Before singer-songwriter Lauren Ruth Ward moved to Los Angeles three years ago from Baltimore, she cut hair for a living. Dozens of clients a week, sometimes many more during wedding season. She was great at it, and could have maintained a comfortable living on the East Coast.
“It’s absolutely similar to singing, only I’m not using my hands as much,” she said. “It’s the same feeling onstage, it’s a really intimate relationship.”
But she always believed that, outside the stylist’s chair, she was a powerhouse vocalist with a bluesy rasp that naturally recalls Janis Joplin. As a lyricist, she’s both brash and vulnerable. When the siren song of L.A. proved too much to resist, she settled in quickly and joined a coterie of young women rockers cutting up the local rock scene into a new image.
Ward’s sound is at once very vintage and of-the-moment. Her voice is a throwback. In a time when almost all the edges are buffed off on laptops, she scampers between phrases and lets a guttural gasp make her point as often as a clean, high note.
But her writing style (along with her band, guitarist Eduardo Rivera, bassist Livia Slingerland and drummer India Pascucci) has developed into a crisp, post-punk sound with rootsy undertones that feels modern yet grounded.
“I really wanted to take myself seriously as a musician. It was overdue, but I had been afraid,” she said.
In the midst of an ongoing weekly residency at the Echo and a new album, “Well, Hell,” out Feb 9, this appears to be her turning point. Ward will also appear Feb. 4 at the Bootleg Theater as part of the weekend long Girlschool festival, and she’ll still probably cut your hair if you ask nicely.
Since moving to L.A., she’s barnstormed the local scene, usually playing somewhere around town almost every other week. In a relatively short period, she’s become one of L.A.’s must-see frontwomen, and one of the city’s most physical and volatile performers.
“A friend told me that when you move, the crowd moves, and when you stop, they stop. I hadn’t made that connection yet,” she said. “Once my fiancée [the pop singer LP] gave me a wireless microphone, I started running up and down the bartops.”
That sentiment comes off in her lyrics too, which are hard-nosed statements of identity and confusion, as well as addressing the weird loneliness and allure of L.A. life. Ward identifies as gay, but one of her first songs, “Blue Collar Sex Kitten,” immediately admits it’s all more complicated than that.
“I still feel it, the line about I’ve dated guys, ain’t a crime, won’t apologize for my tribe,’” she said. “We don’t need to define anything, and it feels really good to scream that onstage.”
That forthrightness and physicality can bring out the best and worst in crowds. Often, it makes for a great rowdy set, but sometimes more entitled male fans can see it as something else.
“One night we went to [a rock bar in Hollywood] and all the bros were out in full force,” she said. “One of them was belligerently hitting on me. He had that thinking where I was just there for his entertainment.”
She went home and wrote “Make Love to Myself,” which became one of her staples. “That song was me giving him the middle finger.”
Still, though, in the ongoing conversation about sexual harassment in entertainment, she considers herself lucky, maybe due to her absolute refusal to take guff from anybody.
“Even thought I haven’t been in the business that long, I haven’t been torn down like so many people,” she said. “I’m kind of in my own bubble, almost like a privileged straight white man in some respects. But groups like Play Like A Girl [ the women’s-advocacy music promotion firm] absolutely need to exist.”
And at this point in her rising career, she expects and demands that treatment from everyone. Ward said she once had a close male friend in a known band who “equated his own failure to get ahead with the female-driven movement in the scene.
“I could see how cynical that was,” she continued. So she took him aside and ultimately set him right. And then she added, “When you get angry, you get loud. Of course, women are working way harder now.”
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Lauren Ruth Ward
When: Jan. 22 and Jan. 29, 8:30 p.m.
Where: The Echo, 1822 Sunset Blvd.