OnMilwaukee.com – M. Ward Feature
Versatile singer/songwriter M. Ward makes his return to Milwaukee
By Joshua Miller
Published June 16, 2016 at 1:06 p.m.
When singer/songwriter Matthew Ward, who goes by the moniker M. Ward, arrives in Milwaukee on Friday ahead of his Pabst Theater performance, he might be happy to learn that the Milwaukee Art Museum will be holding its Lakefront Festival of Art that day. One of Ward’s favorite Milwaukee memories, besides playing concerts, is visiting the art museum.
“I had a great day just along the coast there, and the day ended going to that museum,” Ward says. “The greatest thing is the people I’ve met in Wisconsin. I always enjoyed getting to visit.”
The Milwaukee concert will also be a special one for Ward, as opener NAF (Nice as F*ck) features Jenny Lewis, with whom Ward has worked a number of times over the years. Ward appeared on Lewis’ solo debut, “Rabbit Fur Coat,” and earlier this year Ward, Lewis and The Watson Twins celebrated the 10th anniversary of that album. (Lewis and The Watson Twins will be back in town this fall to celebrate that album.) The band also features Erika Forster from Au Revoir Simone and The Like’s Tennessee Thomas.
“I’m excited,” Ward says. “We toured with them on the East Coast last month. I really love Jenny’s new music. We’ve been friends for maybe 15 years, and I think her music keeps getting better and better. She’s an unstoppable force.”
For his part, Ward is touring in support of his eighth solo studio album, “More Rain,” which he released in March. He started writing it with the hope that the album would lean heavily on vocals, backing vocals and guitars. But he soon found himself quickening the tempo and turning up the volume a bit.
“I wanted to lean on vocals and backing vocals and guitars. That was the idea when I started out, was to have nothing but guitars and voices,” he says. “After four years – that’s how long it took me to write the record – the record grew and matured, and now it has these different textures on it. But that’s still the backbone of the record.”
Ward credits the musical collaborators on the album for that added texture. The list of contributors includes Peter Buck of R.E.M., Neko Case, k.d. lang, The Secret Sisters and Joey Spampinato of NRBQ.
“Every guest I invited into the studio brings their own unexpected energy and talents to the songs,” he says. “I feel very lucky to have these friendships with these extremely talented people. One of my favorite things to do in the studio is bring in talented musicians who don’t really know what they’re about to hear, and they are able to record an instinctual reaction to the music.”
The album finds Ward looking inquisitively out at the world.
“I think one of the biggest mysteries of America right now is this: How are we able to process unending bad news on Page 1 and then go about our lives the way the style section portrays us?” Ward said in a press release. “There must be a place in our brains that allows us to take a bird’s-eye view of humanity, and I think music is good at helping people – myself included – go to that place.”
When asked to explain that quote, Ward says the “alternative is looking at all the negative events of the world,” which “leads to insanity, or at the very least not being very productive.”
He adds, “I try to use my music to help see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Since Ward is from Portland, Ore., “More Rain” is a fitting title, as the region’s weather is infamous for its rainy gloom. But he says it’s something universal that everyone experiences. And that the city can be a motivating force even when it’s raining.
“I think everyone has their challenges wherever they live. Portland does get gloomy in the wintertime, but it’s also perfect weather for making music and recording,” he says. “I’ve been in Portland since 2000 and I love the city and you learn to live with whatever challenges you’re faced with.”
Some of the songs are newly written, while others have been around for many years.
“The sources for these songs go back anytime between one year and 20 years,” he says. “There’s not one event or one song that inspired the record. It’s just life.”
That said, he says his song “Little Baby” had a big impact on the sonic direction of the album.
“That was an experiment I tried, of a song with guitars and voices,” he says. “That was one of the first songs we recorded for the record.”
Ward tries to write songs that have the bigger picture in mind.
“The problem is that there are too many songs that don’t have the big picture in mind,” he says. “And those are the ones that don’t seem to last very long.”
“More Rain” is one of the many projects that Ward has been a part of in recent years. He’s released five albums with Zooey Deschanel, as She & Him, and was part of a 2009 collaborative album with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, as well as Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, under the moniker Monsters of Folk. Ward has also worked as a producer with musicians like Mavis Staples and Jenny Lewis.
Ward says he likes playing with Deschanel in particular because “she has an incredible energy for music.”
“She’s a natural singer and just an extremely talented artist,” he says. “We don’t have any specific plans to have a new record, but something will happen.”
Even after performing music for many years, Ward has found plenty to keep things fresh and interesting for himself.
“Music has never lost any of its power over me ever since I was a kid,” he says. “The way that I keep myself inspired is I continue to find new music to listen to and new books to read and new movies to watch. The process starts by being inspired by all the life around you. And there’s a lot to be inspired by.”
He says the biggest difference, though, between now and when he started is that he’s able to manage his time better.
“I’m able to step away to recharge whenever I need to,” he says. “When I first started out making records, I used to tour for six or seven months of the year. But now I can do it at a much more sensible pace. By doing that, I’m able to leave myself open to interesting recording projects. It’s a better situation for me.”
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