M. Ward on Succeeding by Failing, the Perils of YouTube and a Career of Collaborations (Q&A)

Autumn de Wilde

For his seventh album, "A Wasteland Companion," the prolific indie journeyman recruits some 18 guests including Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, PJ Harvey producer John Parish and She & Him cohort Zooey Deschanel.

Before he started on his new album, A Wasteland Companion (out today), folk singer-songwriter M. Ward had essentially followed the same recording practice for more than a decade. Having settled in Portland, Oregon after college, Ward stuck to making his solo albums locally, in familiar environments where he knew he could achieve the sonic intimacy and authenticity he prizes. But as his various other musical projects -- She & Him, the retro-pop duo he’s in with actor Zooey Deschanel; Monsters of Folk, with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis -- have pulled him away from home in recent years, Ward decided it would be disingenuous to record A Wasteland Companion in that same old way. His life was on the road, and so his album should be made on the road. Working with as many as eighteen guest musicians and engineers including Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, frequent PJ Harvey cohort John Parish and familiar friends such as Mogis and Deschanel, Ward recorded tracks in Portland, Omaha, New York, Austin, Bristol (UK), and Los Angeles, where he lives currently. 

The Hollywood Reporter: What were the benefits of recording this album on the road?

M. Ward: It was my chance to go to places that I’ve been invited to over the last ten years and see what happens and which musicians I can find in those areas. I wanted to try a situation where we could control the sound and do it in studios but still be able to think on your toes when you’re not in your comfortable situations or comfortable rooms or comfortable sound gear. So, it was an experiment and I feel like I could make all my records like this.  It’s a very different thing driving to southeast Portland to record a record than it is walking to SoHo to record a record.

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THR: There are a couple of tracks on this album that sound a bit more pissed off -- “Me And My Shadow” in particular.

Ward: I kind of like the idea of a doppelganger that exists inside of your subconscious and sometimes you meet him or her in your dreams. And sometimes this doppelganger exists in real life. And sometimes I think it’s the person that I see on TV, who is me. Seeing yourself on TV is a little bit like having an out of body experience, and I normally don’t go out of my way to witness it, but spending a lot of time in Los Angeles, you do think about these David Lynch kind of topics -- like “who does Los Angeles make people become?” And it’s a good question that needs to be asked.

THR: Did working on the She & Him stuff influence this album?

Ward: When I first heard Zooey’s demos, they made me want to dust off my Phil Spector box sets, and that’s what I did. And I had always wanted to not copy it directly, but I love Phil Spector’s production and I never would have had anything remotely close to that just working with my own songs. But I was hearing it in Zooey’s songs, and we had talked a lot about that era of music making. And as a result I’ve gotten a little bit deeper into the wall of sound and Zooey’s turned me on to certain singers like Darlene Love and The Fleetwoods, and that ends up inspiring your own work in ways that are more subconscious than conscious, but they are definitely there.

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THR: Do you think it’s gotten easier or more difficult to be the kind of artist you are -- a singer-songwriter on an independent label who’s not necessarily trying to make a radio hit?

Ward: Someone asked me recently if I thought the whole Facebook revolution and Garage Band/Youtube/Myspace/Twitter thing has been a good thing for musicians and I was really stumped. I really don’t know. It’s like the floodgates have been opened to anyone making a record and I really don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. What do you think?

THR: Meaning that anyone can make music and as easily disseminate it or…

Ward: I love that anyone can make music. Anyone has always been able to make music. But I really believe that there’s something valuable in having to wait a while before you make your first record, and nowadays you don’t have to wait a day. You write a song and, because all your friends are doing it, you put it on YouTube. And that automatically means there’s a visual element to the music and I think that does a disservice to the amount of time you’re spending working on things like chord progressions. Working on things like lyrics. I don’t know.

THR: If you were just starting out today, how would you start?

Ward: It’s a good question and I think about it sometimes, but I really doubt I would have spent my high school years with my 4-track and my audio cassette constantly pressing rewind. I’m really happy that I had that incubation time to fail and succeed and fail and succeed on my own just looking at the songs on the 4-track and not, “Ah, I put this video on YouTube and it’s there forever and now I have to live with it and there’s no reversing it.” And all of a sudden it’s like, you’re seventeen years old and you have to worry, “How am I gonna look for the YouTube camera?” Can you imagine how that would change the last century of music?

Twitter: @THRMusic

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