Southern California-based singer-songwriter, M. Ward, has lucid dreams. He has recurring visions while sleeping, and the most prevalent one, he says, is a dream about a tsunami raging at a “comfortable” distance away.
The dream, says Ward, who will release his latest LP, Migration Stories, April 3rd, has shown up in his songs, including the dreamy-jangly track, “Unreal City,” on his new release. The song, which is about a fictitious place, speaks to a blend of paradise and paranoia prevalent in Ward’s work.
“When you’re living near L.A., you are constantly reading about the anticipation for this big earthquake that’s going to hit California someday,” Ward says. “They’ve been talking about it since I was a kid growing up here. It ends up getting into your brain; it’s inescapable. But how do you live with that information, how do you process it?”
For Ward, who wrote much of his new album amidst the contemporary torrent of terrible news headlines swirling the country of late, his processing involves music, often used as a filter.
“The first thing that inspired the record were the articles that I’ve been reading in the newspaper and hearing about from friends when I travel,” he says. “It’s the story that’s impossible to ignore right now. The music comes out in a way that, to me, sounds like my brain is still processing the injustices I’m reading about.”
Migration Stories is a spare and spacious 11-song album. It’s written, says Ward, from the point of view of people living their day-to-day amidst political chaos, relying on faith and hope to keep going to try and find better lives. Ever since early human history, people have migrated, immigrated and emigrated. So, Ward thought, he should tell some of their stories. And he does so in his signature restrained, hypnotic style.
“I love concise, short songs,” Ward says, citing The Beatles and The Minute Men as examples. “I’m inspired by songwriters that are able to say a lot with as little as possible.”
Some of the songs on the album – like “Stevens’ Snow Man” and “Rio Drone” – are so spare that they’re instrumental. Ward, a poetic lyricist often influenced by classic European tomes (“I don’t really read anybody living”), says it was important to him to include significant space on the record so that listeners could more readily blend their own imaginations and thoughts with the music.
“I think it might have to do with processing the overexposure to the news all the time,” he says. “If music can be a sanctuary from that for me then I’ll take it, whether I’m listening to it or writing it.”
For the first time, Ward says he worked with a co-producer on the new record. He also collaborated with members of the Montreal-based band, Arcade Fire, who opened up a new world of synthesizers and keyboards for the music. Ward is also a new father, which has changed his life. But while all of these influence, Ward says he still seeks out silence – it’s one of the tricks to staying fresh and in love with music.
“If you have a canvas and you’re a painter,” Ward says, “you’re going to leave some of the space blank.”
Ward, who began writing songs at 15-years-old, studied The Beatles closely. In fact, he still combs through a chord book his mother gave him years ago. He’s a musician first and foremost, he says, and he doesn’t consider himself a singer despite the fact that his spellbinding vocals grace indie hit songs like the catchy, “Chinese Translation,” which, to date, boasts over 1 million YouTube views.
“My focus has always been on the guitar or the piano or whatever I’m playing,” Ward says. “I’m trying to support whatever the instrument is. So, I don’t see myself as a singer. I never have and I probably never will. But I think it’s better that way.”
But as he sang, wrote and produced Migration Stories, Ward made a serendipitous revelation about his own family history. His grandfather, as it would turn out, had his own migration stories.
“My grandfather was born in Mexico,” Ward says. “He traveled and migrated to America through El Paso and eventually moved to Southern California, which is where I was born. So, all of these things that happened in my mind that I was trying to process also happened to him.”