By his own admission, M. Ward can be a bit of an introvert. “I’ve always been that way,” he insists. “So me being on stage is like a fish out of water. 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.”
Given his penchant for pursuing a style that’s best described as decidedly introspective, Ward’s description of himself is all too apt. Over the course of some eight solo albums, released over the past 16 years, Ward’s carved a singular identity that reflects that reserve. The ambiance and atmosphere he weaves are given equal emphasis with his songs, making Ward’s catalog a distinctly surreal encounter.
True to those designs, Ward speaks slowly and deliberately, expressing his thoughts with the same contemplative attitude that he embraces in his music. Speaking by phone from his home in Portland, Oregon after a bit of R&R in Hawaii—just prior to the start of a brief run of shows to promote his new album, the darkly titled More Rain—Ward seems relaxed but not entirely unguarded. He takes long pauses in conversation, carefully considering his responses before sharing his thoughts. “It is hard to get back to reality, but get back to reality I must,” he allows.
It’s notable then that his upcoming effort seems to lift some of the weight off the ominous approach that marked his earlier entries. Its foreboding handle aside, several of its songs rock with some distinctive riffing, boasting themes that could be considered, at least by Ward standards, almost upbeat. A take on the Beach Boys’ classic “You’re So Good To Me” offers evidence to that effect, but given its array of special guests—Neko Case, Peter Buck, k.d. lang, the Secret Sisters and Joey Spampinato of NRBQ—a party-like atmosphere would not be entirely unexpected.
“The original idea was just to use just voices and guitar, and that vocals would be used to create the different sounds,” Ward explains. “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, but it just started to grow and snowball into other areas. It still has that backbone in my mind, but I wanted to take every song to its conclusion, and that meant adding other layers. When I was conceiving it, 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.”
While covering the Beach Boys might seem somewhat out of sync for a man who’s not necessarily known for offering songs about celebration, Ward is unabashed in his admiration for that all-American ensemble. “I’ve been a fan for life,” he insists. “I’ve covered a lot of their songs just for fun, because I am such a fan. This was an experiment. Brian Wilson is the original genius of vocal harmony, so just to imitate him is a blast. I wanted to see what I could do with a snare drum in that song, so I took out the keyboards and just made it guitar and drums and voices. It’s a different approach, but I felt like that song could be rearranged and still be just as great.”
Ward identifies with Wilson in other ways as well. He’s famously reluctant to tour, a trait the Beach Boys founder demonstrated early on when he famously retreated to the studio in the mid-‘60s and left the band to go out on the road on its own.
“I love touring as long as the performances are few and far between,” he says. “If I’m on the road for months at a time, it could become a drag. I enjoy playing with friends onstage, and I enjoy the process of arranging songs for the stage. That’s the inventive side of performing. What gets difficult is all these airplanes and hotels and soundchecks. It seems like it’s not the way to live one’s life.”
Even so, Ward is clearly an avowed multi-tasker. Aside from his individual efforts, he’s seen a successful side career recording and performing with singer/actress Zooey Deschanel under the moniker of She & Him. He also took part in the short-lived supergroup Monsters of Folk, whose sole album in 2009 found him working alongside pals Conor Oberst, Jim James and Mike Mogis. While Ward says there are no current plans for a follow-up, he’s still delighted to have some outside options, including opportunities to sit behind the boards and produce other artists.
“The nice thing about working with talented people is that you don’t need to micromanage their parts,” he reflects. “There’s a great moment in the studio when talented musicians follow their instincts, and that’s what I try to get on tape as much on possible. So I try to stay focused on the big picture and where the session is going, and then step in as I need to to work on certain problems as they happen. In general, I’m very lucky to work with people that were meant to play their instruments and singers that were meant to sing in life. That’s something that I look forward to.”
Given the downbeat disposition he casts on his recordings, any hint of enthusiasm from Ward seems somewhat out of character. Regardless, he makes it clear that his dark demeanor isn’t all it appears. “In my opinion, I’m happy just as much as I am sad,” he maintains. “I find a lot of value in those feelings, no matter what they are. There are some songs I’ve written in the past that did seem sad to me, and I have no interest in playing them. On the other hand, there are some songs I’ve written that seem to lean too heavily on the bright side of life, and I’m not interested in playing those songs either. The ones that are my favorites are the ones that seem to strike some kind of balance, either creating a dark picture with a little bit of light in the corner, or ones that paint a lighter picture with a little bit of darkness in their corner. It’s hard for me to put into words, but those are my favorite songs to play and my favorite songs to listen to.”