“In my mind, all the records I’ve made are part of the same story and the same book”: Just the same, on his new album the songwriter (and She & Him/Monsters Of Folk member) ditches the introspection and atmosphere for something more upbeat and joyful.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Let’s face it. M. Ward’s music isn’t the type of sound you’d want to stick on the CD player when you’re anxious to brighten your mood and get a party going in full gear. Its dark, introspective mingling of ambiance and atmosphere casts a decidedly downcast sound. An encounter with any of the seven albums he’s released up until this point reveals a singularly sobering persona, one that’s as ominous as it is assertive, menacing to the point of intimidation.
That’s been the case since he kicked off his career in 1999. Surprisingly then, More Rain, Ward’s new opus that is released by Merge on March 4, reveals him taking a bit of an upbeat approach, one that’s rarely been witnessed before. With an array of special guests—among them, Peter Buck, Neko Case, k.d. lang, the Secret Sisters and Joey Spampinato of NRBQ—it shows a lighter side that’s been absent from the music he’s made on his own. While his side sojourns alongside actress/singer Zooey Deschanel in She and Him, and his one-off collaboration with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James under the collective handle Monsters of Folk, have revealed a penchant for rock and pop, More Rain purveys a sound and sensibility he’s rarely displayed on his own.
Blurt caught up with him after his return from a vacation in Hawaii and prior to a whirlwind of promotion planned for the new record. Like his studio persona, we found him thoughtful, contemplative, soft-spoken and quite candid.
BLURT: It’s been said that the genesis of this album was to make it a doo-wop album. Was that the original intention, to do an entire album just using voices?
WARD: The original idea was just to use voices and guitar, and vocals would be all the other layers. I wanted to emulate the way early doo-wop singers made their voices sound like strings and horns and percussion and all the other instruments. So that was the original intention and it just started to grow and snowball into other areas. So it still has that backbone in my mind, but I wanted to take every song to its conclusion and that meant adding other layers. So that’s how the record was made.
Your music is known for its introspective, atmospheric style. So this album seems to be a bit of a change. There’s a more upbeat element to it. The songs are more varied with the different styles and sounds. Was that a deliberate decision on your part?
At the conception of the record, I didn’t know exactly what I was making, but as time went by, I thought it would be interesting to try something new, as easy and as difficult as that may sound. I had an idea of making a record that would work in winter time, but would still be upbeat and get me through the rainy season as well.
You appear to be an extreme multi-tasker. You have your side job with She and Him, you did that album with Monsters of Folk, and you seem to always be collaborating with other like-minded artists. Is it sometimes difficult to determine where you want to go next?
Not really. I realized a long time ago that one of the best parts of this job is getting to work with talented people, relying only on my own abilities to make records that are interesting to me. I love what happens when you bring in the human element, and I love those surprises when you bring in talented people to your songs and to your records, and I can’t imagine any other way of making a record. Collaboration is half the pleasure of making records.
Is there ever any pressure in knowing that the buck stops with you? For the most part, it’s your name on the masthead after all. Wouldn’t it be easier to bury yourself behind a band?
No, I don’t feel very much pressure. I’ve tried to fire myself a few times, or just completely turn a page and do something entirely new with…life. But songs keep happening and rearing their heads. I’ve been doing it since I was fifteen, following these songs and seeing where they want to go and that leads me towards eventually making a record because there are always certain songs that feel wrong not to share.
The atmospheric element you apply to those melodies seems to be equally important to the formula. How do you develop those arrangements in sync with the songs?
It goes hand in hand. The environment and the atmosphere are just as important as the song. If a great song is recorded too heavy-handedly then the song in my opinion, doesn’t come across. However to be absolutely honest, I don’t know where it comes from.
When you set out to do an album, is there an overall concept that you have in mind, or is it really just a set of songs that you’ve written and manage to fit together?
