M. Ward is an old soul. Old souls listen intently. They demonstrate patience for their own thoughts. And they have a gift for speaking about complex matters in an easily digestible, hypnotic, oratory style. So as the singer/guitarist casually fiddles with the black locks of hair matted against his forehead (or the one that dangles alongside his right eye in a neat tuft), I'm becoming entranced by the quality of his speaking voice. In fact, I'm almost tricked into thinking he’s just rattled off a new song about how America is going through a period of artistic amnesia. In his humble and unpretentious manner, Matt Ward describes a vocation that reminds young audiences about the value of uncomplicated American music that tells a good story.
Ward’s personal history is as touching as his music. In a sweet-yet-gravelly tone, he whispers, "Before this, I was teaching kids with dyslexia how to read. I think working with elementary-aged kids changes the way you see the world forever."
At a time when Ward wasn’t far removed from childhood (around the age of 15), he taught himself guitar. Like a close friend, the guitar would stay with him as he went on to college to study English literature and linguistics. Later, his musical explorations evolved within the Portland-based band, Rodriguez, and he eventually became a trailblazing solo artist. It was then that he released his first LP, Duet for Guitars #2.
“Guitar was the way I started,” Ward reminisces. “That's my first passion. I don't really feel I know how to sing at all. Yeah, I considered just being a backing guitarist in a band but then I started four-tracking and people started getting excited." Among the intrigued was Howe Gelb (of Giant Sand) who introduced Ward to a record label in Belgium.
Asked why Europe has been so responsive to his style, Ward pontificates, "I think among Europeans there's a fascination with American culture and especially its heritage. But I think that America is going through some sort of amnesia. [Note: M. Ward's second album was entitled End of Amnesia.] If you talk about old music to somebody who's in high school, they talk about the ’80s. They don't recognize Chuck Berry or Louis
Armstrong. I think it's easy for me to write about past eras with a certain amount of imagination. I think it's easier to write about a place that you've never been to for this same reason, the imagination. Writers, in some ways are patchworks of all their past influences. I think all of my biggest influences were from people who have already died; people from a long time ago."
In many ways, M. Ward’s music is a rekindling of our country's childhood, a perceived era of innocence that stretches back as far as the late 1800s and spans through the 1940s. Unsurprisingly, his music reflects a folky sound that might have been heard by pioneers who traversed the Oregon Trail. In effect, listening to Ward's soporific 2003 album, Transfiguration of Vincent, can seduce the body to lay flat against the jagged, cooling earth, allowing one’s eyes to fixate on the shimmering and shifting black ceiling above. Though the campfire flames lick the air and embers threaten to spawn greater fires, comfort is found in Ward's hushed, unflappable vocal performance. At other times, however, Ward can explode into jangly guitar riffs put to mysterious tales. And no matter what shifts are implemented, there’s an uncomplicated undercurrent to every M. Ward song. For Ward, late guitarist John Fahey reinforced this feature that’s so brilliantly evident on Transfiguration.
"[Before he passed away], John steered me into a different area of simplicity,” Ward explains. “All of his records were solo acoustic guitar. And the idea of a solo instrument being enough for a whole record was something that you don't hear that often. His devotion to older songs and older melodies was important to me. I'm not sure I'm promoting this overtly as much as it just ends up happening. But, there is something about simplicity that is timeless as opposed to extremely complex ideas. Or maybe it's that time has a way of dwindling complex ideas down into something simple."
Ward may have a puritanical vision for creating unadorned, minimalist music, but the process by which he records his albums cannot be described similarly. The self-aware perfectionist is notorious for taking up to two years to finish an album. Yet, the end product curiously disguises the amount of detail that goes into a typical M. Ward album. Without disclosing the mystery behind the man and his music, Ward offers a few fabric samples, a few patches from his quilt.
"To me," Ward says, sighing pensively, "short stories, poetry and songwriting can all be lumped together. I think they're all supposed to do the same thing, which is to tell some truth within a story. It's about the evocative. The song, 'Out of my Head,' is somewhat inspired by Emily Dickinson's poem about violence in wintertime. I think that 'Romantic Fools' was born out of seeing A Mid Summer Night’s Dream—the idea that people were in love with fools."
Ward's attraction to the emotional discourses of Dickinson and Shakespeare is evident in his live performances. When he plays, time seems elusive. Holding the neck of his guitar almost vertical to the ground, he hovers over the mic and croons. The audience goes slack jawed as his fingers viciously attack the stiff metal strings. By the next song, he’s making amends with his instrument, picking the acoustic swiftly yet gently. Ward is half in tune with the present, listening intently to the music he’s making. But he’s also tuning out the audience and getting in touch with the past.
"The most exciting time for a song is right after you wrote it,” Ward articulates. “Or, if it's a good production, you remember the day that you recorded it. You'd think that the more you play a tune, the more diluted it gets. But if you add some element of improvisation it stays new. But if you play it exactly as you did on record, it's going to get old. So I guess keeping it new requires a little bit of work, but sometimes it's always worth it because sometimes you end up with a different song."
With an ear for nostalgia and a hint of newness, it's evident M. Ward is at the beginning of a very long music career. But has he ever thought of giving it all up and returning to teaching? He smiles and replies with peace of mind, "I guess in a similar way as with music, kids have this innocence and simplicity. I could go back to teaching, easily."