitars, pop hooks and traces of psychedelia.
“Growing up in DC, you’re constantly bombarded with Fugazi references. I never wrote that way, but there was some visceral element Lauren and I were both exploring when we wrote songs for Well Hell,” Rivera says. “I think we both had a lot of things we needed to get off our chests.”
At the band’s Girlschool performance, Ward howls a line from her new album’s title track: “I didn’t mean to make your head spin — I have a lot to say!” Like every track on Well Hell, the song’s lyrics are deeply personal to the point of being cryptic. But in the room full of women at Girlschool, the line jumps out like a rallying cry, which is not lost on Ward.
“Girls know that they can step up to the plate now,” Ward says of women’s growing momentum in her surrounding scene—and her place within it. “[And] we’re gonna be more interesting [than the male acts], because we’ve got a message, because we’ve been angry.”
This story was originally published by Noisey, co-presenter of Emerge Impact + Music along with A Beautiful Perspective.
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