I first saw M. Ward play in a Jewish community center on New York City’s Upper West Side in June 2002 when I was visiting from Pittsburgh. A friend who was interning for Ward’s booking agent brought me to the show, dragged me through the rain from Williamsburg, lending me a blazer several sizes too big to keep me dry. Dressed in a baseball cap with a stainless steel harmonica holder around his neck, clutching an acoustic guitar, Ward took the stage, really just an open space in the front of the room with a white piano to indicate that music went on there. Head down, Ward began to pick at his guitar. The soft ring of gently plucked guitar strings built and echoed through the room till it hung in the air like a mist. Ward began to sing in a voice dusky and gorgeously diffuse, as if it were filtered through the speaker of an old AM radio. It was folk music but not quite. He had the small crowd’s attention immediately and didn’t lose it till he walked off stage and out into the rainy night.
In the time since, Ward’s career has built slowly, like one of his songs. He has toured more our less year-round — on his own, with a banking band, and/or with such similar and yet quite different acts as Bright Eyes and My Morning Jacket. In the same span, he has released three albums, each a subtle refinement of the same basic sound: dust-bowl era folk music as interpreted by a former Firehose obsessive. Ward’s latest, Post-War, received the standard almost universal praise upon its release in August, almost exactly four years after I moved to New York.
I met Ward for lemonade (me) and iced tea (him) at a small coffee shop on 25th Street between on a rainy afternoon several days after the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. We had the window seat and watched as several cars maneuvered recklessly and seemingly without concern for bumpers into and out of the parking spot outside the window. Two-thirds of the way through the interview, Ward pulled a sheet of paper and some crayons from a nearby table and began to draw a sort of flat rainbow.
So basically I just kind of scribbled down all these questions in a notebook. What I’m going to do is read them off to you and
M. Ward [slips on a pair of sunglasses]: Okay, I’m ready for you.
You’re probably pretty sick of this question by now, but why is it just “M.”? Why not “Matthew”?
It’s a nickname that I’ve had for a long time.
Going back to childhood?
Going back to, yeah, probably middle childhood.
Did your parents give you the nickname? Siblings?
So, are you from North Carolina originally? For some reason that’s where I seem to remember you’re from …
Okay, I have no idea. Where are you from?
Where in Southern California?
I’ve never been to California. Is Ventura County near Los Angeles?
It’s like an hour north of L.A.
Is it like suburban there?
You could say that. It’s near the beach. It’s really, really warm. Have you heard of Camarillo? Malibu?
I’ve heard of Malibu.
It’s not far from Malibu.
So it’s sunny and beachy and …
… not really rainy or cold or anything like that?
[Sipping iced tea] Mostly it’s really warm.
That’s funny because I wouldn’t think of that listening to your music. Your music doesn’t evoke that kind of weather.
[Fumbling] Although there’s that kind of surf kinda song [“Neptune’s Net”] on the new album.
Right, right. I love surf music.
Also, you covered that Beach Boys’ song [“You Still Believe in Me”] on your previous album.
I guess that music is especially great to me because it takes me back to where I grew up. Most people are like that — music that reminds you of where you grew up has a special value. The Beach Boys’ music has a lot of value to me.
But in your case the surf music is kind of weird because it’s sort of been processed through Portland.
It is kind of weird, yeah.
Or it’s not weird.
No, it is definitely kind of weird, yeah.
Before going solo, you were in a band called Rodriguez. I understand that was pretty different from what you’re doing now?
Yeah. We went to a lot of Mike Watt shows in L.A. and just kind of ripped off his band, Firehose, and had a really good time.
That was you and Jason Lytle of Grandaddy?
Jason gave me engineering and some of the production on a record we did [the band released one self-titled album].
But he wasn’t in the band?
He was . Yeah, he was never in the band. It was a band with me and this guy named Kyle Field. It was short-lived and it was fun.
Was that pre-Grandaddy?
No, it was right around the same time they were starting.
So this is going to be kind of a weird free-association thing. I’m going to give you a name and ask for your thoughts on the name, and then I’ll get to the actual question.
