M. Ward: Musical Anachronism

Music Features M. Ward
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A Wasteland Companion, M. Ward’s seventh solo album, has been stewing for nearly three years, recorded in extremely piecemeal fashion (“one week here, a couple months off, two weeks here, a few months off”) at over eight recording studios across the United States (in Portland, Omaha, Austin, New York City and Los Angeles) and Bristol, England. But as recently as last September, the busy troubadour still had no idea what it was going to sound like. He’d just seen his original song with She & Him (his collaborative project with twang-voiced cutie Zooey Deschanel) appear in an updated version of Winnie the Pooh, and the duo’s well-received holiday album, A Very She & Him Christmas was already in the can. After three years of writing and collaborating at an exhausting rate, touring across the world where most human beings would take a second to catch their breath, M. Ward’s flux is one of sonic identity.

“The goal [of the songwriting process] is just to get the song to where it wants to go,” Ward says. “And that’s just a process of listening to the demo over and over again and trying to figure out what or who the inspiration for the song was and doing everything you can to get out of the way of where the song wants to go. It’s a confusing thing to try to explain about how you know if a song is finished or not. It just tells you, I guess.”

The resulting tracks are as disparate and finely produced as anything in his expansive songbook, with his trademark fragile folk ditties rubbing elbows with sugary, ’50s-styled soul-pop and dreamy borderline-psychedelia. Without a doubt, it’s his most “cinematic” collection. Though Ward has by no means ever been a one-track songwriter, his previous albums tended to capture and elaborate on one consistent mood (typically with his ash-coated tenor sauntering over fingerpicked acoustics that could have been piped in from an old Dylan LP). His acclaimed 2009 effort, Post-War, was a slight expansion of his trademark sonic palette, but it’s more than clear that his high-profile musical collaborations have rubbed off: The sole Monsters of Folk album from 2009 (including the talents of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and My Morning Jacket’s Yim Yames) blended Ward’s lonesome folk and perky rockabilly with hypnotic trip-hop (“Dear God”) and scorching Southern rock (“Losin’ Yo Head”), among other stylistic shifts. And, working opposite the trend-setting Deschanel in She & Him, Ward finally found an outlet for his prettier side, dressing up his partner’s voice in bold rays of reverb and setting it atop a bouncy bed of indie-leaning country-pop. All of these new sounds, in some shape or form, pop up on A Wasteland Companion, an album far more immediate (and much less grim) than its title suggests.

He’d been listening to a lot of old Harry Nilsson records (whom Ward now cites as “one of the best” singers in pop history) and, as always, spending hours upon hours experimenting with the guitar—on which all of his melodies, instrumental or vocal, are originally composed. But, by and large, that’s how all of his records have been written—kinda just how you’d imagine based on the nostalgic charm of his homespun tunes: sitting around by himself in his Portland studio, picking quietly to himself until inspiration strikes. For Wasteland, Ward aimed to shake up his methods.

“Pretty much all of the records I’ve made have been made in Portland and a little bit in Los Angeles,” says now. He’s just arrived home following a European publicity jaunt, one which appears to have been fairly grueling, judging from his deep sighs and painfully slow exhales. But even when he’s in a perky mood, Ward still speaks much like he sings—in hushed waves of smoke, deliberately choosing his words between long pauses and mild stammers. “But I wanted to take myself out of that comfort zone. I had the idea to make a record that combined a live record with a studio record. And the way that I was able to do that was to go to different studios all over the place. And it meant getting the opportunity to get to work with a lot of musicians I really admire and had wanted to work with for some time.”

It’s hard to get Ward riled up about much. Even when pressed about what it was like teaming up with such a wide array of gifted musicians (not mentioning its eight total engineers, guest performers include Deschanel, Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Dr. Dog’s Toby Leaman), Ward simply chalks up that plight to being lucky and having talented pals. But whatever the genesis of his sudden collaborative influx, it’s undeniable that Wasteland sounds loaded with ear-tickling details: The bluesy, breezy title track starts with just Ward and his acoustic, but it’s interrupted at the mid-way point by sizzling strings and a live recording of screaming European fans. The surging “Me and My Shadow” morphs from standard minor-key folk to a brick wall of vocal harmonies, grungy distortion, and tom-tom fills. Lead single “Primitive Girl” might be his most Capital P “Pop” moment to date, with a heart-tugging, Phil Spector-esque mix that puts his raw voice front and center above a beautiful swirl of descending piano lines and snowflake percussion. The bright moments on Wasteland somehow feel brighter, intensified, more colorful; the starkest, most emotional spots punch straight to the gut.

But even though Wasteland finds Ward covering more stylistic ground than ever, the songwriting process continues to revolve around the guitar. Though they do branch out in multiple directions, occasionally filled with lush instrumental touches, most tracks are still defined by six-strings: plucked, finger-picked, distorted, clean, hazy. Though he’s probably known just as much for his distinctive voice, Ward is still not a confident vocalist, all these years and records later. Ever since the age of 15 (getting his start by fiddling around with brother’s beat-up acoustic, obsessing over mastering Beatles songs with an old chord-book), the now-38-year-old Ward has remained a picker at heart.

“I feel like I would consider myself a singer if it was something that I put a lot of thought into. I don’t really think about my signing voice…unless I’m in the studio or performing. I think a lot about the guitar, and the vocal melodies that I sing all come from melodies that were first written on the guitar. If I do have a singing style, it’s completely accidental, and that in and of itself is a style. And some people like it, some people don’t. I don’t care. It’s all part of the process.”

