By: Dennis Cook
There's a lot of known voices in popular music – the whiny, the indie rocker, the Blue Collar country boy, the Beyoncé chasing "soul" singer, the American Idol wannabe. So, one tends to pay attention when something truly different comes along. From the first time he opened his lips on record in the late '90s, M. Ward has emanated the best qualities of a classic folk singer and a '50s crooner rolled into one, a voice full of silver and the mine dirt that surrounds it. Paired with some of the slickest, least showy six-string work in the past decade, Ward's music similarly straddles a fairly wide expanse. Despite rising to early prominence in the alternative rock world, he's steadily layered on complications, throwing hooks backwards to Hank Williams, Tin Pan Alley, Sinatra and the Everly Brothers, all the while keeping one ear tuned to today's happenings. The end result is nigh-instantly charming music that hides marvelous depths. Rare is the M. Ward song that unfolds immediately, but equally rare is the song you won't find yourself happily waiting around to see bloom.
Ward's sixth album, 2006's Post-War (JamBase review), found all the elements gelling into something uniquely his own, and he's been on a steady run since then including the openly romantic She & Him, his collaboration with actress/singer Zooey Deschanel that put out their addictively listenable debut, Volume One, in 2008 (JamBase review). Befitting the change in the U.S. administration and the general joie de vivre sweeping the land, Ward returns with a lovely, sunny seventh album, Hold Time (released February 17 on Merge Records), a collection loosed from time, broadcasts on an especially sweet radio station where Ward warbles with Lucinda Williams and Deschanel while the porch swing creaks and fireflies color a full moon night. Nothing rages or rants on Hold Time, instead letting calm and contemplation hold sway.
JamBase was invited to ask Ward some questions about his new release and his music in general. Here's what he had to say.
JamBase: First off, Hold Time is a marvelous title. I love when two words can conjure so much, and this brings up holding back time and memory, both the positive and negative in our relationship with time. How'd you settle on this title and how do you think it ripples through the new album?
M. Ward: It means a lot of different things I think. People I talk to have been coming up with their own take on it - and that's always a good thing. The short story would be to say that capturing time is I think part of the job of making music.
JamBase: Moving just a tiny bit further in, the very first lyric - "When you're absolute beginners it's a panoramic view/ from her majesty Mt. Zion and the kingdom is for you" – mirrors the title in its seeming simplicity. It comes on like a benediction but that only seems to work if one is naïve in some ways, an absolute beginner, if you will. Faith and belief in big things is a reoccurring theme in your work, and I wondered if you could throw some light on what draws you to this kind of imagery and ideas.
M. Ward: I'm not exactly certain where the inspiration comes from. I can say that my biggest influence is older records, older songs and older production styles.
The majority of tracks on Hold Time are three-minutes or under. There's a real dedication to brevity that doesn't sacrifice density, sidestepping the usual "length equals depth" dynamic. This is something I picked up on with the She & Him album, and I wondered if this spilled over into the Hold Time sessions?
I don't think two or three minutes is short. Two or three minutes is in fact a very long time and plenty of time in my opinion to say what a song needs to say - at least it's enough time to say the things I like to say.
There's an unabashed sweetness to some of your recent material, "Rave On" is a good example. It's tough in this cynical, been-there-done-that age to tap into the kind of gentleness and innocence one hears in vintage Motown or '60s pop singles but you seem to have figured out a way back to that waterfall. So, how'd you do it?
I give credit to the writers for writing durable songs.
One of the ways one can judge a musician is the company they keep and you have some swell collaborators on the new set – Mike Coykendall, Lucinda Williams, Jason Lytle [Grandaddy], Zooey Deschanel. Could you talk a bit about your coconspirators and what they bring to your music? It's often in the sparks we throw with others that we see ourselves in a new light and I'm curious how these folks spark you.
Everyone has their own unique talents in music, and part of the joy of production is finding a space where all these talents can fit together. You start hearing people's voices in the studio and you follow your instincts and try your best to work it out.
|M. Ward by Annie Musselman|
It's been almost 10 years since your solo debut Duet For Guitars #2 came out. How has your approach to music making changed in the intervening decade? It's a huge, maybe even unfair question, but listening to Duet and Hold Time one would be hard pressed to say they came from the same creator in many ways. One big thing is one hears few fingerprints from your influences anymore – in other words, the M. Ward of Hold Time sounds like M. Ward and not a disciple of Neil Young, Dylan, etc. I can't offer a musician a better compliment than they sound just like themselves.
Your guitar playing gets a lot of attention but over the last few years I've really begun to see what a fantastic, unique vocalist you've grown into. There's a lot of power and pop in smart, thoughtful phrasing – the way words are savored on the tongue – and I wondered who some of your influences in this area are? My ears pick up Patsy Cline and Billy Holiday but I have no idea if I'm off base.
I never know where to begin with these questions, but a good place to start I guess would be the songs that I've covered over the years.
On the subject of guitar, I've long been curious if you're a Les Paul fan? Parts of the new album and your work in She & Him conjure up his amazing, out-of-time work with Mary Ford in the '50s.
Yup, Les Paul is great, so is Hubert Sumlin and Chet Atkins, among hundreds of others.
M. Ward is currently on tour. Find dates here.
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