In 2011, Diane Ward was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, the Hollywood-based singer/songwriter, four albums deep with decades of musical experience, had already begun production on her latest release, Beautiful Ways.
Both her parents are cancer survivors, so when she heard the news, she says that though it was intense, "It's always been in my mind. It's always been a part of my life."
Luckily, the album provided her with, well, a beautiful way to cope. "Everyone has a different process of how they go through it, what they do and how they are with it," she explains. "Mine was that I was able to dive into this music project with the support of my closest friends and my family. I used it as a vehicle to get through the treatment -- the chemo, the radiation."
And though the songs were written beforehand, she asserts that the emotionality of performances and the production of the album reflect her experience with breast cancer.
Ward is now three years cancer-free. "Coming out on the other side of that, there was a lot of reflection. I feel very grateful for the people in my life and [you see] that your life has meaning; it has purpose." It was a transformative experience for the musician. "I don't even really know how to describe it," she says. "From a performing standpoint and from a writing standpoint too, there's an openness to it. That happens; that happened to me. When there's openness, there's a flow."
After years of doing pared-down acoustic sets, she began performing again with a full band. Her main stomping ground is North Miami's Luna Star Cafe.
"I'm pretty well set in the band department," Ward says proudly. She's a part of a huge web of dedicated local musicians. "A lot of my friends down here are pretty awesome," she says, calling her band in particular "a who's who of South Florida's finest."
To begin with, she's been working for 20 years with her musical partner, Jack Shawde. He's toured with Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Richie Havens, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and others. Also in Ward's troupe is bassist (and a composer in her own right) Debbie Duke; there's University of Miami jazz professor and drummer John Yarling, Bob Taylor on keys, and Jack Ciano, also on drums.
"They are ridiculously great and completely take things to the next level. The response so far at our live shows has been electrifying, and I'm really excited and looking forward to sharing them with the world," Ward assures.
Born and raised in South Florida, Ward is a permanent fixture in the area. "My whole family is down here. I have a lot of deep roots down here. I've never ventured to live anywhere else. Thought about it. But I've stayed down here."
And for the singer, there's no need to leave. "We've been able to be successful taking the music outside of South Florida. So it's really worked out for me."
Beautiful Ways so far was self-released locally and will be promoted nationally starting mid-October. So when Ward goes on tour with the band in November, she'll be playing songs off this album but also promoting a few songs blowing up on big and little screens.
Two tunes off her previous album, The Great Impossible, ended up in indie film Calloused Hands, featuring The Wire's Andre Royo. Wonderlight, another of Ward's creations, includes two singles -- "Trampoline Hero" and "Unloving Game" -- that gained a bunch of traction on SiriusXM Radio's the OutQ Channel.
Earlier this year, Ward came together to work with a large group of old friends on a project known as Hearing Damage: The Rat Opera, written by other local legends the Holy Terrors' Rob Elba and Brian Franklin -- a personal favorite songwriter of Ward's. It musically tells the tale of another musical stalwart, Rat Bastard. Ward praised this unique experience.
She feels fortunate to have been "embraced and supported" by other local musicians over the years. "I've always felt that people have appreciated what I do. As a community, there's a ton -- and I'm talking a ton -- of talented people down here that are doing fantastic things... South Florida tends to feel a little isolated from the world when it comes to music or people being creative, but as a community, we have each other. We do it anyway. That's kind of been our philosophy all these years, and it sustains us.
"It's been a terrific ride," she concludes, "and I'm looking to much more in years to come."
Sing for Hope, songwriter benefit for St. Jude's Children's Hospital featuring Dan Bonebreak, Diane Ward, Rob Elba, Jim Wurster, Amy Baxter, and others, 9 p.m. Saturday, September 6, at American Rock Bar and Grill, 1600 E. Hillsboro Blvd., Deerfield Beach. Visit americanrockbar.com.
Diane Ward Band, 9 p.m. Saturday, September 20, at Luna Star Cafe, 775 NE 125 St., North Miami. Call 305-799-7123.
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