Given his quiet brilliance, it’s hard to know what to expect when talking to M. Ward. Sometimes, those gifted with a wealth of creative talent can be reticent or difficult in conversation-- the very idiosyncrasies that fire a person creatively can limit the ability to converse. Ward comes across as neither. As we talked about his new record, A Wasteland Companion, Ward was soft spoken (which made for some recording difficulties), but also extremely thoughtful and forthcoming about his process, collaborators, and whether there will be any Zooey sightings on his upcoming tour.
What made this the right time to do an M. Ward solo record, rather than one of your many collaborative acts?
She & Him, Monsters of Folk and my solo material all follow the same rules. When there’s a finished batch of songs, they need to be recorded. That’s what dictates the schedule. There’s no reason to be in the studio with anyone in particular unless there is a wealth of material to record. That’s how the process works in a nutshell.
Tell me a little bit about how A Wasteland Companion came together.
Normally, when it comes time to make a record, I record a couple dozen songs, and they all have something to do with one another, whether it be lyrically or sonically. They also need to not be saying the same thing, as there’s no need to repeat what you’ve already said. At the same time, I’m going to contradict myself by saying that I have no problem working with people that I’ve worked with again or going back to someone whose songs I’ve covered. It’s about getting to the heart of the inspiration and translating it as much as you can.
Are you up for discussing your inspiration for A Wasteland Companion, or would you rather people figure it out on their own?
I’d rather people figure it out on their own, but I can say that each of these songs had a particular balance of light and shadows that made them appealing to me- and made them fit together for the record. It’s a hard thing to put into words, but there is a definite balance to be found in this record.
Does the album’s theme come from the songs that you write, or do the songs come from a theme that interests you?
The songs happen naturally. Most of the time I don’t know what a song is about until a little time goes by. I like the idea that a song can change as it grows older. A song can initially mean one thing and then take on new layers of meaning as time passes. There’s a song on the new record, “Crawl After You,” that was inspired by a friend of mine. It started out in one place, and then ended up in a very different one. I like it when things like that happen with a song.
That song features your frequent collaborator Mike Coykendall and a violin solo by Amanda Lawrence. Do you ever see yourself making a true solo record, or will you always be recruiting people to play with you?
I’ve never really made a true solo record in the sense that it would be me in the studio with no engineers or backing musicians. The truth is, I’m a terrible drummer and I don’t really enjoy doing the engineering. I think that I could do those things if pressed, but I’m always more likely to go out and find talented people that can do it better than me, but more importantly enjoy doing it to the same degree I don’t.
Speaking of talented people, why did you decide to put Zooey Deschanel on your solo record, when you have another band to work specifically with her?
First of all, I think she’s a great collaborator and an incredible singer, and that she brings something to the songs that no one else brings. It’s the same way with drummers. When I’m at home writing the songs, I start to hear in my head how the production should go. I’m very blessed to have a bunch of talented friends, and when I decided to that I wanted to record “Me and My Shadow,” I wanted to hear her singing it. In the same way, I wanted John Parish to play drums on “Primitive Girl.” One of the greatest parts of my job is that you get to work with really talented people. After you work with them for a while, you know what situations suit them. In that way, Zooey is a great friend and a great collaborator.
You’ve worked with a lot of different female voices, including Lucinda Williams, during your career, but you’ve formed a more lasting bond with Ms. Deschanel. What about her voice makes her so special?
I believe that with good singers, their voice is an instrument. But it’s a hard thing to put words on- Zooey has a very timeless, classic voice. You hear it just once and you don’t forget it. It’s a powerful thing to have near you.
Another collaborator that you’ve returned to often is Howie Gelb of Giant Sand. He strikes me as someone who would be a lot of fun to work with.
He’s been a friend and a pal ever since I put out my first record, which he actually released on his own label. He’s an incredible improviser and incredible piano player, and one of my great friends. I met him through another great friend, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, and we’ve been collaborating ever since.
Is there someone that you’d eventually like to work with, or maybe tried to get on this record but couldn’t?
Whenever I think about this question, it just reminds me of all the friends and collaborators that I already have. They keep me so busy. I’m really not out looking for new talent. There hasn’t been a time in the past year when I’ve wanted to do something and didn’t have the resources to do it. The only limit is time.
Still, we all get a little starry-eyed from time to time. Isn’t there somebody on your super wish list?
There are hundreds of people that I respect that are still alive and making records. There was a great guitar player that played with Howlin’ Wolf named Hubert Sumlin. I had the chance to meet him a couple of years ago, and I would have loved to work him. He recently passed away, however.
You’ve also decided to cover another Daniel Johnston song on A Wasteland Companion. What about him speaks to you as an artist?
I discovered him in high school, and I’ve been a fan for a long time of his old cassette tapes. In my opinion, I think it’s only a matter of time before the world at large starts discovering his songs. I feel like his songwriting is still something of a secret, but in my opinion many of his songs are just as good as those of John Lennon. To go back to those old cassette tapes, take one of those songs and rework it make it your own takes hours, but it’s a very rewarding process. I’ve been covering his songs for the last five years as have many other musicians, but I think it’s interesting that he still remains somewhat hidden. I understand that the production quality is somewhat raw, but it takes so little effort to accept that and enjoy these wonderful songs.
As you move forward with the album release and head out on the road, how are you going to play these songs in concert?
I’m in the process of working that out now, so it’s a little bit too early to say. Ideally, I’ll have somebody there to play the part, though it might not be the person that played the part on the record. The important thing is that the heart of the song is intact. I don’t see it as a drawback that there is someone different on stage. It’s just an opportunity to hear the song in a different way, and perhaps have a different experience with it.