"More Rain": An Interview with the Mesmerizing M. Ward

As an impressive rainstorm has finally been hitting Northern California, I'm enjoying the calming rain-sounds as I finally get to share with you my conversation from back in October with indie musician M. Ward, in support of his eighth studio album More Rain. I spoke with Ward when he performed at the historic Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in October, as part of the "Octoberst" weekend (a term coined by my photographer friend, a fellow music journalist); also known as the blessed weekend that Conor Oberst hosts a stage at the annual *free* Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. "[The Festival] is always great," Ward smiled. "It was my second or third time. The atmosphere is exciting, inspiring and I'm really glad it's free. It's a very cordial atmosphere." Additionally, Oberst always plays the Fillmore venue in San Francisco the night following the Bluegrass Festival, and usually a third show as well. This fall brought Oberst, Ward and New York's The Felice Brothers to the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, a small pastoral town north of San Francisco. I actually first heard of Ward thanks to a Conor Oberst show back in 2007. Oberst was playing the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in support of Bright Eyes' Four Winds EP, and he brought on Ward as a surprise guest. I love how interconnected this music scene is: seeing Ward and Oberst perform together is incredibly endearing, knowing they've been collaborating together musically for over a decade. 

(Photo by Van Luera: Ward and Oberst at the Fillmore)

If you've never heard of M. Ward, perhaps you have heard of Zooey Deschanel or her band She & Him--Ward is the Him. Additionally, he and Oberst joined with Jim James and Mike Mogis (who helped engineer Ward's new album) to form the folk supergroup Monsters of Folk, whose self-titled album was released in 2009. For any MOF fans out there, sadly the group still has "nothing planned, but you never know!" Considering how prolific Oberst is in his friendships and musical collaborations, I'm sure they will at least end up playing the same festival again someday.

Ward's voice, music and performances are truly mesmerizing. He sings with a sly, often knowing expression that is both funny and sweet. All his albums are exquisite--singable, comforting, often rollicking, and always relaxing. His guitar-picking skills are a sight to behold. His fantastic blend of early rock and real influences with folk, bluegrass and blues give his sound a wide appeal. One of my all time favorite Ward songs is actually his cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance"--his version is heart wrenching, slow and romantic.  

As expected, Ward "just [tries] to deal with the music side [of his career]. I leave the record releases to my management, and labels, I'm bad at organizing things. I don't micromanage my career. I let other people do that (laughs)". The result is a steadily outstanding string of albums since his debut album Duet for Guitars No. 2 in 1999. His smooth voice tells beautiful and classic stories of love and lone travelers--timeless stories. And who doesn't love an artist who reliably releases fantastic concept albums?! Ward is from the gorgeous coastal town of San Luis Obispo, California, but is known as a Portland musician as he has lived there for the majority of his career. For "More Rain" (Merge Records) he worked with "some new musicians and new engineers--it was mostly done in Portland and Omaha. Some in New York City." 

"Both [She & Him and my solo career] are good outlets for me. Zooey writes the songs for She & Him. I write my songs for my own stuff, so with She & Him, I get to focus on the production and guitars. With my own music I get to just obsess about everything!" Deschanel and Ward met when Ward was asked to sing a cover of the Richard and Linda Thompson song "When I Get to the Border" for the superb 2007 movie "The Go Getter". Ward has a small cameo in the film, as a band member rehearsing a song in a trippy clear bubble-like room in a Portland forest. The film follows Lou Taylor Pucci (who you may know from a film with another great soundtrack "Thumbsucker") on an impromptu road trip, in which he "borrows" Deschanel's character's car to go find his brother. Ward explained: "I'm not going out of my way to get my music into movies. It happens from invitations from music supervisors & publishing companies".

(Ward and Oberst at HSB Festival '15, by Van Luera)

I was sure that years back, I had read that Ward is married to an English professor. It just painted the most magical Portland picture in my head: Ward working on songs in a lovely house with a wood paneled interior, books stacked everywhere; while his wife writes lectures and perhaps a cat walks across the books, song lyrics, and of course their coffee mugs, as it rains outside. It was certainly my most hilarious interview moment to date when Ward simply answered my question about his wife, with "No, not true". Nothing to specify if he is actually married at all. After the interview I found the 2009 New York Times article where it clearly states Ward was at that time, married to a writing professor. So either they are no longer married and he did not wish to discuss his love life. Or perhaps Oberst has rubbed off on him--as Oberst infamously lies for one answer per interview. Either way, I'm amused. Oberst and Ward can certainly be a sneaky pair: throughout their fall tour, the two and the Felice Brothers mentioned the ambiguously named "Citygroup" over and over in their thank you's and between songs. I asked Ward if it was an elaborate inside joke, knowing it was probably just a general corporate jab: "It's a funny inside joke. All just playing pretend. And also, you never know, there may be a merger". Although Ward stated, "All my touring stories have been really good", one did not stand out to share. 

"The last book I read was a book of poetry by James Tate. I also love the poet William Carlos Williams." Ward explained that he "learned to appreciate" hearing the music at the church his parents would take him to, and that "looking back on that now, those were really great songs, and gave me a great musical education. And that's been the story for thousands of millions of Americans and people all over the world. So many of my favorite musicians learned that way and created great songs as a result, because that is a great background". Ward certainly collaborates with greats: check out his "Oh Lonesome Me" cover with Lucinda Williams. He also produced Mavis Staples' newest album "Livin On A High Note". Artists he recommends include: "The Felice Brothers, Angel Olsen and Yatch. When I'm in Los Angeles, I always listen to the station KCRW. They are really good at showcasing new artists, a lot of whom are really good". 

In 2012, Ward released an app with his album A Wasteland Companion, that compiled 1,000 local, independent radio stations across the US that he handpicked. Ward, who sings about radio on many of his albums (such as his lovely 2005 album Transistor Radio), released the app to encourage listeners to appreciate radio--a  clever way to use technology to bring us back to a classic form of music distribution that also builds community. The app was given rave reviews, but was not used enough. "If there was an outcry of public support, I would bring it back. It's a useful app if you travel."  

Some of his favorite places to play, which are also some of his favorite places to travel, include: France, Italy, Japan, Australia and certain parts of the United States. "I've played everywhere that I would want to play, but there are a lot of places I'd like to see as a tourist such as Africa. I love the touring part of being a musician the least, except for when I go to exciting places. San Francisco is a nice city to visit--I've been a billion times but it's always nice to come back. Recording and producing are my main things. I’m looking forward to playing these new songs for audiences. I like figuring out ways to arrange and rearrange songs so they can work live.  The thing that’s a challenge for me is when the touring calendar gets too long and I start to feel like I’m a hamster in a wheel."  

Fans of Ward's early albums such as Transfiguration of St. Vincent (which is my personal favorite) will be happy to hear an echo of the "Helicopter" song from that album in Ward's new song "Girl From Conejo Valley": "The song is me looking back to a time when I was writing songs like 'helicopter', so it’s kind of a way for me to look back on embarrassing times with some levity - which may be a key to survival. Tragedy + time = comedy. It’s a truly great feeling to finish a record but I guess the celebration is more inward -  I don’t really have listening parties - I’ll just gradually start thinking about turning the page and start thinking about what the next chapter of life and music might look like for me."

My personal favorite M. Ward songs, for those needing an introduction: "Vincent O'Brien" (2003), "Poison Cup" (2006) and "You're So Good To Me" from his newest album.