Cool, that’s fine.
Conor Oberst — how did you meet him?
He invited me to do a show — or actually go on tour with him. That was in 2001 or something like that.
Were you familiar with Bright Eyes?
Was that sort of thing where he appreciated your work and you appreciated his work?
Yeah, there was a mutual respect.
And that was where you met [Bright Eyes multi-instrumentalist] Mike Mogis, who recorded some songs on Post-War?
Yes, that’s where I met Mike. Actually I met a lot of great musicians through that tour because [Oberst’s] orchestra was really big. I’m still friends with a lot of the people from that tour.
Okay, the next name. Just to give you some context, I was just getting my hair cut. And you know how they have blocks — music blocks on the radio?
Oh! Like rock blocks?
Yeah. So I got a block of Bob Dylan. And he’s similar and I guess also not similar to what you do. What do you think of Bob Dylan?
He’s incredible. I don’t know what else I can say.
Were you into his records when you were a teenager?
I was. He’s one of those rare artists where you’re curious to hear all his records. That doesn’t happen to me that much. I have heard almost all his records, and even the bad ones are good. And that doesn’t happen very often. Usually the bad ones are bad. But [Bob Dylan’s] bad ones are good.
I don’t really know his music.
He did a song for this John Fahey tribute that I co-produced [I Am the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey, released on Vanguard in February], and that one turned out great. But I’m not really that in touch with a lot of modern music. It’s hard for me to keep up with all the new music. I’m still hunting down old records by artists that I know I already love.
That’s true of me, too. Do think that’s a natural thing that happens to people after their mid-twenties?
It might be. When I first started buying records, I used to buy a lot more than I do now. Why does that happen? I’m not exactly sure.
He’s pretty awesome, yeah. He’s a great songwriter.
Do you remember how you first came across his music?
I do. Mike Watt’s band Firehose covered a Daniel Johnston song called “Walking the Cow” — I’d never heard of Daniel Johnston before I heard that song. That’s when I discovered his music. My first reaction to his records was, “This is too weird for me.” It’s without any artifice or traditional production. But after a while you get to realize that this is how he chooses to play his songs to the world. I recommend his tapes to everyone.
Daniel Johnston’s early tapes in particular play kind of like radio broadcasts from Mars, so to speak. I don’t mean to say that records don’t really sound like Martian radio broadcasts, but there’s a similar texture.
Well, there’s so many influences and they all sort of build up in your brain and get mashed together. It’s like a puzzle.
Howie Gelb of Giant Sand.
Right. I met him through Jason [Lytle], and he took me on my first tour of America and Europe, and he’s been a great friend ever since.
How old were you when you went on that first tour?
Well, let’s see. This was 2000, so I was maybe twenty-six or something.
And how did Gelb come to hear your music?
Through Jason. He called me and said, “We should work together.” And I said, “Wow, of course.”
Presumably you were familiar with his music?
So when you get a call like that
Oh, it’s huge. I remember where I was when he called.
Where were you?
I was in San Francisco at the time, staying at a friend’s house.
Does the world kind of look different after that kind of a call?
Not that much. It wasn’t like a call from God or anything, but it was like, “Wow, you know, maybe I should be thinking about doing music more seriously.”
What were you doing at the time?
I had a job teaching kids how to read.
Oh really? Like literacy
Were you a teacher?
Basically. I worked at a clinic.
So there had always been the music side of your life, but there was also the sort of have-to-make-a-living side?
Yes, but I’ve been four-tracking since I was fifteen and I never stopped and I still haven’t stopped. I started making actual records in 2000, but I never stopped four-tracking.
Did you get one of those hundred-dollar Fostex models?
I think it was three hundred dollars. It was a big thing for me. They’re cheaper now, but at the time they cost about three hundred dollars. It was — it is a Tascam Portastudio. I still have it.
The last random name: John Fahey.
I was touched by his music from a long, long time ago. And that had an influence on me to write the sort of songs that nobody seems to be listening to anymore.
That reminds me of the title of that new Tortoise boxed set, A Lazarus Taxon.