Still, a big foundation of this album’s identity lies in its tasteful, subtle string parts. “I arrange my own strings,” he says. “I’ve been experimenting with string arrangements since Post-War. There’s a song on Post-War called “Poison Cup,” which is basically the first time I ever started arranging strings. And then with the She & Him project, I started arranging more strings. I have a lot of learning to do in that field, but I know what I like. It’s now definitely one of my favorite aspects of record production—the string arrangements. Only for songs that need it, of course, but it’s a great challenge.”

Ward still teased this new sense of sonic possibilities when we spoke in September, even if he hadn’t totally grasped it in the studio.

“I’m definitely trying to create deeper contrasts in the emotions of the record,” he hinted, “which basically means making the bright songs brighter and the darker colors darker. So it’s a really hard thing to put into words, but it makes sense when you’re making production decisions and when you’re making sequencing decisions. Lighter colors look lighter when they’re juxtaposed with darker colors and shades. So I’m very interested in those sort of elements and how they get translated into records. So that’s something that I’m currently working with.”

I remind Ward of our previous conversation, jogging his memory with that quote. It’s clear after only a single listen to Wasteland that he’s achieved that original goal—but did that end up being the primarily goal after all, and did the songs’ unusually long digestion process contribute to that effect?

“Well, it did take pretty long. It was about three years in the making, and I don’t think I’ve ever taken so long to make a record. I’m very conscious of the balance of the individual songs and the record as a whole, that it doesn’t sway too far to one side or the other in terms of major and minor chords, and major and minor sentiments. It’s all a giant balancing act, really.”

These days, Ward’s whole life is a balancing act, splitting his time between his longtime residence in Portland and a newly acquired apartment amid the bright lights of Los Angeles. Though his partial relocation only happened “half a year ago,” after the majority of the album was already committed to tape (literally—Ward is an analog man, after all), the media-saturated L.A. culture seeped its way consciously into at least one new track, the galloping, slow-burning “Watch the Show,” which depicts a troubled newscaster’s hallucinatory descent into madness, which (perhaps ironically) is also an astounding moment of clarity—the furious sound of a man re-awakened after a hollow existence spent soaking up the glow of the camera eye, human voices drowned out in a wave of static and muzak. Over a dusty bass and dark thrusts of guitar that blow by like tumbleweed, Ward and his subject come to life:

“For 30 years, I’ve worked here at this TV station / In an editing room no one has ever seen / Inserting laughter after every punching line / And gasping after every scream / But now I want you to give me back these years that I’ve wasted / Staring at these television screens / And now that I have your attention, let me show you what I mean…”

“That came from a dream where I was sitting on a couch and watching TV,” Ward reflects, “and a newscaster, this very troubled newscaster named Billy Burrows, shows up, and he starts saying these really engrossing things. That’s basically where the song came from. But I have been spending more time in Los Angeles. I have an apartment there now, so I spent my life half in Portland, half in L.A. these days. The television industry is alive and well down there, and it just enters into your psyche a little bit more down there than it does in my life in Portland. The connection between news and entertainment is a pretty fascinating and disturbing one for me to think about. It shows up in my songs sometimes, and apparently, it shows up in my dreams, too.”

On the whole, Ward is fairly tight-lipped when it comes to revealing his lyrical inspirations. But when asked for details on “Clean Slate,” Wasteland’s mesmerizing acoustic opener, he offers up a few clues: “The song took about a month to write, and right in the middle of it, I went to SXSW, and [Big Star frontman] Alex Chilton passed away. He’s been a big influence for a long time, and it seemed to me that the song was inspired by a song that he wrote called “The Ballad of El Goodo,” so I steered the song in that direction. I’m not sure if it’s about Alex Chilton, but it’s definitely inspired by him, and it seemed like the right way to start the record.”

Though the two songs are miles apart musically (the Big Star track is a full-band ballad built on glistening vocal harmonies and ringing electric guitar layers), there is a hopeful, resolute, nearly spiritual undercurrent that runs through both tracks.

“It gets so hard in times like now to hold on,” Chilton sings on “El Goodoo.” “My guns, they wait to be stuck by / At my side is God … I’ve been built up and trusted, broke down and busted / But they’ll get theirs, and we’ll get ours if we can just hold on.”

On “Clean Slate,” Ward whisper-sings in a barely there, seemingly eyes-closed rapture, “When I was a younger man, I thought the pain of defeat would last forever / But now I don’t know what it would take to make my heart back down / ’Cause I only have to wait a little while / Before I get mine.”

The song seems to be at least in some respects about some kind of heaven—whether in the form of afterlife, a transformative love, or possibly even the overwhelming power of a melody. But since Ward grew up attending church, mesmerized by the all-too-familiar majesty of gospel music, it’s hard not to draw those conclusions. There are spiritual nods throughout the M. Ward catalog—some colored from imagery, some more concrete (A wonderful, country-fried tune from Hold Time is titled “Fisher of Men”). But in typical M. Ward fashion, the guy’s leaving that part of his life private—and, perhaps, open to interpretation.

“I’m one of those people who has tolerance for people of all religions,” Ward says. “I think that if we ever do have a World War III, it’ll be out of an intolerance for the way that other people and other countries—how they practice their faith. So I think that’s one of the most important things we need to do as a country. So as far as how faith and spirituality make its way into the music, it’s a huge part of it. But it’s very hard to talk about. It’s much easier to just keep it in the songs.”

While it might be tempting to paint Ward as a distant, conversationally cold figure, it’s just as likely that the guitarist/songwriter/singer (yes, in that order) is really just a private person who wants the focus of this story (and all other stories written about him) to focus on what matters most—his music. In many ways, M. Ward is a musical anachronism. In our over-saturated digital musical age of Youtube and Twitter and blogs and iPhone-recorded concerts, where every dude with a keyboard has both a burning opinion and the immediate means to express it, where every musician’s life story is only a Wiki entry away, Ward chooses to cling to every shard of mysticism he has left—while he still can.