Solitary song aficionado M. Ward has, for eight albums now (including his most recent release, A Wasteland Companion, via Merge Records), has managed to preserve a scope of attention that most can hardly fathom this far into their musical undertakings. While it’s true that partnering with Zooey Deschanel in the audaciously pop project She & Him shed a light on the rather reserved Ward, the genius of his work lies in the subtleties and, concerning Wasteland, exploratory tendencies. The years spent before this release have manifested into a rather conglomerate album, sustaining the familiarly savoury strain of folk and the crooning ballads known to be of his origins, while then striding into a spright and peppy domain of piano-pop (see “Primitive Girl”). What remains throughout this shifting album and its predecessors is Ward’s unmistakably wind-soaked and lulling vocals. It is this pervasiveness that has made him timeless. Here’s to eight more albums from Ward, as well as our conversation in anticipation of his Folk Festival debut.
BeatRoute: Give me a brief rundown of your history as a musician. What was it like starting out in the Portland music scene?
M. Ward: When I first moved to Portland in 2000 it was a very different place. Not a lot going on besides a few studios and venues. I think everything has tripled or quadrupled now. It still has a good music community though and people seem to care more about making something original than trying to get on pop radio. At least, I would like to think so.
BR: I read online that you stepped out of your comfort zone for this album and that it was recorded in multiple studios from London to L.A. Is that something you felt was needed for this record?
MW: I wanted the records to reflect whatever time they were made in my life. That part of the year had a lot of traveling and invitations to record in different studios that I was curious about, so following that impulse led me to a lot of different parts of the world.
BR: I find A Wasteland Companion quite enigmatic. Is it an album name that reveals itself to those listening one bit at a time, a name that will bring out different interpretations from everyone tuning in?
MW: Hopefully, yeah. I’m drawn more towards ideas that can shape-shift over time and space and from person to person, rather than ideas that can only mean one thing. The songs, records and titles are created with that in mind.
BR: Would you say the album progressed into a common theme or that there are a variety of themes that come out of this album? What would one of these themes be?
MW: I would say who I am and what keeps me going.
BR: Regarding Zooey Deschanel: how did you first meet/connect? What does she add to songs like “Sweetheart” and “Me & My Shadow” that would otherwise be non-existent without her?
MW: I was doing music for a film she was starring in and the director had the idea to put us in a studio together to record a Richard Thompson song. We got along well — she has a great musical mind with an unforgettable voice.
BR: I love the unique rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “I Get Ideas.” Is covering songs from idols like that something you find pushes you to become creative and imaginative in the studio?
MW: I learned how to play guitar when I was 15 from learning The Beatles catalog, so covering songs has always been the way I learn about what music can do. I’m still covering other people’s songs all the time – mainly songs from writers who aren’t around anymore.
BR: Finally, I’d like to know if you’ve been thinking about checking out other bands at the Calgary Folk Festival. Which ones would they be?
MW: I’m definitely a fan of World Party, Alabama Shakes and Kurt Vile. I’d like to see them if I get the chance.
M Ward plays the Calgary Folk Fest on Thursday, July 25 on the main stage.
By Nivedita IyerAB, Alberta, Featured