Wet Sounds: M. Ward Raises His Voice

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M. Ward. Photo by Sarah Cass

Matt Ward’s most recognizable asset is his voice. It’s a warmly weathered instrument, his scratchy and soulful croon having drawn comparisons to the likes of Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong since the release of his debut album, 1999’s Duet For Guitars #2. It’s an essential component to what gives his style of lush yet rustic indie folk its charm, and a raw, masculine foil to Zooey Deschanel’s vintage pop coo as half of the duo She & Him. M. Ward’s voice is his personality.

In fact, it’s Ward’s voice that became the foundation — and initially the primary instrument — of his eighth album, More Rain. When he began writing the follow-up to his 2012 album A Wasteland Companion, Ward sought inspiration from vocal groups of the ’50s and ’60s as well as classic records by the Beach Boys, layering his own voice in different ways to flesh out what was originally conceived as being a sort of one-man doo-wop album. From there, more and more detail was added to each song, and more people became involved in the process. Yet those vocal experiments, and the prominent presence of his own idiosyncratic harmonies, remain a driving force in the sound and character of the album.

“The only initial idea I had was to try more vocal experiments in almost the way that doo-wop records are able to pull of … all the strings using just their voices, and the horns using just their voices, and the percussion using their voices,” Ward says in a phone interview from his home in Portland, Oregon. “This has the most experiments I’ve ever done. I’ve never layered vocals this way, and I’ve never tried to create challenging chords with the harmonies. I just start to get bored of the average, you know the typical chords, the one, four and five. I was inspired by Brian Wilson and a lot of the Phil Spector records, and a lot of other things too. But I’m always getting influenced by those guys’ productions.”

An experimental doo-wop album isn’t exactly what Ward ended up with, but his intricately multi-tracked vocal interplay sets More Rain apart from the records he’s released in the past. At heart, it’s a folk-rock record built on deceptively simple melodies and immediate hooks. But it’s what Ward layers on top of that sturdy, reliable frame that makes it more richly detailed and ornate. Ward takes on the role of his own Pips, Vondells and Supremes, laying down a steady “doot-doot-doot-doot” vocal percussion loop behind the upbeat and rocking “Time Won’t Wait,” and delivering a melancholy “ooh-wah” backing on the string-laden ballad “I’m Listening.”

There’s just as much dazzle in the instrumental arrangements as well, whether in the mandolin-and-Moog combination heard in the lead single, “Girl From Conejo Valley,” or in the sparse vibrato guitar licks in “Slow Driving Man.” And it took some time for Ward to arrive upon the right style and sounds he wanted. Writing and recording for More Rain took place over several years, Ward adding and subtracting, layering and refining — and as he describes it, “experimenting with sound” — as he went along. And while the interval of time between its release and that of its predecessor is the longest in his catalog, he says that nothing about his process was fundamentally different — he only knows a song is done when “it feels right from the beginning to the end.” Even then, he still finds minor blemishes after the fact that he probably would have changed if given the chance.

“The record took about four years. So the only constant is change,” he says. “I normally make records over long periods of time, so I get a chance to write more and edit and go back and fix. It’s just always the way I’ve worked. It takes me a couple years to create something that I’m happy with.

“I never have a binge-writing weekend or anything,” he adds. “It’s always happening, every day I’m working. Even if it’s only 15 minutes, or a half-hour or an hour. The songs are always changing. That’s just the way I’ve always done it, since I was a kid.”

As Ward’s career has progressed and his profile has grown over the years, his circle of collaborators has expanded ever outward. A Wasteland Companion found him working with a long list of musicians, ranging from Deschanel and PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish to members of Giant Sand and Sonic Youth. Likewise, More Rain finds him in the company of more high-profile musician friends, including R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Neko Case, k.d. lang, The Secret Sisters and NRBQ’s Joey Spampinato.

Ward says that everyone he worked with on More Rain helped shape the sound and direction of the record in some way. In particular, he shares a story about one of the first songs that he finished, the more overtly doo-wop influenced “Little Baby.” From the beginning, it was an important track in terms of helping Ward define what he wanted, but it also represents one moment where one of his collaborators helped to take More Rain into a pleasantly unexpected direction.

“One of the first songs I recorded for the album is a song called ‘Little Baby,’” he says. “It started to sound like a direction for the record. The backbone of all these voices, and there’s just surprises coming in throughout the record. With ‘Little Baby,’ k.d. lang brought some of these chords in the backing vocals — beautiful, five parts. She has an incredible gift and an incredible ear.

“That happens all the time, and it happens with every guest that I’m able to bring in,” he notes. “They all do something that I would have not expected them to do. And that’s what makes them great artists. I’m very lucky to have very talented friends, and I love to bring them into the studio, not really knowing what they’re getting into. Or having no real knowledge of the songs. Exciting things happen when talented people are left to rely on their instincts. So we recorded a lot of their first takes and second takes, and that’s what’s on the record.”

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