In a way, it took M. Ward over twenty years to write his newest record, A Wasteland Companion.
“I’ve been living with these songs for half my life,” he says on the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon. Soon, he’ll pack up and head to California, kicking off a set of dates that will dump him out in the Netherlands at the end of June. “I am always writing or editing songs, and the ones that don’t make their way to completion get placed into this recycling bin that exists in some dark corner of my mind. Eventually they get repurposed and refurbished, and turn into other songs, and the process keeps repeating on an endless cycle.”
So M. Ward, born Matthew Stephen Ward, does not simply sit down to write songs. The ideas fester and multiply, and riffs or melodies that he may have created, perched on the floor of his high-school bedroom where he used to self-record quietly as his parents slept, appear as continual material, like a seamstress endlessly pulling from a basket of old scraps and threads, whipping them into something beautiful.
Born in California, Ward picked up the guitar at age 15. “In those days I played every day, and nothing has really changed,” he says. Good habits stuck: nary an afternoon goes by when he doesn’t work on honing his signature muted finger-picking style. It’s there, not in words or concepts, where the music begins. “All the productions and songs come from the guitar for me. That’s where everything starts and ends, that’s how I solve problems.” Words come next, whether inspired from literature or dreams or that same black hole. “A lot of time the lyrics just make themselves known in the act of writing melodies,” he adds.
Whatever way you may have come into Ward’s music, whether from his solo work such as 2009’s Hold Time, from She & Him with Zooey Deschanel or his supergroup of sorts, Monsters of Folk, with Jim James, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, it’s that guitar sound and his low, soft rasp –the one that always seems like it’s humming on an old victrola even from the speakers of a MacBook – that sticks. His voice is instantly recognizable as it jumps to notes so low on the register that, coming from anyone else, would receive instant applause just for the effort. With Ward, it happens so smoothly and quietly that you feel as though you could easily sing along. No theatrics, no show, all nuanced style.
It has been three years since Ward released what is being called a “solo” record –- of course, solo is where he began, with his debut Duet for Guitars #2 in 1999. As it came time to lay down the tracks for A Wasteland Companion, good pal Oberst’s native Omaha was just one stop. But rather than be limited to a sole studio, he chose to jump around to several. Eight, to be exact. “I’ve been invited to great ones all over America and Europe,” he says. “And I never made the time to record there until now, and that created a different sound. I hope to make more records like this.” Additional cities included his home base of Portland, New York, Los Angeles, Austin and Bristol. Fine friends such as Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, Dr. Dog’s Tobey Leaman, Devotchka’s Tom Hagerman and Deschanel joined in along the way.
The resulting record is as much a diary of place and time as it is a collection of songs. There are also a few covers, including a version of Daniel Johnston’s “Sweetheart,” on which Deschanel adds an echoing cuteness. “Normally when I am covering songs I am deconstructing them to their base essentials,” Ward says. “I treat them as if they were my own, and I do whatever I want to them to make them fit with my idea of how a song could sound.”
He also plays with the balance of words and music, choosing to not introduce lyrics into one of the tracks, Wild Goose, until over a minute deep. “I think a lot of songs don’t even need words at all. I listen to a lot of instrumental records,” he says, and doesn’t shrug off the possibility of recording one of his own in the future. New She & Him and Monsters of Folk LP’s are down the line, too: “It’s just too early to say when.”
In between the records, the multiple projects and the touring, he’s clearly a man who spends a lot of time pondering his craft. In fact, everything he says is thoughtful, intentioned, as slow as it needs to be succinct. He isn’t afraid to take a pause before answering a question. Awkward silences, in Ward’s world, are far better than continual, meaningless chatter. It’s inspiration, though, the blood and guts for all artists, which he almost respects too much to deconstruct. “I think [it] is one of those things we can pretend to understand or can say things about that sound accurate. But they’re always educated guesses or uneducated guesses. I think if we did know the source than songwriting wouldn’t be necessary.” He pauses again, and it’s hard to not wonder if it’s for emphasis, contemplation, or just to listen to some of that music tucked away in the back in the corner of his mind.