“I would have been one of those kids that lied to my stoner friends, like, ‘I didn’t go to the disco last night,’” says Lauren Ruth Ward, imagining herself living in her favorite era: the ’70s.
“I would’ve been fucking wearing platforms, cuttin’ a rug,” she continues, shoving a sweet potato fry into her mouth at an outdoor cafe in Los Feliz. In an ensemble of bell bottoms, a vintage “Wham-O Toys” tee and silver eyeliner dotted beneath her eyes, it’s easy to imagine her belonging to a time when Led Zeppelin reigned supreme.
Baltimore born and bred, Ward grew up living with her mom and her sister, periodically seeing her father and his family, whom she describes as “hardcore Christian.” After getting caught smoking and drinking at high school, Ward was expelled in her junior year. But this isn’t the troubled teen–turned-musician story you might expect that to lead into — in fact, the thought of a career in music had not yet even been planted in her mind.
“I was always able to be who I wanted to be. For the most part. You know, within reason,” she says. In fact, she describes her mother as the more hippie-dippie member of the family. “I’m very pragmatic, and she would call that cold and intense,” she says with a laugh.
After graduating from her second high school, Ward began working at a salon, Ooh La Lal, then started her own hairstyling business at 19, specializing in updos for weddings. Between appointments, which she booked out months in advance, Ward played music as a hobby, something she'd been doing since she was about 13. Her first songs inevitably took bits and pieces from the music of her childhood — The Beatles, The Carpenters, Frank Sinatra, her mom's disco compilations — but were most obviously influenced by her teenage favorites: Mirah, Elliott Smith and pretty much anything else that was "emotional, folky and dismal," she says.
One of her earliest attempts at putting her name and deliciously raspy vocals out into the world was with a cover of Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton’s “Just a Fool,” which she sang alongside popular YouTube musician Mike Squillante. Uploaded in December 2012, the video garnered more than 1 million views and got the attention of her now-former manager, Diane Copeland. Though at the time Ward wasn’t ready to leave her career in Maryland, she eventually made the move to Copeland’s city, Los Angeles, in early 2015.
“Energetically, it was definitely right for me,” she explains. “I had hit my ceiling at home.” As someone who measures her success by her potential to grow as a person, Ward was in need of a new landscape. “I saved up money and quit my job and, you know, broke up with 300 clients.”
Upon landing in L.A., it took Ward a minute to wrap her mind around the culture here, where casual shop talk between working musicians is an everyday occurrence. “My mama claws would come out when someone would be like, ‘Cool, what’s your project?’ And I’d just be like, ‘My project?! This is my fucking life! This is my name!'” With a slight grin, she adds, “I’ve calmed down just a little bit.”
The style of Ward's "project" is a blend of ’60s and ’70s rock with the acoustic, folksy emo she loved as a teen. Vocally and lyrically, she falls somewhere between Janis Joplin and Courtney Barnett, with a soulful voice that sounds like it's emanating from vintage vinyl and a brilliantly quirky storytelling style.
Her lyrics are empowering, especially to women, without being preachy. On tracks such as "Make Love to Myself," "Did I Offend You" and "I Feel Cool," the words underscore independence, sex positivity and self-love with both attitude and grace. Ward carries the aura of a classic rock star — bolstered by the no-frills, rough-around-the-edges instrumentation of her band — but there's something refreshingly original about her, too. She writes from the perspective of a young woman who is genuinely comfortable with and proud of who she is, despite being a square peg in a world of round holes.
Today, Ward balances working at Rudy’s Barbershop in Studio City — “as long as I have hands, I’ll do hair,” she says — with jam sessions with Billy Steinberg, the mind behind the lyrics to such iconic tracks as Madonna's “Like a Virgin” and Cyndi Lauper's “True Colors.”
Ward and her band have performed around town at the Echo, the Roxy and School Night at Bardot among others, but she's got a particular love affair with her favorite neighborhood bar, Harvard & Stone. She played a residency there last December and shot the video there for “Make Love to Myself,” which features Ward seducing and killing a woman who hits on her at the bar, before she meets eyes with her real-life girlfriend, indie-pop singer-songwriter LP.
“2016 was just about putting the pieces together, and right now I feel like we’re able to reap the fruits of our labor, while still working super hard,” Ward says. She is a well of appreciation for her bandmates, Eddie Rivera, Liv Slingerland and India Pascucci, she says have become her best friends and are integral to every aspect of the music, despite Ward’s name being on the project. “We’re at our comfy L.A. tier right now. I feel really, really, really good about it.”
With their album Well, Hell due in September, it’s likely Ward and company will soon grow out of their comfy L.A. tier. She promises the record will include tracks in the vein of fan favorite “Make Love to Myself,” as well as “Did I Offend You,” which she describes as the “heaven” of the album, and “Blue Collar Sex Kitten," which is its “hell.”
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At upcoming shows, Ward plans to share yet-to-be-released tracks such as “Sideways,” a song about being lost, whether “you’re derailed, or you just end up throwing the day away by drinking a bottle of rosé at Echo Park Lake,” she says.
Sounding a bit like a female Jim Morrison, she fires off some lyrics: “Smiling, dancing, make believing we were happy, but the prettier the picture, the bored-er the bitches. It was a Tuesday, and I was the lizard queen. Had on my cheap jeans and I was dreaming heavy, whole-heartedly about the things I wanna be and all the things I wasn’t. I know I need a budget. Got me a job and I’m playing real good, but all the planning didn’t go as it should. I was distracted by the people walking faster than me. I’m going sideways.”
Lauren Ruth Ward opens for LP at the El Rey Theatre on Monday, June 12. Tickets and more info.