M. Ward -- Matt to his friends -- releases his seventh album, "Hold Time," on Tuesday. The evening prior, he'll kick off a tour that leads from Buffalo to Europe with a show inside the Tralf.
Already, "Hold Time" is being praised as a monumental achievement for Ward, who has been slowly and steadily building a loyal fan base with his ornately conceived blend of virtuosic finger-picked guitar; reverb-laden, soul-stirring vocal melodies; and subtle, supple "chamber-folk" production flourishes.
Already a star with those savvy in indie-rock and pop, Ward broached the mainstream with the 2008 release of "Volume One," the debut effort from She & Him, a duo Ward founded with singer and actress Zooey Deschanel. The pair's efforts yielded international success and paved the way for future collaborations. Also in the works is a collection of recordings from Ward's ongoing experiments with Bright Eyes mastermind Conor Oberst, producer/musician Mike Mogis and My Morning Jacket vocalist/guitarist Jim James. Talk about your supergroups!
Ward spoke to The News earlier this week as he prepared to welcome "Hold Time" into the world, and to launch the tour commemorating it.
You've conjured some beautiful sonic space with the new record. It's lush, but also spacious, and it has a very timeless feel. How difficult is it to capture on tape a vibe that is at once contemporary and somehow pregnant with the past?
I suppose that being able to do so comes from taking inspiration and following it, but knowing you can't re-create something that was made in the past. If, for example, you take inspiration from a Howlin' Wolf or Robert Johnson recording, and then follow that inspiration through to where you begin blending it with other influences, you're likely to come up with something that feels right, that has aspects of the original inspiration, but is still new, and your own.
The thing is, you start out aiming for one thing, and you end up somewhere else. The happy accidents can certainly be blessings!
Though the record is highly arranged and well-crafted, there is nevertheless a real air of spontaneity here. Do you shoot for a certain ratio of preplanning to improvisation going in?
Yes. It's a real balancing act. If you go in knowing exactly where every single drum beat will fall, what every single vocal harmony will be, and so forth, you can end up with something very cold. If the song feels durable, though, and you bring in the right people and let them do what they do, and they bring some of their own personality into the equation, you end up far better off. The music will have much more of a spontaneous, human feel.
Having said that, I'm not one to go for the sort of formless jam thing! (laughs) That's never really been my bag. It can be fun sometimes. But I like songs. So the trick is to have a real song, with thought-out chord progressions and some concrete ideas in terms of construction, and then let some things happen in the studio.
As a lyricist, you seem to be much more comfortable being obliquely suggestive than with stating things outright. The songs retain a sense of mystery and open-endedness, because you've left the door open, so to speak.
I'm glad to hear that. I appreciate, for example, films that don't tell you how to feel, but leave it to you to make up your own mind by planting some seeds of thought. I prefer meaning, or at least themes and ideas, to be implicit, rather than explicit. The same can apply to music.
Would you agree that a lot of contemporary music attempts to cynically manipulate emotional reaction, rather than encourage thought? That a lot of it assumes the listener is not too bright?
Unfortunately, I would absolutely agree. It's easy to resent that. I assume that the listener is intelligent, and formulate thoughts and follow through themes on their own.
As a big fan of (the late guitarist) John Fahey, I really appreciate hearing his influence in your playing. For me, Fahey always had a haunted sound that mixed American and European approaches, and his pieces sometimes sounded like they'd been recorded in a cloud. What about Fahey's approach made the most lasting impact on you?
Yes, I love his music, absolutely. It was the otherworldly combination of Delta blues with European classical music that I found so overwhelming when I first heard it, and still do today.
More specifically, listening to Fahey encouraged me to stop using a guitar pick and to begin exploring fingerpicking in the manner that he did. It really suggested to me that there was so much to say with this style of guitar playing. His influence runs really deep with me, and I'm so happy he's enjoying a bit of a renaissance right now.
You're playing in Buffalo on the eve of the release of "Hold Time." This most likely doesn't mean what it once did, what with the Internet providing this sort of ether-level retail experience, but still, it's being treated like a big deal around here. Do you still get excited about a record's street date, or does that feel less consequential these days?
I know what you mean, but I really do still get excited about the day the record comes out. I love to get the new, completed album, with the artwork and everything, in the mail. It still thrills me to no end! And even though so much has changed, I think a lot of other people still feel the same way.
I look forward to the day something I've worked so hard on is finished, and then has moved from the realm of the imagination into reality. Then it's time for the next step -- to take the songs on tour, to play them for people, to see how they might grow and change.
We're very excited about playing in Buffalo, by the way. I've never even been there. I'm looking forward to the experience of playing for you guys.
WHO: M. Ward
WHEN: 8 p.m. Monday
WHERE: Tralf Music Hall, 622 Main St.