Raised in Spokane as the daughter of a bluegrass singer, Kristen Ward has always been surrounded by music.
Now living in Seattle, the 26-year-old musician is preparing to release her third album, My Last Night on Division, with the help of a crew of talented musicians.
As of late October, Ward said she had written most of the songs and was deep in the pre-production phase. The album’s release is scheduled for this spring.
“My Last Night on Division is a band record,” said Ward. “For my last two records, I hired studio musicians for a lot of the basic tracking. I had struggled to find my core group of guys, but now I got ‘em. And so the vibe is more relaxed and cohesive. I think the songs are a bit more rocking, more edgy, more guitar-based than previous albums.
“We are playing around with some different feels. Sometimes our tones are straight out of the ’80s. Other times, we find ourselves in a riff-driven ‘what would Zeppelin do’ moment. But, it’s always fun, and we laugh a lot. Things are evolving. The country thing still comes forward from time to time, but overall, the music is transitioning away from traditional Americana.”
Inspired by singers such as Neil Young and Lucinda Williams, Ward’s lyrics generally have a folk-rock feel, along with invented storylines and adherence to other people’s perspectives.
“Songs usually just come to me,” she said. “I often times write at the kitchen table. I write alone and become easily distracted. I do have a bank of ideas turning around in my head 24 hours a day. And when the time is right and the stars align, a good song will come. My favorite songs I write in under 30 minutes. I write mostly about my life and my truths, but I also enjoy putting myself in the shoes of another person, who I might identify with on a level.
“I have done this in ‘Little Gun’ and ‘Shoot Me Down.’ Both songs are dark and touch on issues of depression, desperation, feelings of being lost and out of control and even homicidal tendencies,” she said.
In addition to her musical talents, Ward also uses her creativity to find ways to support her music financially. She has found a way to have her fans financially support her music even before selling her CDs.
“I started a deal online where fans could download my first album Roll Me On in exchange for an email address, which I would add to my mailing list,” she explained. “I used this as a way to develop a fan base, etc. When it was time to record my second album, I found myself with (1) no money, and (2) a shit-ton of email addresses. I decided to try and make the best of things, and so I went to my newly acquired fan base. I just put it out there. I told them what I was doing, and I told them they could be part of it. I flat out asked for money, and you know what? They gave it to me! I raised enough to make Drive Away.”
She did the same thing for her upcoming album My Last Night on Division, but due to the economy and other things, Ward had to find other ways to make money. She did this by selling records, art, and hand-drawn posters, and of course, playing lots of shows.
“The painting is something that came to me around the same time I decided to do music professionally,” she said. “Painting, like singing, was something I had no training in, but I had always wanted to do, and so I just started. I have had two solo art shows, which have been a lot of fun for me. Visual art is a wonderful outlet. It’s very meditative, and it challenges a different part of my brain. These days, I do a lot of hand-drawn posters, which I sell at my shows and online. I also plan on doing something with my album covers at some point.”
Ward’s artistic ambitions are no doubt inspired by her mom, Julie Neuffer. As a kid, Kristen loved to sing, but her mom refused to let her get voice lessons because it would change her style. She encouraged Kristen to let her voice develop on its own, resulting in the unique voice she has today.
“My mom is an amazing lady, and for much of my childhood, she pursued a musical path,” Kristen said. “She wrote and sang country/bluegrass and put out an album titled Brand New Pearl when I was 14 years old. She had a great band and so much talent. As kids, we grew up singing with her. She played a beautiful Guild guitar and would teach me and my brother all kinds of old folk songs which we would sing each night before bed. My mom later went on to get her PhD and is now a history professor. Outside of the obvious musical influences, what inspires me the most about her is that she really lives her life. She isn’t governed by fear, and she really does what she wants with herself.
“I believe being an artist is just as much about how you live as it is about the art you actually make….living can be an art form. My mom is the real deal and an incredible inspiration to my life and music,” Ward said.
Despite her love for music growing up, Kristen wasn’t always sure that she would pursue music as an adult. When she was 21, she was working in France as a cook when she decided to make the change. She quit her job, put a band together, and has been doing music ever since.
Gary Westlake is one of the many people who thinks that Ward made a good decision. Westlake is a long-time guitar player, and he currently plays for Ward. This partnership between Westlake and Ward had an unique beginning.
“OK, this is the God’s honest truth, it sounds like a line, but I was at a club here in Seattle playing a Bob Dylan tribute night,” Westlake said. “I was sitting backstage being all jaded with all these other jaded people when we heard somebody singing ‘Just Like a Woman.’ I remember looking at one of my most jaded friends, and we were both like, ‘Who the fuck is that?!!’ I rushed out to see who it was, and there was Kristen; I think it may have been the third or fourth show she’d ever done.
“I was totally blown away by her! Right after she’d finished, she was standing backstage, and I stepped (maybe it was a stagger?) backwards and stood on her foot. That is how we met. I was in her band two months later and have been there ever since.”
As Westlake explained, when he and Ward play live together, they have a connection where they seem to know where the other is going without communicating. “It happened at the third gig we did together; I can remember the moment as clear as day,” he said. “I went up to her after the gig and told her she was my musical soul mate.
“I’ve been around a while, I’ve played with a lot of people, done a lot of sessions, toured all over, met many, many people through my work, recorded with Jim Carroll, Pearl Jam, hell, I’ve even won a freakin’ Grammy recording with Peter Frampton. The artist with the most potential I’ve ever worked with is Kristen. She has that quality of greatness that you can’t force or fake. She is truly the most talented person I know.”