Our whole lives, we’re told by parents and teachers and pop songs to follow our dreams, yet it seems rare to find someone who actually does, who heeds the haunting call wholeheartedly, brimming with guts and grit and boundless determination, who stares down the throat of fear and failure and forges ahead anyway, no matter the obstacle, because pure and authentic passion outweighs everything else in life. Most people end up too scared to listen to the tiny voice in the back of their head beating like a second heartbeat, the one that whispers, “Go,” and endlessly echoes, “You can do it,” but let’s get one thing straight: Lauren Ruth Ward is not most people.
The raspy-throated and rebellious singer-songwriter, who has set the LA music scene ablaze with with her bold and uninhibited lyrics and wildly energetic live performances, has one hell of an inspirational origin story, which she told me over coffee and juice in Silver Lake two days before embarking on her first headlining tour to promote her recently released debut album, a sharp and soulful gem entitled Well Hell.
The first thing I noticed about Ward is her hair, long and feathery with vivid rainbow striped bangs, which is ironic considering that until about three years ago, she was a full-time hairdresser. Born and raised in a working class suburb of Baltimore, she found herself 25 years old with an outwardly idyllic life: a lucrative career cutting hair for over 300 loyal clients, a loving husband, and a beautiful house near her family. Yet she was unable to settle fully into domestic bliss, unable to silence the voice in the back of her head, the one telling her to follow her long-burning dreams of music and performing and rock and roll. So she did, taking a fearless leap of faith that would be unfathomable for many, and redrawing the parameters of her perfect life. She got a divorce and moved across the country to Los Angeles, where she came out as queer and pursued a music career with a feverish and inexhaustible determination, promoting herself by playing a show a week for nearly two years.
So far, her rewritten story has a happy ending. Armed with powerful vocals that recall the bluesy grit of Janis Joplin and happily engaged to fellow singer-songwriter LP, Ward is an emphatic example of the importance of living your truth. “Don’t give up until you find a more effortless happiness,” she says halfway through our interview, anchoring her eyes urgently on mine as her tone turns serious. Radiating warmth in a psychedelic vintage jumpsuit, her exuberant energy is infectious: she talks fast and laughs often as she speaks candidly about everything from her sexuality to her songwriting process to how much she enjoys writing captions for her dog’s Instagram. Charismatic and naturally curious, she often turns my questions right back around on me. We chat about her creative process, the enduring importance of checking in with yourself, and the reason she loves wearing “groovy drug clothing.”
Live FAST Mag: You just released your first album, which is a pretty big transformation from working as a hairstylist in Baltimore. Walk us through how you got here – what inspired you to move to LA and get involved in the music industry?
Lauren Ruth Ward: Step one is you need to have a conversation with yourself. What do I want the next couple of years to look like? I had a really great life in Baltimore, but I was feeling very complacent. I was making great money, the partner that I had loved me, our home was beautiful, it was close to my family, so on and so forth. But you just have that itch that you’ve got to scratch, and for me that was pursuing music. I had done it in little tiny pockets here and there, but it wouldn’t really go anywhere and I would get sucked back into this lucrative hobby that I enjoyed, which was doing hair. I still do it – as long as I have hands I’ll do hair. I was 25 when I made the decision to move out here. That’s a pivotal age. You’re like, “Oh my god, I’m 25, what am I doing?” Total quarter life crisis.
LF: There’s definitely an existential crisis attached to that age. You’re looking for stability but you also still have that restlessness.
LRW: Definitely. My sexuality, my career choices, and my life choices were very influenced by living in Maryland in a suburb. I was always pretty good at being straight, but there was always this thing that was missing. I had tried out for The Voice in 2012 and I made it to the blind auditions, which is like 45,000 people. You do this blind audition camp and you’re sequestered at the Burbank Marriott for a week. I didn’t make it on the show and it wasn’t really my thing, but that was my introduction to California.
LF: That’s wild. So how did you end up moving out here?
LRW: I was like, “That was fun. What do I do next?” I knew I needed a change but what really put my wheels into motion was my first manager, who reached out to me after I recorded a cover with my buddy and it got a million views on YouTube. She was a great advocate and cheerleader, all those things that you need to help believe in yourself. She brought me out here. At the time I was thinking of very short term goals. I was just like, “Let me put out an EP so I have something to hand out at shows.” Everything since then has been very organic. I was super social – going out every night and finding my next gig, promoting myself just by being me. I’m the exact same person I was in Maryland. I’m just doing music instead of hair. I feel the exact same, except I’ve reached my happy curve. I’m just riding it. Tomorrow’s not promised. I have short term goals. Long term goals are not great for me because sometimes I hold too much preciousness surrounding them. Things change way too much and too quickly.
