AUSTIN, TEXAS - No wonder M. Ward keeps coming back and making the most of the South by Southwest Music Conference: The Portland, Ore.-based indie-rock star has found the perfect place to decompress from the festival’s wild whir, which was especially wild for him this year.
“I got a pretty good thing,” Ward coolly surmised one morning last month, looking the picture of casual as he sipped coffee barefoot on the porch of a cozy little house that belongs to a friend of his manager, tucked away in the quiet, tangled, hilly streets of Austin’s Travis Heights neighborhood.
(Merge; US: 17 Feb 2009; UK: 16 Feb 2009)
Duet for Guitars #2
(Merge; US: 10 Jul 2007; UK: Available as import)
(Merge; US: 22 Aug 2006; UK: Available as import)
Talking over bellowing grackles and soaking up the merciful March sun, he said, “Portland is very gray and damp this time of the year. Austin’s the place I’d rather be right now.”
Ward should have looked more exhausted and far less content. The 35-year-old singer, songwriter, producer and guitar-wiz (first name: Matt) had played two gigs the day before and was set to play three more before the fest’s end, including Entertainment Weekly’s private bash and a public outdoor show that would draw around 5,000 people.
His sweet accommodations weren’t the only reason for his remarkably even keel, it became apparent during the interview. He has a naturally mellow way of talking - stewing over words before letting them out - and he had contemplative things to say about his career’s purposefully gradual rise.
“I didn’t tour for a long time, and I’m sort of coming back to it with a new love for it,” he explained.
Ward took much of last year off, and when he did work it was mostly with actress Zooey Deschanel, with whom he made a well-received album under the cutesy moniker She & Him.
“I loved the perspective of allowing Zooey to do the lead vocals, and I just had to handle the arrangements and guitaring,” he said. “It was a great perspective. I brought some of that experience to this record.”
Ward’s fifth album, “Hold Time” - issued in February on marquee indie label Merge Records (Arcade Fire, Spoon) - follows in a steady stream of records that sound coolly classic/timeless and offers a patchwork quilt of musical styles. In this case, the songs range from the glam-rocky “Never Had Nobody Like You” and the Phil Spector-like, doo-woppy “To Save Me” to a mournful country cover with Lucinda Williams (“Oh Lonesome Me”) and a slow, sly remake of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On.”
As with all of his recordings, though - including collaborations with friends such as Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Norah Jones and Jenny Lewis - his raspy but rich voice and playful, rollicking guitar-playing keep the music distinctive. There’s no mistaking Ward for anyone else, which can’t be said of many other talents in modern rock.
Ward covered a wide range of topics during his kicked-back interview.
On his albums’ grab-bag sonic approach: “I think it comes from listening to ‘The White Album’ growing up, which is sort of the ideal record to stretch all the boundaries. I listen to a lot of different styles of music now, and I think what you consume always comes out in some shape or form. But I also don’t want to make a record where you can predict what’s going to happen next. A record should be like a good book, where you don’t know what’s coming around the bend.”
On who inspired his distinctive guitar sound: “It started out with George Harrison - and John Lennon, too. Then I started to learn their influences, too, like Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers. I was first inspired by rhythm guitarists, and it took me a while to really discover guitarists playing as the lead instrument, like Elizabeth Cotton, John Fahey, Mance Lipscomb, on acoustic. Electric guitar was Chet Atkins and Thurston Moore and ‘Ed from Ohio’ (Ed Crawford) in fIREHOSE. The foundation was the Beatles; that laid the groundwork for me to listen to all types of guitarists.”
On the semireligious theme of “Hold Time”: “There’s definitely a relationship between music and spirituality for me. Music has a way of touching these big questions in a way that’s easier than casual conversation or interviews. So I use music to ... go there, I guess you’d say.”
On how he picks cover songs to record: “Covering songs is just as important as writing songs, to me,” said Ward, who has recorded the likes of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Headed for a Fall” and Daniel Johnston’s “To Go Home” on past albums. “I learned to play guitar by covering Beatles songs, so it feels natural. Every time you do it, you roll the dice. Certain songs feel right when you’re covering them and certain songs you’re only going to be playing in your basement.”
On why he continues to make albums with the same four-track recorder he’s had since he was a teenager: “It’s great. It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s durable. And it has sentimental value, too. By and large, the process has stayed the same. It starts with going through old four-track tapes, finding out which songs to bring into the bigger studio. The most important thing that has changed from record to record is the sphere of influence, it’s constantly growing. My bigger influence comes from older records, but as we all know, there’s an endless amount of things to be discovered on older records.”
On his next projects: “I’m working on two records in 2009: one with Zooey again. We had a lot of fun, and it was really inspiring. And then one with Bright Eyes and My Morning Jacket. We’ve been talking about doing that one for a long time, so it’s time to finally do it, and I’m very excited.”
On his slow but steady climb to stardom: “I like it this way. Making records has never been a question of how can I overexpose myself. It’s just been a question of doing what’ll inspire me. I follow my instincts. I couldn’t be happier with the gradual slope of my career. If it were any steeper, I don’t think I’d still be here.”