"A Bit of Organization and a Lot of Patience": An Interview with M. Ward
When not being the Him in She & Him or producing for the likes of Mavis Staples, M. Ward just keeps puttin' out solo albums, collaborating with friends, and remaining cryptic as ever.
Since the release of his first album in 1999, M. Ward has released seven more LPs, which averages out to about one every couple of years. That's an impressive output for any artist, but consider this: he's also released five full-lengths in a scant eight years as half of She & Him (his collaboration with Zooey Deschanel), an album with supergroup Monsters of Folk, guested on albums for a who's-who of artists such as Neko Case and Norah Jones, contributed songs to numerous music and film projects, and handled production duties for a number of artists, most recently Mavis Staples.
That's a bewildering number of projects -- and that's just the fly-over view of his actual output. With such a long and impressive list of credits to Ward's name, one logically would assume that he cranks out songs with ease, that he has somehow figured out a way to bypass the challenges inherent in the creative process.
"I would describe it as a lot of fumbling around in the dark," Ward deadpans after a moment of reflection, quickly dispelling any notion that he has this entire creativity thing sussed out during his interview with PopMatters. "Normally," he adds, "that's the best way to invent something or create something new: [it's] to not know exactly what you're doing, if that makes any sense."
This is trademark Ward. In conversation he's not only exceedingly polite, but also measured, contemplative, and way more modest than any person needs to be. Compliment his singing and he'll find a way to deflect the praise. Inquire about his ability to produce album after album of genre-defying Americana and he'll insist that it's either accidental or simply the product of lots of trial and error, but not the product of remarkable talents that the average person does not possess.
"If you play an interesting progression for long enough," he says while describing his songwriting process, "the melody will just start to spring out. That's the best way I know how to explain it. And equally important is giving yourself time and having the patience with the process and allowing yourself to write a lot of bad songs before you're able to come up with something that maybe has a little bit of staying power that can either be used as a song or recycled as part of another song. It takes a bit of organization -- and a lot of patience."
Patience, indeed. Ward's latest album, More Rain, took four years and numerous incarnations to come to fruition. The original idea for the album was that it would be a doo-wop set, an experiment in which Ward would pare down his music to just his voice and some guitar accompaniment. And while this would seem a comparatively easy process -- to essentially simplify things by incorporating fewer elements -- the idea proved to be daunting.
"Pretty much all of the records I've made have been reliant on guitars and drums and other instruments to create the drama," Ward observes. "I wanted to see what could happen if I just relied on my own voice and layering my voice. I started off by just playing guitar. That's where my main passion is: just playing and recording and writing with guitar. But it's good to stretch yourself."
For Ward to stretch himself by putting the emphasis on his voice wouldn't, on the surface, seem like much of a stretch at all. His voice is unmistakable -- a gravelly growl that, against all likelihood, shakes free into a divine falsetto -- and is just as responsible as Ward's vast influences for giving his own music a sound that flouts period or genre. Characteristically, though, Ward downplays his abilities and skillfully sidesteps any notion that he's a singer.
"I still don't really see myself as a singer," he insists. "People have said a lot of nice things about my vocals, which is always very nice. But I don't think about it too much because it's not something I instinctively go out of my way to do. I never went to school for any of these things, so I don't know the ground I'm standing on."
The initial impetus for More Rain, then, wasn't so much about exploring a particular genre or sound so much as it was a way for Ward to shake up his normal way of approaching music. "It was a musical challenge is a good way of putting it," he explains. "I was going to try to do some vocal experiments and see how far that would take me. It took me halfway there for this record."
Perhaps it's not that the doo-wop concept didn't take Ward far enough; perhaps it took him to so many interesting intersections with other genres and styles that the album naturally took some detours. "Time went by," Ward explains. "Some years went by, and through collaborating with some friends it started to change shape."
What More Rain eventually became is prototypical M. Ward: a collection of songs that borrow from the vast expanse of American popular music, not so much hopping genres as weaving them together with uncanny skill. Ward has always innately known how to absorb sounds from different periods and deploy them at will, such that his music sounds like it belongs to every period, yet can't be pinned down to any one in particular.
"All of the songs are a combination of so many different influences," notes Ward. "I can't even begin to list them off. But some people respond to one element of a song and other people respond to a different element of a song. And I appreciate and accept all of them."
The doo-wop influence is still there in a few songs; "I'm Listening" and "Little Baby" are instrumentally spare, placing the emphasis instead on layers of carefully arranged vocals. While both are punctuated by Ward's tasteful guitar runs, the latter features k.d. lang on backing vocals, her soaring accents serving as the perfect counterpoint to Ward's weathered whispers. Both tracks possess a breezy, carefree air that bely their meticulous arrangements.
Most of More Rain, however, veers away from the doo-wop concept and explores other territory, never content to stay anywhere for too long. "Confession" and "Temptation" wouldn't sound out of a place on an '80s new wave compilation, their signature guitar riffs evoking Echo and the Bunnymen. "Pirate Dial" and Ward's cover of the Beach Boys' "You're So Good to Me" are essentially acoustic strummers complimented by atmospheric pedal steel and tasteful electric fills, respectively.
But even in the tracks that took off in a different direction, the precisely-arranged vocals lie just beneath the surface. "Time Won't Wait" is a chugging rocker featuring the glorious vocals of Neko Case and a romping piano solo from Ward. Underneath, though, are staccato vocals that propel the song forward. And throughout "Confession" Ward's voice is layered so that he's backing himself in both the verses and choruses.
"That's partly where this record comes from," Ward reflects, "is exploring what I'm capable of doing as far as vocals and layering vocals, which I've just done a little bit of in the past. But this was my first time trying to create sort of unusual harmonies and more difficult chord voicings using the voice."
Ward also got an assist from a stellar cast of guests. In addition to the aforementioned k.d. lang and Neko Case, More Rain also features appearances from Peter Buck, who plays Rickenbacker on "Temptation" and mandolin on "Phenomenon", NRBQ's Joey Spampinato on bass on a handful of tracks, and the Secret Sisters on backing vocals on album closer "I'm Going Higher". Much like the diverse influences of his discography, these cameos blend in organically. That's no accident.
"When you listen to your demo and you listen to your mixes for long enough," Ward explains, "you start hearing the sounds of your friends' voices or you start hearing the sounds of other instrumentalists' work and imagining what they would do if they had this song in front of them. And that's really how it works. I'm very lucky to have talented friends."
Where Ward goes from here is anyone's guess -- including his. When asked if he'll add more tour dates in between the U.S. coasts, Ward seems to just go with the flow. "I really don't tour that much but I hope to make it out to other parts of that part of the world on the next tour," he replies, then adds, "which I don't know when it's going to be." When asked if there's another Monsters of Folk album in the works, Ward becomes charmingly cryptic. "No, there's no concrete plans. But there are abstract ones," he teases and laughs.
Fans of Ward, though, know better than to worry that he'll disappear for too long. As his track record proves, he'll soon be working on other projects, both for himself and for others who seek his expertise and input.
"I think I suffer a little bit from Attention Deficit Disorder," Ward muses. "I get bored pretty quickly. So I need to always keep things interesting for myself and it's hard for me to relax for too long a time."