M. Ward is an American singer-songwriter with a beloved back-catalog filled with hazy, mock-vintage takes on Americana, blues, and folk. Ward —born Matthew Ward in Los Angeles in 1973— first came to attention with 2003's The Transfiguration of Vincent, before cementing his reputation as rising indie commodity with 2005's Transistor Radio. In 2009, Ward's sixth LP, Hold Time, debuted in the Billboard charts at #31, confirming the once-shy songwriter's star status. Ward's profiled was undoubtedly raised by the arrival of She and Him, the duo that he splits with starlet Zooey Deschanel. She and Him have released two albums of orchestral, vintage-sounding pop: 2008's Volume One and 2010's Volume Two. Ward also plays in Monsters of Folk, a 'supergroup' he helms with Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and has collaborated with singers like Beth Orton, Cat Power, Neko Case, and Jenny Lewis. In advance of his seventh album, A Wasteland Companion, Ward answered these questions:
Interview: 9 March 2012
The past few years you've had a lot of pots on the boil. Do you have to make sure each project is kept strictly separate? Or is there bleed between your different musical guises?
"I think it's safe to say that there's some bleed. You can't help but by inspired by your friends, and their music, and the dialogues you have with them, and the records that they turn you onto. I think that there is some sort of meeting place, and mainly that meeting place is just in my brain. That's where the bleed is. Not literally, thankfully."
So when people think of this as you 'returning' to solo work after making Monsters of Folk and She and Him, there's no return, really, because you never really step away?
"I'm always writing songs. I've been doing that since I was 15. More than half my life. So, it's a process is a strange combination of work and relaxation. It feels strange to be getting work done when I'm really just sitting on the couch playing guitar. It's never something that I have to think about very much, it just happens; I'm just always playing, never really thinking about where this song might end up or how I'd use it. My experience is that you have to write ten bad songs before you have one good one, or at least one idea. That's always been my process, for all my records: you just have to keep the motor running, and something good will eventually come of it."
Do you ever keep the bad songs around, so that they can be rehabilitated? Or do they get flushed?
"Sometimes they get flushed down the toilet, other times they go into the recycling bin, and I will salvage bits and pieces of them to apply to the new songs. That's a really important part of the process, also."
How, exactly, have your friends inspired you recently?
"I can tell you that working with Zooey Deschanel has inspired me to dig a little bit deeper into the work of certain girl-groups from the work of the '50s and '60s, and dig a little bit deeper into the production style of Phil Spector. Working with Jim James from My Morning Jacket, he's a great fan of music that we call 'soul' music or R&B, people like Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield; he's inspired me to listen closer to their records. Things like this, they end up infiltrating your own music; their influences become your influences."
The first She and Him LP definitely felt like you trying your hand at some Spector-esque arrangements.
"Growing up in Southern California, you hear the Ronettes on oldies radio. And I love oldies radio, and so does Zooey. So we have a lot of the same influences. When I first heard her demos, I was excited at applying some of the lessons from these records that had inspired me over the years to make a new kind of record. And, of course, her songwriting style lends itself to that. When I first heard her songs, I heard echoes of The Ronettes, echoes of Darlene Love, and I thought it'd be a great challenge to try to apply Zooey's songs to these different kinds of production styles. And, it's been a great, ever-changing process."
Was She and Him a one-off project that unexpectedly became a band?
"We started off just completely following our instincts, not caring at all about the longevity of it. We just thought: 'let's make a record!' And, we made a record, and we loved the process and it seemed to get a great response, so we said: 'let's make another record!' At that point, I guess it became a band. We had a great time making the record. We have a great time working with each other. That doesn't happen every day, where you both think this is a great collaboration. A lot of times it's more of a struggle, something that doesn't just seem to be happening naturally. But, Zooey has a great passion for older singing styles and older songwriting styles, and I have a passion for older production styles and older guitar styles. It’s just a great mix."
I've seen you described as a 'man out of time.' Do you feel that way, personally, at all?
"I don't think I was born too early or born too late. Thinking about that stuff too much could drive a person crazy. I'm just someone who prefers listening to analogue recordings over digital recordings. And, as a result, that leads me towards older songs, and older production styles. There's a lot of new music being made that's great that I have a lot of respect for, but it's rare that it inspires me. Most of my inspiration comes from old, old records."
Have you always been that way? Were you the kind of kid who was more into his parents' record collection than new music?
"I was into both. I grew up in Los Angeles, and I was exposed to a lot of different music. I listened a lot to an oldies station called K-Earth, and also to KROQ, which is where I heard about bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr and Firehose and the Meat Puppets. Then, through other channels I discovered the Beatles and the Beach Boys and classical music and country music and gopel. It's all just a giant stew, really. That's the way it was for me growing up, and the way it is for most people now. I'm not interested at all in genres; I know you have to come up with something to describe things, that's fine. But the kind of people who listen to things that they want to sound a particular way, that's just not me. That's so boring to me."
