M. Ward‘s Supernatural Thing is an uplifting musical exploration that pairs the veteran singer-songwriter with First Aid Kit, Jim James, and Dr. Dog‘s Scott McMicken. Old friends but new collaborators Shovels & Rope turn up, as does longtime friend Neko Case. Instead of the record being a star-studded event that looks more interesting on paper than it sounds on the record, the results here are exhilarating.
The First Aid Kit tracks (“Engine 5” and “Too Young to Die”) seem to have been written long ago in the stars, while “Mr. Dixon” finds a dirty, gritty, and thoroughly enjoyable intersection between Ward and Shovels & Rope. Though some might find it tempting to compare Supernatural Thing with earlier outings, including the landmark Transfiguration of Vincent, the truth is that it’s closer to Transistor Radio and, even then, deeply its own record.
What it holds in common with that latter LP is the feeling of listening to a radio broadcast. Ward, of course, is a single artist but one who can easily traverse styles and do so seamlessly throughout Supernatural Thing. But some moments shift the mood in unpredictable directions, not so much giving the listener sonic whiplash as keeping them alert, aware that what comes next should and will be a surprise.
More than all that, Supernatural Thing feels like a celebration: A celebration of the rich music Ward has given us across the decades, a celebration of song, and a celebration of this weird thing we call life. Ward recently spoke with PopMatters about the writing and recording of Supernatural Thing, his love of radio, and how songwriting elevates his spirits.
This seems to be a very uplifting record.
I think I use music, as a lot of people do, as an escape. I have this suspicion that through the power of thought, many things will come to fruition if you start saying the word, start visualizing it, and start thinking about it. It doesn’t work all the time. But I enjoy music writing and lyric writing as a way to will something into being or change my thinking.
Some people I’ve talked to felt like the initial COVID period brought on a kind of creative paralysis. Did you go through a period when you didn’t feel like writing?
Hibernation like that is good to write. Taking all the other parts of the music business out of your mind—because there was no promotion or touring— was a great thing for me. And a great escape from the headlines and the facts of the day.
Do you remember the first song you wrote that showed you the way with this record?
“Supernatural Thing” was the one that got the whole record going. The idea of no boundaries and no fear of putting songs together that have very different styles, the way that a good radio show is, and my memories of great radio, yesterday and today, is something that challenges you and is not the same kind of song or same kind of sound. [That’s also true of this record.]
The record does, in many ways, feel like a radio broadcast.
Great. That’s a great influence. My first exposure to music was through the radio. This feeling that it was coming from outer space or another part of the world. I get a lot of inspiration from that still. If somebody listens to the record and gets the feeling of a radio show, then I think that’s good. It’s something that I’ve been playing with since I first started making records. A record I made many years ago called Transistor Radio had some of those echoes as well.
Did you have a specific station you listened to when you first learned about music?
There were a few. Growing up just north of Los Angeles, there was KROQ, KTYD, and K Earth 101. Different things were on in the car while I traveled with my family. Maybe that gave me a love for music and radio and the style of putting songs back-to-back that might have little to do with each other. It’s the same as going to an art museum. If you see art from one artist juxtaposed with a different artist, I think that’s better sometimes than having the same art by the same artist in the same room. But no one wants to know my art curation ideas!
It’s funny because I think we both like things that rub a little bit—songs that might surprise the listener as we move from one to another. But when I listen to the albums, things hang together seamlessly. How much time do you spend on the sequencing of a record?
A lot of time. It’s good if something’s a jump, but it can be too big of a jump. You want things to be as seamless as possible but also surprise people.
You invited several friends to join you on this record, including First Aid Kit, Shovels & Rope, and Jim James. It seems to me that you’re somebody who thrives on collaboration.
Yes, and I think that goes with wanting to have a record that feels like tuning into a radio broadcast, where you get multiple voices. All these singers I invited to be part of this record delight my ears when I hear them. This is my first time working with First Aid Kit. Witnessing and hearing these sister harmonies in the studio was something to behold. Pretty miraculous the way that they can read each other and create music without thinking. Those are quite often the best musicians.
When I heard them on the record, I thought, “Why hasn’t this happened sooner? This is perfect.”
Thank you. I would love to do more with First Aid Kit. I’m such a huge fan. It was my first time recording in Stockholm. I love what they added. Not just their voices but their spirit.
Tell me about Shovels & Rope appearing on the album.
I’d never worked with Shovels & Rope before, and I got to know them through a festival that they host in South Carolina [High Water Festival]. Ever since that, I’ve been digesting their records. They’re just an incredible powerhouse and incomparable. To have them on “Mr. Dixon” was a great pleasure.
I’ve been working with Jim James and Neko Case for over ten to 15 years now, so I’ve become a little bit accustomed to the luxury of having their participation. This was also my first time working with Scott from Dr. Dog. We’ve been making music together off and on over the years, but we’ve never recorded a song together. I’ve always been such a big fan of his music and singing. He’s on a song called “New Kerrang”.
As a teenager, I read the music magazine Kerrang! but it’s also an amazing word.
That song came from an experience with a drummer friend of mine who was getting tired of her cymbal sound and returned all her cymbals, buying brand-new ones. She took them home, started playing with them, and quickly realized that the old ones sounded much better than the new cymbals. She went back to the instrument shop, and all of her old cymbals were gone, which was a tragedy. It’s a metaphor for a lot of things in life beyond music. Beyond what we do for a living, I was happy that Scott could sing on that one with me.
I thought it was a genius touch to do David Bowie’s “I Can’t Give Everything Away” as an instrumental. There is that radio broadcast thing again because it’s exactly like when you’re listening to the radio, and you hear a version of a tune you know well, but for those few seconds, it’s hazy, and you’re saying, “Is this what I think it is?”
I wanted to highlight the beautiful melody that he wrote and the beautiful chord changes. That, to me, is enough for an instrumental. The other David Bowie song I covered years ago, “Let’s Dance”, was a similar experiment of [taking away] familiar aspects of a song everyone has heard. This particular song, though, I think you could call it obscure. My favorite cover songs, though, are like what you described: Repurposed and restructured. Sometimes it works; sometimes, it doesn’t. I covered dozens and dozens of songs, and the ones that seem to have a life of their own are the ones that made the record.
You covered Daniel Johnston‘s “Story of an Artist” for what is, to my knowledge, the second time. That seems to speak to you.
It says a lot to me in very few words. I sometimes get feedback from people and have interesting conversations about their relationship to a song I’ve performed, a concert, or Daniel Johnston. I did record it once before, but I like this version better. It’s in a better key. It’s a song that can grow with you, whether or not you want it to!