Seven solo records, countless collaborations, a reputation as a revered guitarist, a venerated vocalist, a sought after musical partner. Stateside, he’s not far from legendary status having managed to pitch his tent on that fine line that lies between commercial viability and artistic integrity, creating records which chart well but which remain consistent, honest and unique. In the UK, he’s honoured with the respect and admiration commanded by only the most accomplished of musical souls. He is M. Ward and he’s in London preparing to perform at a sold out headline show at the Leicester Square Theatre.
“I just got in last night,” states a slightly weary Matthew Ward. “I was at SXSW all week so my head’s still spinning a bit from all of the travel. But it was great. It’s just insane. They keep making it bigger and bigger with more and more people, and more and more bands…”
From the offset, there’s something extremely warm and genuine about the guy. Although tired, his responses are elegant and considered, his manner charming, his philosophy unbroken and unquestioned. All traits which add up to make him one of the most popular collaborative partners in his folk-tinged world. Over the past three years, M. Ward has worked alongside everyone’s favourite New Girl Zooey Deschanel as the ‘him’ part of She & Him, as well as with Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes and Jim James of My Morning Jacket as a permanent member of Monsters of Folk.
“Well, you can’t help but be influenced by your friends, and just working with them on music,” says Ward of his prolific collaborative nature and the influence of his partners over his current musical state. “And another big thing is the records that they turn you on to and just talking about music – you can’t help but be influenced by them.”
A Wasteland Companion is M. Ward’s seventh studio album, his first solo record since 2009′s Hold Time and his first for London based Bella Union, a matter which Ward is vocally happy about. “I’m very excited to be working with Bella Union, I’ve been a fan of their label and the people that run the label for a long time, as has my manager. They sent over some of these new songs and now here we are! I couldn’t be happier. [This album] took about three years to make, so I’m happy that it’s finally seeing the light of day.”
It may have taken three years to put together, but A Wasteland Companion was by no means Ward’s only focus during that time. Worldwide tours with She & Him in support of the high flying second record Volume Two, a christmas album, a record with Monsters of Folk and a subsequent tour plus collaborations with Tired Pony, amongst others are all projects that have been commanding his careful attention. Looking at this schedule, it’s startling that Ward managed to find the time and energy to produce any solo material at all. Or perhaps ‘solo’ isn’t quite accurate. The songs were certainly penned by Ward’s fair hand, but A Wasteland Companion contains resonances of the collaborations which have kept Ward so occupied over the past few years. Meetings, friendships and partnerships have led to many a studio door being left open to welcome Ward to record, and for this album, he decided that the time was nigh to cash in some of those offers.
“I’ve been invited over the last 8 or 9 years to record in all of these incredible studios around the USA and Europe and this was the record where I told myself I was going to make the time to do it. I also wanted to create a new kind of record that was a combination between a live record and a studio record, so I think it has the best parts of a live record, which is improvisation and working in different rooms, talking about the record with different people… And then it also has the best parts of a studio album where you can find sounds and manipulate them however you want to.”
Some of the faces (or voices, to be more precise) that feature on the album are already familiar to us in an M. Ward context. Zooey Deschanel lends her dulcet tones to the record, as well as playing host to contributions from Mike Mogis and Scott McPherson. But there are some new additions too; “The first [new] name that comes to mind is Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth, who’s somebody that I’ve wanted to work with for a long time” says Ward. “I’ve been a fan of Sonic Youth since high school, so it was great to finally meet him in New York and then to record with him.”
Another name unfamiliar when pronounced in the same breath as M.Ward is that of John Parish, the production mastermind behind PJ Harvey’s much discussed Let England Shake, and who invited Ward to join him for a recording session in his studio. “He has an incredible studio in Bristol. I’d love to go back there some day” says Ward. “Because of the records that have been recorded there, I was expecting a really grand, fancy studio but instead it’s sort of … it looks like a den for grizzly bears or something.”
The recording locations may have varied – from the bustle of New York City to the relative tranquility of Omaha, the home comforts of Portland to the bright lights of Los Angeles, and even on to the rainy streets of Bristol – but Ward’s ethos has remained honest and true to his previous approach. “The more I make records, the more I realise how important it is to pre-programme half of it and then to leave the rest of it unprogrammed, if that makes any sense…” he reflects. “[But] I guess the thread through this record is that it all came out of the idea of where inspiration comes from. And the discovery that it’s best if you don’t know the answer and to keep continuing to guess. Journalists always ask ‘what’s the inspiration for this music?’ and that’s always such a hard question to answer. Although it doesn’t stop me from making educated guesses.”
“What’s even more difficult to understand is that my whole career is reliant on [the] existence [of inspiration] and so the thing to do is to try to understand where it comes from, because if you can get to that source or that spring, then you’ll be set for life, right?” Easier said than done, by all accounts. “Yeah. There are a lot of songs that get lost in that maze.”
Another element which Ward considers carefully is to create a sense of equilibrium, to find an intricate balance between shadow and light in his music. “Sometimes it happens by accident, sometimes you have to push certain buttons to make it happen. It’s just something that I’m constantly learning about – figuring out more ways to create balance. Finding new tools to use to create a balanced song. It’s hard to explain, but you know if you hear it. Emotion’s a big part of it, but I think most sad lyrics and slow tempos are very boring. I think most happy lyrics with major chords and upbeat rhythms are very boring too. It needs to be a combination of the two.”
As the interview begins to wrap up, conversation turns to the imminent show and the thought process behind the evening’s set list. “When I’m playing live, I combine everything,” he explains, “trying to make the old new again and trying to make the new old! I’m actually in the process now of figuring out how to do that. My proper tour starts in April, but I’m here to do these few solo shows with Feist, three in the UK and three in France so that should be good to help figure it all out.”
It’s this seemingly effortless approach, the apparently nonchalant ‘it’ll be all right on the night’ attitude that has led M. Ward to the highly successful and revered position he’s currently in. M. Ward is a true artist, a man that lives and breathes his music, constantly writing and eternally creating. A structured plan doesn’t need to exist when the method is a lifestyle, which is a comforting thought as it leaves no doubt in the fan’s mind that this extraordinary guitarist with the cotton soft vocal will continue to create as the years unfold.
One final question – after such a busy and prolific few years, when anyone in their right mind would be considering taking some down time, why choose now as the moment to release a new record? “I only put out a solo record when I have a finished batch of recorded songs that seem to fit together in some way. Sometimes it takes a year, sometimes it takes three years. The songs tell you when they’re ready.“
A Wasteland Companion is available now through Bella Union.