I know you were an avid four-tracker as a teenager; how did becoming a performer fit into your musical worldview?
"It definitely comes secondary to recording and writing. But, over the years I've grown to really appreciate performing live. It's a great arena to make clear the connection between you and the other people you play with on stage. And it's a great forum to redesign and reimagine your songs, to write them anew no matter how old they are. And I think that's, in effect, a way of keeping them alive, of rescucitating songs."
Had you travelled much, personally, before you started touring?
"I'd only been around the West Coast of America. Around the world? No. Music was my ticket-to-ride. I've seen so many countries in the world, now. It's amazing. If you want to talk about specifics, ask me about a specific country."
"Croatia is a beautiful country. It has all the natural splendor of other Mediterranean countries, but it's cheaper to go there, and more interesting. So, I recommend you go along, and tell 'em I sent you. I love Croatia, but it's a country I never would've been to if not for a couple of enthusiastic promoters. And the shows I've played there have been great. There's a lot of very passionate fans, and people seem to want to sing along very loudly. It's very, very strange, to go to a country that you know so little about, and for them to know all the words to your songs, it's a surreal experience. But, then again, life is surreal."
What's the surreal-est experience you've had, of that ilk?
"Anybody who gets to do truly creative work for a living, gets to turn the subconscious plots they had at night, the dreams they had, into reality, is face-to-face every day with the surreality of their occupation. The strangest thing is to have an image that you see from a dream, and in under 15 minutes, sometimes, it turns into the bedrock of a song. Then turns into something that ends up on a record, then gets played on radio, then other people are singing along to. There's a whole process of surreal steps that adds up to something very surreal."
So, you take influence from your dreams?
"Absolutely. I'm somebody who gets a lot of inspiration from dreams, and I think that if you write down your dreams and you find out the same thing seems to be happening —like you're getting lost, or you're always losing something, or you're constantly experiencing natural disasters— then I think that deserves a closer look. Songwriting is a similar phenomenon. You can study where your mind is going, sometimes. If you find a lot of songs going to some place, lyrically or style-wise, that's a good opportunity to look a little bit closer, and see if you can find something cohesive there."
Tell me about a dream that's been particularly important to you?
"I have had this recurring nightmare, ever since I've been a kid, of being in a tidal wave. But it's not a dangerous tidal wave, it's this miraculous, inviting, not-threatening tidal wave. So, obviously, it's not a real tidal wave. That sort of goes hand-in-hand with my fear of the ocean; that's always been a fear and a fascination for me. Because I'm somebody who really loves going to the beach, but has been terrified of being out in the deep ocean. So, that's why this dream is recurring: it's just a reminder that we need to face our fears, no matter what it is. So, for me, over the last 15 years, I've done that. I surf occasionally, now, and through that the fear has started to dissipate. So, in that sense, your dreams can be very helpful, because they can tell you what's going on in your subconscious. Most of the time, it's really hard to interpret, but if you dig a little deeper you'll find something interesting."
Do songs ever have that same sense of helpfulness?
"Yeah, absolutely. For example, there was a time where I found I was writing a lot of songs about radios, and how radios sound. So, I dug a little bit deeper, and basically found that I was going back in time, to when I was first discovering music. Which was definitely through the radio. I think these songs were extending back beyond my memory, to when I was really young. Maybe age four, age five. That's what Transistor Radio came out of: trying to dig deeper into that question."
The question being...?
"'Is it true that my introduction to radio was coming out in these songs?' I had this fantasy that I could make a record that would sound and feel the way that I remember the radio sounding when I first listened to it, and, in a way, how the radio sounded in my dreams."
How close did you come to realizing that fantasy?
"I think that record came out pretty good. I just try to take memories of your inspiration and let that be your guiding force. So, when it comes to questions of composition or questions of production, you have this sound, this image, that's already there, informing every decision you make."
Which record do you feel 'came out' the best?
"I know this is an awful answer, but I actually prefer my new record. I think it has the best balance of anything I've ever made. Records need to have a good balance between shadow and light. I'm of the opinion that all good pieces of art, whether it's books or movies or paintings, they have some sort of interesting contrast between dark and light. If we're talking about lyrics, say, that's acknowledging the sunny side of the street and the dark side of the street. If we're talking sonically, that means both highs and lows. Major chords and minor chords. It's something that's always changing, your idea of balance, but those are the ingredients. To my favorite songs, my favorite books, my favorite films. And, hopefully, to my own records. And I feel like, honestly, this new one has the best balance that I've ever struck."
What was inspiring you when you were making [A Wasteland Companion]?
"I've been thinking about inspiration a lot, and the mystery of where something comes from is something that comes up in a lot of my songs. I think it's safe to say that all the songs on this record speak to that. But you never know what a record's going to be about going in. The way I work on albums is song-by-song. I listen to each demo and work out where each song wants to go. They're all on an island by themselves, and when you produce the song you're trying to bring that song into its fruition. After you have a couple dozen songs, certain songs just seem to fit together naturally, in a way you can't quite put into words."