Oh, right, right: Lazarus. I guess so.
How is Post-War different from Transistor Radio?
How do you mean different? All the songs are different; everything about it is slightly different. I don’t know. What do you mean exactly? What aspect?
From a songwriting standpoint.
Right. Well, if you’re talking about songwriting it’s very similar, because all of the records I made are sort of done in the same way, which is going through my old four-track tapes and making some order out of the chaos. In my house there’s a room that’s cluttered with wires, capos, and four-track tapes. It’s overwhelming sometimes, and that’s when I know it’s time to go through and listen and try to find songs and parts of songs that seem to fit.
Do you also record in that room?
[Reaching for crayons/paper on nearby table]: I record on my four-track in there.
When do you go in there? Just like whenever?
Well, I’m working there a lot. Usually when I’m home, about once a day. It’s just it’s like my work bench. Hammer stuff out and see what happens. I go through the tapes and I make more tapes. I’m constantly trying out ideas, like you do in your notepad.
Did you write these songs with a band in mind?
[Coloring] Every song is different, really. After you’re done four-tracking a song, you do start to go through in your head how you want to arrange it. A song like “Roller Coaster,” I wanted a very minimal arrangement. A song like “Right in the Head,” I wanted something more bombastic. So you just try to listen to the song while it’s being written and you try to find out where the song wants to go. You try to keep yourself out of it as much as possible. If you follow where the song wants to take you to, often you find yourself inventing things, experimenting. That’s my job as someone who gets paid to experiment with sound and musical ideas.
It’s your job?
Oh, it’s definitely a job, just like your job. Everyone’s got to pay the bills.
But that doesn’t change the way you approach it?
Even though it’s a job? No. I approach music the same way I approached it when I first started playing music. It happens now that it’s my job, but I’m still doing it for fun.
The title is Post-War: What war are we talking about here?
You know, the title of the record is abstract. The songs are abstract. Everything I’ve ever done is fairly abstract. There are some things that are sort of concrete I guess, but there’s a reason why it’s abstract. And that reason is that I like it to be that way. When lyrics are abstract people can come up with their own interpretations. It makes the interview process, for one thing, more interesting because a person will be like, “I think this song’s about” and I’ll be like, “Yeah, sure that sounds great.” I don’t think my interpretation is better or worse than anyone else’s.
That sort of leads to the greater question: Who does the work ultimately belong to — the artist or the audience?
Well, it depends on how you’re answering the question, because if you ask my lawyer he’ll say that the song belongs to me, but if I’m answering
The meaning of the songs. There’s the meaning that you maybe had in mind when you were writing, but once you put it out into the world
Right, it becomes something else. And I like that side of music. It’s one of my favorite aspects of it. It can mean different things to different people. Meaning isn’t a fixed thing. It’s not math; it’s the opposite of mathematics. So in general I shy away from interpreting anything too much.
I’ve read some interpretations of the title Post-War to mean actual war — as in, the war in Iraq.
Yeah, definitely some people are interpreting it that way. And I’m down with that, you know, that sounds great to me. If that’s what they think it’s about, then that’s what it’s about.
But it’s hard to imagine the war being over anytime soon, isn’t it?
It’s hard to say. No one has a crystal ball, unfortunately. I’d like to think it’s over soon, but it’s not for me to say.
To make the leap from war to love — all of your records have love songs. It’s theoretically possible to write the same love song over and over again, but they’re all pretty different, right?
It’s one of those things like God. People are going to be talking about it as long as there are people. It only makes sense; it only adds up that love is going to wind up in people’s songs.
And they’re all different because love this weird sort of thing
How do love songs evolve over time with love itself? Like over the course of a relationship?
[Returning to his coloring; a rainbow shape emerges.] That’s a good question. Most of the pop songs I’m drawn to have that element to them. You know, every good Beatles song is that way. I learned how to play guitar by learning Beatles songs; that’s how I learned the chords and that was my education. Well if that’s your education, these Beatles songs, you’re gonna end up with a few love songs. I’m singing a bit out to the world.
Because the world needs it.