Interview: M. Ward’s Reverential Hold Time Ignites Spiritual Quest

M WardSinger/songwriter Matt Ward grew up in Ventura County a few miles north of Los Angeles. A big Beatles fan, he picked up a guitar at 15 and began toying with a four-track thereafter. His short-lived project, Rodriguez (with Little Wings’ unheralded Kyle Field), offered an opportunity of a lifetime. During an opening performance, Ward impressed Jason Lytle, guiding light of defunct Modesto-based bellwethers, Grandaddy. This led to Lytle producing their lone album, Swing Like A Metronome. Ward received some local recognition and before long moved to Oregon.

Residing in Portland, he met Howe Gelb, founder of desert-rock oddities Giant Sand. He gave the ageless patriarch a self-recorded demo during a Seattle stint. Soon, the now-christened M. Ward made his formative fingerpicked debut, Duet For Guitars #2, on Gelb’s boutique Ow Om Records. An ’01 follow-up on Future Farmer, End Of Amnesia, led to Ward’s signing with foremost Carolina label, Merge Records.

On ‘03’s unalloyed breakthrough, Transfiguration Of Vincent, Ward’s understated minimalist tunes, frequently delivered in a sheepishly intimate tenor, proved to be captivatingly therapeutic confessionals with convincing introspective insight. His scruffy prairie wanderings and somber campfire retreats had the intrinsic pastoral beauty of what fellow Portland artist Stephen Malkmus once coined the “Range Life.” A delicate folk charm resonates from Ward’s hushed cigarette-stained baritone identity, actualizing the forlorn bellow of a drowsy grief-stricken loner straddling the precipice time. Betwixt haunting romantic lamentations lurk plain Western preludes, interludes, and prologues; fastidious instrumental tracks that’d also bedeck the ensuing Transistor Radio.

Still singing in an artlessly unaffected monotone drone, but utilizing cleaner production, better songs, and a more relaxed atmosphere, Ward doubled his spellbound audience with Transistor Radio. Rooted more in rural folk-blues tradition and solemn old timey ballads, its highlight has to be the wistful “Radio Campaign,” where Ward serendipitously repeats the choral “come back my little piece of mind” with the same uncanny tossed-off slacker delivery inevitable pal Conor Oberst emitted for Omaha counterparts, Bright Eyes. Tempered piano boogie ditty, “Big Boat,” turns up the bass turbines and lays on the slashin’ cymbals. “Hi-Fi” welcomes the purified bossa nova elegance Ward’s apt to dabble in. And “Four Hours In Washington” works as an insomniac’s twisted nightmare offhandedly presaging another indirect Capitol City homage, Post-War.

Concerning personal politics in spite of its expediently combative Middle East-affected epithet, Post-War scuttles opportune anti-militaristic effrontery by way of a tactful procession of desperate lovelorn limericks swept away when the cagey Ward tackles cracked Texas eccentric Daniel Johnston’s rejuvenating, “To Go Home.” A rustic homecoming with a prescient Neko Case vocal cameo, its dark piano grandeur and plodding bass inexplicably evoke semi-famous Montreal contemporaries Arcade Fire. As usual, Ward’s powerful interpretive ability makes it possible for him to push across Johnston’s triumphal lyrics with preferable candor. On the instrumental front, there’s the majestic “Neptune’s Net,” a reverberating Hawaiian surf guitar orchestral. And without making too much of a fuss, celebrated My Morning Jacket bard, Jim James, contributes tender back-up vocals to dreamy elegy, “Chinese Translation,” as well as snickering acoustic trifle, “Magic Trick.”

As a nostalgic sidestep, Ward’s striking ’08 collaboration with Hollywood actress, Zooey Deschanel, a reluctant piano-playing singer/songwriter, caught the attention of grass roots enthusiasts as well as the pop masses. Under the trite moniker, She & Him, the resourceful pair have a good time embracing innocent Country-blues eclecticism, endearing Deschanel’s uplifting bell-toned contralto to Ward’s meditative six-string adaptations. Dusty Springfield’s friendly ghost hovers above the lilting whistled symphony, “Thought I Saw Your Face Today,” and Patsy Cline’s wayward drama compels the moving country and western torch song, “Change Is Hard.”