LF: Definitely. LA is the kind of creative environment that allows a freedom that is maybe not available everywhere else. It feels like you can edit your goals more easily here. Do you feel like that mindset was influenced by moving to LA?
LRW: Edit your goals! That’s good. It one hundred percent was. First of all, I only had three friends out here and one of them is queer and she brought me to all these gay clubs and I was like, “Oh my god, there are lesbians like me!” I had four lesbian friends in Maryland and they were like the only four lesbians in all of Maryland. Not really, but that’s how it felt. I needed to see the diversity of my tribe. I was like, “This is actually where I’m supposed to be, this is where I can wear whatever I want and no one gives a shit!” I actually feel uncomfortable wearing what everyone else is wearing, but in Maryland, it was always interpreted as, “Oh, she wants attention.” It was never, “She’s an artist, she’s happy.” It’s the tale as old as time: being gay in places where it’s not a great idea to show you’re gay. Why should I feel uncomfortable in order to make you happy? Your happiness is just a judgment. I didn’t realize there were places where I didn’t have to carry other people’s emotions. I’m a happy fucking person and I’d be like, “Why am I so sad all the time?” It was because I wasn’t living my goddamn truth.
LF: I remember when I first moved here, someone told me that the cool thing about LA is that no one cares what you do because they’re focused on themselves, which is kind of freeing, in a way. What was your experience getting involved in the music scene?
LRW: I was going to shows immediately – I couldn’t wait. The music scene here is so abundant. People here have aspirations, they’re not just jamming. I’m so inspired by everyone’s drive to want something more than what they have. That is something that a lot of people just don’t have. They’re just like, “Yup, been here for 17 years.” I’m like, “C’mon! Let’s want more!” If you want more, you come here. And if you work hard and you have a naturalness to the talent you’re working with, you make it. I played a show a week from April of 2015 to October of 2017.
LF: Wow. I’m so impressed by the level of energy you consistently bring to your live shows. It seems like you’re a natural performer.
LRW: I love to dance. There are not a lot of people who really leave their heart on the stage. I don’t think it’s the only way to perform but I do like showmanship. I respect it. I think it’s important even on a small scale.
LF: Your music is interesting because it merges so many genres in this fluid way. There’s a lot of 70’s psychedelic sound in it, mixed with folk and blues and a little country. What are the influences behind that sound?
LRW: They’re all over the place. A big thing is that I find players that are like family members who just get it. My guitarist Eddie [Rivera] and I write songs together and he plays the way I would in my mind. The most micromanaging I’ve ever done with my band was when I told my drummer to please play more cow bell, because I love the sound. I’m serious.
LF: That’s amazing. Tell me about your debut album, Well Hell. What was your creative process?
LRW: I’m really guitar driven. I have an idea and I have a feeling, but I don’t really focus on those things because they’re always there. Guitar is something that doesn’t come to me as second nature. Usually I’ll think of something on the guitar, which will remind me of something that I want to get off my chest. It’s really nice writing with a guitarist that can take me there and just gets my wheels turning. Eddie’s so patient and I truly trusted him right off the bat. Lyrics always come from a feeling. I keep notes in my phone. If I’m out at a show and I hear somebody say something I try to write down the context and give myself a train of thought to tap back into.
LF: Your lyrics are deeply personal and unfiltered. Is it ever difficult to dig that deep?
LRW: No. I mean, I’ll crack myself up and Eddie will be like, “What did you just write?” And I’m like, “I can’t say that…” It’s hard to sing in front of my parents sometimes. My parents are awesome but they aren’t artists, so they don’t exercise the access to that capability to compartmentalize that I am their daughter and I’m also an artist.
LF: Do you have a favorite song from the album?
LRW: I do and I have a why. “Staff Only,” because I really love playing that one live. I feel like it’s 1968 when I’m playing it. When my band starts to come in with the three part harmony, I really feel like I’m going to fly away, like I’m going to fly over all the people and give them power. (laughs)
LF: Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised. When did you first start playing music?
