Interview: Portland singer-songwriter M. Ward makes his headlining debut in St. Petersburg

The tour for A Wasteland Companion finally makes its way down south

click to enlarge M. Ward - Autumn DeWilde
Autumn DeWilde
M. Ward

In his quieter moments, M. Ward’s voice is like a crushed-velvet caress, rich, husky and low, delicately shifting moods from hushed and tender to sweetly sensual. He proves just as beguiling when belting more robust serenades, ironic since he started singing as an afterthought to his playing.

“I only sang to get guitar melodies across and to try to copy Beatles songs better,” he explained in a recent phone interview. “Once I started making records, people seemed to have this interesting reaction to the vocals. So I’ve continued singing. But when I look in the mirror, I don’t see a singer, I see somebody who makes records. I think that my approach can best be described as accidental.”

The Portland troubadour born Matthew Stephen Ward has been active for 15 years, and his vocals have become as much a star of his music as his practiced axe technique, his strumming, finger-picking and sliding note-play evoking star-littered skies and wide open expanses. His lyrics are both personal and observational, from humorous musings on life’s big questions to gentle, heart-squeezing odes of devotion. His preferred no-frills production gave way to full-studio treatment for 2012’s A Wasteland Companion, which found him recording in a dozen different locations and working with new musicians, including one of his favorite drummers, Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley.

But M. Ward remains largely under the radar despite indisputable talent, continued critical praise, respect from his peers, and a relentlessly loyal fanbase. Mention his name in casual conversation and you’ll likely have to reference his more widely known collaborations for context — he’s one half of She & Him with darling music-savvy actress Zooey Deschanel, and in Monsters of Folk with Jim James, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis. Still, plenty of folks count M. Ward among their all-time favorites, myself included, and getting the chance to chat with him before his first headlining date in Tampa Bay was a genuine treat. Some highlights from our conversation follow… 

How do you keep a level head with all the time you spend on the road?
I take multiple, month-long breaks. And that would explain why it’s been a while since I’ve been to Florida. When I came out with A Wasteland Companion, I supported it in America, in just a few cities in the country, and then I changed gears, took some time off, then supported it in Europe and some other strange locations like India and South Korea and New Zealand. It was incredible. I love it when I can be a tourist in the daytime. New sights and sounds, new food, new scenery. It keeps my mind pretty fresh and active.

The most important thing is probably time away from music. Which means, seeing the great outdoors as much as I can, experiencing wherever I am, in some way that doesn’t involve music. I don’t hit a lot of record stores when I’m traveling around.

Tell me about meeting and working with Zooey.
I was doing music for a film that she was one of the stars in, The Go Getter. The director had the idea of us getting into the studio together to record a Richard Thompson song. We were mutual fans of each others’ work, and we had a pretty compatible recording style and it seemed to click. She sent me her demos and I thought they were fantastic. She came up to Portland and we made Volume One in just a couple weeks, really, and it snowballed from there. It’s a very easy collaboration for both of us.

How much of your material is informed by your own personal heartache and experiences, and how much is it simply observing what’s happening around you?
I’m somebody that has a hard time drawing lines between those things. Sometimes you can experience things that other people are experiencing and somehow it affects you personally, just by maybe reading an article in the New York Times about some tragedy, or even some great achievement or victory, that somehow enters your brain, enters your psyche. And sometimes you can have a personal experience with something you’re outside of. Fiction and nonfiction, I have a hard time separating those things as well. I think that a lot of supposed biographies or autobiographies have a lot of fiction in them. Fairy tales, Charles Dickens, even Shakespeare – that has more truth to it, more reality to it, than what you’ll see on Fox News tonight.

I guess the question is, does it really matter just as long as you’re sharing an experience?
If the music you’re listening to or the movie you’re watching or the painting you’re viewing makes you feel something, then it’s successful, it’s doing its job, people are going to want to go back to this experience because it makes them feel a certain way.

You likened the process of making A Wasteland Companion to ‘stripping away your security blanket’ – what exactly does that mean to you?
My security blanket has been the way that I’ve made all my records prior to A Wasteland Companion, which is with a very, very small group of people, basically in Portland, and I’m still very comfortable with it, and I can keep making records like that for a long time. But the idea was to try to branch out and make a record that is more representative of one-half of my music life, which is traveling and moving from place to place, working with different musicians from around the world, different engineers from around the world. It was a challenge I put upon myself to try to make a record that reflects that time more accurately.

I also wanted to follow this idea of my favorite live records, which are basically snapshots or recordings of live takes from different parts of the world, so that when you’re listening to the record you’re actually traveling to these different parts of the world. Instead of making a live recording, I wanted to make it studio recordings in different parts of the world.

Your repertoire includes some Daniel Johnston covers. What first drew you to his music?
I discovered his music in high school because of a band named Firehose, one of my early favorites. They covered a Daniel Johnston song called “Walking the Cow.” I went out and bought some Daniel Johnston cassettes, and I felt like I had found a modern Robert Johnson, because it was a very radical approach to making records. Basically, as soon as you write a song, just press ‘record’ on any cassette player that you happen to have out or around the house, compile it, and that’s your record. I loved that approach. When you hear his early cassette tapes, you feel like you’re there in the process of songwriting, you’re in the process of the production – you’re really in the process of recording right there with him, and that’s a nice feeling.

Is that something you try to achieve in what you do as well?
Certain songs, definitely. More the songs that are stripped down on the records, vocal piano and vocal and guitar. There’s a bunch of songs that I put on my records that are actually from my four-track tapes, and I feel like there’s an immediacy there that is very hard to duplicate when you go into the studio.

Show details: M. Ward with Mount Moriah, Thurs., May 1, 7:30 p.m. doors, State Theatre, St. Petersburg, $20 advance/$23 dos,

M. Ward Playlist

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