It’s a cross between the two. I’m definitely inspired by whatever record came before it, and I’m thinking in my mind what should be the next logical chapter. In my mind, all the records I’ve made are part of the same story and the same book. I’m not really interested in rewriting anything, but I am interested in pushing the ball forward and continuing to experiment. For this new record, it was mainly an experiment with vocals to see if I could create some interesting layers just relying on my voice. I’ve never relied on my voice that much. I’ve always relied on guitars and other instruments to keep the drama going.
So what accounts for the more upbeat quality that’s evident in this album?
That’s a good question. The people that I’ve spoken with that have heard the record have all sensed a more upbeat feel to the record, which is absolutely great that people are feeling that way. To me, it feels as balanced as my last few records as far as dark colors and lighter colors. I always appreciate other peoples’ takes on a record because you guys that have a better perspective on the record and I’m the one with zero perspective because I’m so inside it.
When you’re assuming the role of a producer on someone else’s project, do you go in with a specific sound or arrangement in mind? Do you have a preconceived notion of what you want to do with the record?
Normally the process begins with studying the demos and listening to them over and over again. Ideally, I’ll listen to the very first recordings by whoever wrote the songs because there’s a lot of colors inside that recording that will tell you where the song should go, or wants to go. It always starts off with one song at a time, and once you get that song inside the studio, sounds begin to form and you start to follow those sounds. A lot of times you already know who those musicians are, which makes a big difference. I just produced a Mavis Staples album and we knew ahead of time who the musicians were going to be. They were the musicians in her touring band. That was a huge bonus for the record, because there was a built-in chemistry. We could move along a lot faster because we knew who the players were going to be. When I’m making my own records it’s a little bit more of a kaleidoscope.
She and Him seem to have taken on a life of its own. It appears to have developed as a parallel career.
Yes, that is a parallel career. When we started out, we had no idea how many records we were going to make, but we both jumped into the project to see what would happen and we tried to record these songs. It’s completely different from my M. Ward records and that’s part of the pleasure of being involved with it. I get to be somebody else for awhile. It’s like having an alter ego.
Is it a 50-50 participation in terms of your respective involvement?
Most of the songs are composed by Zooey. She will send me her very rough garage band demos and I will live with them for a long time. Once there’s enough demos, we meet at the studio and start making the record.
How did the two of you meet?
I was doing music for a film she was starring in called The Go-Getter, and the director had the idea of getting us together to cover a Richard and Linda Thompson song. We ended up reading each other’s instincts in the studio, and definitely found some common ground.
Have you ever asked her to give you a cameo on her TV show?
No. I’m definitely no actor.
And what’s the status of Monsters of Folk? Any chance there will be a second album from that band?
There’s always a possibility but we have no plans at the moment. Everybody stays very busy with lots of different projects.
It’s not surprising to hear you calling yourself an introvert, because your music tends to be a bit introverted. It would seem a natural transition.
I definitely have parts of myself that are extroverted and outgoing, but by and large, I’m much more at home in the studio and experimenting with songs and sounds and ideas. I’m not so much born to be on the stage.
Isn’t it a bit of a contradiction, to be a bit withdrawn and still be an artist who’s expected to appear in front of audiences?
I agree that there is a traditional trajectory of making a record and touring for a year, or longer. But I also believe there is space to create a different path for anyone who does anything creatively. It’s nothing that my label and manger love to hear from me go on and on about, that is, carving a different path because of course the best thing for the music is to be out there on the road like Bob Dylan, but I have no interest in that.
It seems like you’re aiming for a very delicate balance.
I’m a Libra, a born and bred Libra, so it’s my burden in life.
Out of curiosity, how did you get the name M. as opposed to Matt or Matthew which is your given name?
It was a name that I was given when I was young. It works for me.
It adds a bit of mystique.
I guess so. People have told me that. It was bestowed upon me.
M Ward info and tour dates are at his official site.
Fri, April 29: Saxapahaw, NC – The Haw River Ballroom
Sat, April 30: Charlottesville – The Jefferson Theater
Sun, May 1: Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
Mon, May 2: Philly – Union Transfer
Wed, May 4: New York – Webster Hall
Fri, May 6: Portland, ME – Port City Music Hall
Sat, May 7: Boston – Royale