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

Redemption and hope consume ‘09’s prodigal Hold Time, originating with hastened acoustic deliverance, “For Beginners,” which peers down from Mount Zion in search of salvation. Perhaps aching for spiritual guidance, “Jailbird” finds Ward summoning supreme powers to “help me, help me now” over nectarous orchestral strings and Spanish guitar. The resolute “To Save Me” spells out his philosophical beliefs inside an approachable, upbeat, echo-laden Wall Of Sound recreation employing streamlined piano and nifty Beach Boys harmonies. The seemingly secular fare brings further dramatic impact and added coloration. Glistened keyboard burbles go asunder as oncoming six-string, bass, and drums awaken chimed horoscopic summit, “Stars Of Leo.” Spaghetti western guitar and a down-along-the-railroad bass scheme suitable for Johnny Cash (yet somehow indicative of Buddy Holly’s Texas two-step rock and roll) reinforce the folkloric ode, “Fisher Of Men.” And the same hand-clapped, kick-drummed snare beat embedding Gary Glitter’s ubiquitous glam anthem “Rock & Roll Part 2” secures love-struck jubilation, “Never Had Nobody Like You.”

Part of Ward’s success thus far could be attributed to his aspiration to “keep feeling like I’m making my first album each time out.” That perseverance has paid off. And now, the humbled M. Ward will headline Harlem’s historic Apollo Theatre on Feb. 19.

Do you see a thread connecting the lean John Fahey-like guitar pickings of your earliest endeavors to the latest generously arranged symphonic works?

The record’s have more in common than there are differences. They all fit together because I have no perspective. I’m still inside this long tunnel. I love the process I’m inside of—as far as making records goes. There’s enough variance for me to keep it stabilized and not make any drastic changes. I know the Rolling Stones could fly to Jamaica to make a record in 10 days. For me, it takes two years. It depends on the passage of time to tell me which things to harvest and what to keep in the manure.

You seem to be incorporating the instrumental guitar passages into vocal songs more often. And the songs seem more hopeful.

I feel like a good record should feel like a good movie. People should be able to laugh and cry at the same experience. Every song is a balancing act between light and shadows. Hopefully the balance is somewhat representative of the happiness and sadness in your life. I grew up listening to the Beatles’ White Album. I never looked at records as needing to be in one steady mood or chord progression. The records are a chance to see how far you could take these different emotions. I keep them tied together. I’m just using the voice to carry a story across a melody. I still look to the guitar to take the listener to those incredible Roy Orbison moments where vocals reach operatic heights. I gravitate towards the guitar to make those statements.

You’ve increasingly used heavier beats on each successive album, culminating in Hold Time.

In general, I wanted to take the rhythms and the sounds of Post-War and basically dissect it and make rich sounds richer and thin sounds thinner as an experiment to see if they could live within a song.

Do you write the symphonic arrangements?

Yeah. I started on Post-War. It’s a newfound joy for me to be able to write string arrangements and see them come to life. Strings are such a touchy element of production because it’s easy to go over the top and make something sappy. But with enough vinegar you could keep something sweet from being saccharine.