Ward, now 34, began playing drums as a young child, inspired by his dad, also a drummer. He later learned guitar and wrote songs as a teenager. He formed a Christian acoustic rock band Room 222 at age 17 that was almost signed by a label, but they broke up. (He said he takes a lot of the blame there.)
After a break from music, he joined a hardcore Christian rock band, Sent By Ravens, then segued into doing music at churches.
His family convinced him to try out for “The Voice” in 2019. Just before the audition, his mom was diagnosed with an aggressive form of stage 4 cancer.
That was weighing on his mind when he auditioned, picking Kaleo’s “Way Down We Go.” It didn’t quite work for the coaches, and he left empty-handed.
This time, he chose Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” a song packed with longing and sadness. He sang the first two lines:
Somebody said you got a new friend
Does she love you better than I can?
He said he focused on not letting his nerves get to him this time and to “feel the words. I’m huge on not just performing. You can be a great performer, but there is still something missing. Those last words of those two lines, I remember those needed to feel painful and exhausted. You can almost hear my breath. The heartbreak. That’s what I wanted to come across.”
It worked. The way his voice broke with the words “I can” impacted both Legend and Clarkson, who both pressed their red buttons almost at the same time. Clarkson uttered, “I’m in!”
Ward said he “blacked out” after the chairs turned and doesn’t even recall the rest of his performance: “I had to ask someone, ‘Did I even finish the song?’”
Clarkson, after his performance, said, “I love a passionate performer, and that you are, my friend.”
Ward said in the interview that he picked the Robyn song (which was a huge dance hit in 2010) because he felt it was “more true to me as an artist. I’m an emotional guy. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I want to not just love people well, but I want them to know they are loved. The Kaleo song didn’t come across with who I am.”
Clarkson asked him his artistic inspirations, and he mentioned James Arthur and Damian Rice. She name-dropped a Rice album she loved. “I’m looking for someone to move me. A lot of people can sing, but not a lot of people can move me,” she said. “I want to be your coach.”
Legend, pitching himself to be Ward’s coach as well, said Ward gave the Robyn song a whole new meaning and wanted to help the singer “follow your heart and be the best artist you can be.”
Ward said he had gone in favoring Clarkson but Legend’s words momentarily swayed him.
“The thing that brought me back to Kelly was as I was talking to John, looking across the rest of the coaches, I could see out of the corner of my eye, I could feel her looking deep into my soul with just this curiosity of who I was. It was almost as if I could read her saying, ‘I want to know who you are and walk this journey with you.’ She never took her eyes off of me. When I noticed that, I went with my gut.”
He was a teenager when Clarkson on “American Idol” more than 18 years ago and has been impressed with her career to date.
“She’s always growing and learning and adapting with the music industry and TV,” he said. “She’s always willing to grow and help others. That says something about her character. Not only is she a hard worker, but she cares. She’s genuine. She is such a sweet, smart, wonderful person. Why wouldn’t you want to work with her?”
Whether Ward goes further or not, “The Voice” has inspired him to go back to writing and recording more music and performing outside the church once the pandemic is over.
And he is thrilled to have his mom alive and well. She recovered from stage 4 cancer and is now in remission.
“It was a miracle,” he said. “Having her experience this with me is amazing.”
WHERE TO WATCH
“The Voice,” Mondays at 8 p.m. on NBC and on Peacock and Hulu the next day