M. Ward will never be mistaken for the most outgoing guy. By his own admission, he tends to be a bit of an introvert. However, that description isn’t necessarily needed. A listen to any of the eight solo albums he’s released since kicking off his career in 1999 reveals a persona that leans on introspection, almost to the point of coming across as somewhat ominous and foreboding. Indeed, his mix of ambiance and atmosphere has as much impact on the music as the songs themselves. While his occasional forays into other avenues — specifically his collaboration with actress/singer Zooey Deschanel as part of the pairing of 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 — show a more gregarious side to his personality, it’s his somber, sobering reflections purveyed through his solo albums that create this most indelible impression.
Surprisingly then, Ward’s new album, More Rain, finds a break in the clouds. Chock full of special guests — among them, Peter Buck, Neko Case, k.d. lang, the Secret Sisters and Joey Spampinto of NRBQ — it rocks with an insistence missing from his previous efforts. There are reliable riffs and memorable melodies galore, but it’s an unexpected cover of the classic Beach Boys standard “You’re So Good To Me” that drives the point home. What, we wondered, has accounted for this change in tone? That’s exactly what we asked him when we had opportunity to speak with him following his return to his home in Portland Oregon following a vacation in Hawaii, just prior to preparing to promote More Rain.
Your new album has been touted as being a bit more upbeat than your previous efforts. You even do a Beach Boys cover, “You’re So Good To Me.”
I’ve been a fan for life and I’ve covered a lot of their songs just for fun because I am such a fan. This was an experiment just to get some of the harmonies down. Brian Wilson is the original genius of vocal harmony. Just to imitate them 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. So it’s a different approach towards the song, but I felt like that song could be rearranged and still be a great song.
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?
The original idea was just to use voices and guitar, and use vocals to create 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 choice 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.
In the Northwest, the rainy season can last a long time.
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 very well. I learned a long time ago to rely on analog gear. That plays a big part in the way the song sounds. I’m normally not using a pick on the guitar, so that affects the sound. I’m not normally using standard tuning, so that creates a certain sound. I like to play with vocal effects. All those things add up to create to make that atmospheric impression. However, to be absolutely honest, I don’t know where it comes from.
But 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 b e 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 and 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 are concerned. I always appreciate other peoples‘ takes on a record because you guys are the ones that have a better perspective on the record, and I’m the one with zero perspective because I’m so inside it.
No doubt people have commented on your music before. Where does that downcast perspective come from?
Probably from just normal human experiences, In my opinion, I’m happy just as much as I am sad. 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 those songs. 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 live either. The ones that are my favorites are the ones that seem to strike some kind of balance, either dark picture with a little bit of light in the corner, or ones that paint a light picture with a little bit of darkness in the 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.
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.
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.
So performing isn’t something you necessarily enjoy?
I enjoy playing with friends onstage. Absolutely. The process of arranging songs you recorded for the stage. That’s the inventive side of performing. What gets difficult is all these airplanes and hotels and sound-checks. It seems like it’s not the way to live one’s life.
Isn’t it a bit of a contradiction, to be a bit withdrawn and still be an artist whose job it is is to appear in front of an audience?
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. I’ve always been that way. Me being on stage is like a fish out of water.