LRW: I asked my mom for a guitar when I was ten years old. She had my sister and I in tap and jazz and ballet and we did cheerleading. I was always short and loud so they always put me in the front, so I guess the love of preforming is both nature and nurture. I asked for a guitar Christmas of 1998 but I didn’t really start playing it until I was 13. I started by writing songs. I have a whole songbook from when I was 15 and it’s either like, “I fucking hate you!” or “I fucking love you!” (laughs) I’ve been able to make them a bit more cryptic these days.
LF: You’re about to embark on your first headlining tour. How are you feeling?
LRW: I’m pretty stoked on the whole thing. It’s a lot of days of performing in a row, but I’m really disciplined. I love smoking weed, but I don’t when I’m on tour because it will take away the high end of my register when I’m using my voice that much. So no smoking weed, only one drink, and I just don’t talk at all. That’s the only thing that’s tough, but I’ve done it before. I have two chokers that I embroidered that say “vocal rest” on them. One is colorful and one is denim, so they match my outfits.
LF: I want one! I know you’ve spoken a lot about finding your tribe and finding a supportive queer community here in LA. Do you have any advice for someone looking to find a similar sense of self-acceptance and community?
LRW: Just check in with yourself and check in with your surroundings. You have to be very, very honest: is it me? Is it my surroundings? Is it a combination of the two? Don’t give up until you find a more effortless happiness. Life is going to be hard no matter where you are, but it shouldn’t be hard in the way of feeling comfortable and finding people that support you. Are you supportable? Or are you a self-sabotaging person? Just check in with yourself if you’re not feeling right. I was married to 300 people as a hairstylist with a full client list. When I told them I was moving to California to try to pursue music, a good third of them were like, “Well, who’s going to do my hair?” Joking but serious. At the end of the day, you have to boundary and you have to put yourself first.
LF: Speaking of marriage, you are recently engaged – congrats! How is it being engaged to another musician?
LRW: Dating another musician works for me. Actually, maybe just dating LP works for me. We have a lot in common but our voices are totally different so there’s no competition. She knows way more about the industry than I do. She’s a Pisces and I’m a Scorpio. I’m new to this and I think that’s important too because it’s important for me to be able to learn something from and look up to my lover. I like to learn.
LF: Let’s talk about your style, because you always come correct and seem like you have fun with it. How would you describe it?
LRW: I have to be colorful. I would describe it as sentimental and a lover of the 60’s and 70’s. A little 50’s thrown in there, too. I also love the construction and silhouettes of the 1800’s. Mostly, I love groovy drug clothing. You don’t even have to do the drug, you can just wear the clothing. I love drugs but I also love getting things done, so instead I’m getting things done in my drug jumper. (laughs) Also a big part of what I wear is inspired by minimizing my carbon footprint. Fashion can be so wasteful – it makes me nauseas.
LF:It’s so true. We should all be wearing vintage. What advice would you give to your younger self?
LRW: It’s going to be ok. Right? What advice would you give to your younger self?
LF: Oh man, I love this question but no one’s ever turned it back on me before. I would tell my younger self to get out of her own way and stop overthinking everything. Just move to LA already. What is your favorite thing about LA?
LRW: I’m going to say the weather, because it allows me to do all of my things. You hibernate half the year on the east coast. Compared to there, I live two years in one year here. Seasonal depression is a real thing. People take it for granted here. There are days where there’s a funk or a retrograde or a loss in the community and I can pull my shit together just knowing that we have the sun and the sun is so inspiring. LA is like taking my vitamins. I take my vitamins so I can do my work.
I was able to pay rent these past 8 months because I started doing a salon in my backyard in September. October to February, you don’t really go outside on the east coast. That whole time I was cutting hair between three Clementine trees in my backyard.
LF: Who or what inspires you?
LRW: I love this artist named Vali Myers. She’s my favorite. I’ve been her for Halloween a couple of times. I love the memoir written by her last lover. She was such an all-encompassing artist and dancer and painter. I love her way of ignoring the world around her and just focusing on being a good person and making herself happy because then you’re just a positive vibration in the world. Also Peter Max, who was a designer in the late 60’s and early 70’s. He’s incredible, so psychedelic. He did the cover for Yellow Submarine.
LF: How fast do you live?
LRW: I live very, very, very fast. I drive fast. Emotionally, I live medium and it’s a lot of work to keep me there because I generally move too fast. I like to do everything immediately and live two to three years in one year. It’s possible if you’re living your most authentic life.