Portland-based singer, songwriter and producer Matt Ward — stage name M. Ward — represents the best of music's past, present and future. He's an audiophile obsessed with analog recording — in 2009, The New York Times labeled him "A Four-Track Guy in a Digital World." As a performer, his eight full-length albums released over the last 15 years did wonders updating old-timey folk, pop and country for a modern audience. And as a collaborator, he's played a major role in pushing popular music forward via modern supergroups like She & Him, his breezy AM-pop duo with actress Zooey Deschanel, and Monsters of Folk, his harder-rocking relationship with Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.
Yet in all of his endeavors, M. Ward is content being the quiet, reserved guy behind the scenes. His first four records took hushed, introspective music to new heights, building up enough of a rapt audience to have his next four climb the Billboard charts and earn choice placements in various media while still pleasing hardcore fans. With She & Him, Ward lets Deschanel's crystalline voice capture most of the attention, a role he's comfortably assumed as a contributor to the work of other artists, including Norah Jones, Calexico, Jenny Lewis and Bright Eyes.
As Ward told Folio Weekly about his preferred invisibility, "It's a very idealistic thing to say, but yeah — the goal is to bring the audience directly to the idea you are writing about without anything getting in the way."
Folio Weekly: Your current tour comprises only about 12 dates. Is this typical, or does 2014 just represent a slow year since you don't have a new album out?
M. Ward: In general, I'm more at home in a studio than I am on a tour bus. I really don't tour very often. Lately, I've been more interested in traveling to perform in places I haven't had the chance to see much. In the last year and a half, we've played India, South Korea, New Zealand, so the line between tourism and touring is becoming very thin.
F.W.: Correct us if we're wrong, but you've never toured in Florida as a solo musician, right?
M.W.: I supported Rilo Kiley when they were my backing band about 10 years ago. I remember beautiful beaches and good Cuban food.
F.W.: Will you be performing by yourself? Have any plans for your set list?
M.W.: I think a true retrospective would be pretty accurate. There's usually a mix of quiet, old, new and loud. [Also], I'll have the same three-piece band I took to Australia a few months ago.
F.W.: Your old albums are very quiet — almost intimate in a way — while newer material like 2009's Hold Time and 2012's A Wasteland Companion turned up the volume a bit. Did any of those sonic shifts feel sudden or seismic to you?
M.W.: I wouldn't say seismic, but I learned that simplest is best when I made Transfiguration of Vincent about 10 years ago.
F.W.: How do you draw the line between personal and universal songwriting? Transfiguration addressed the death of a close friend, while 2006's Post-War tackled how music could affect a country at war.
M.W.: When it comes to music, I have a hard time separating the difference between personal and universal. I think personal songs — if they're written well — should be about anybody.
F.W.: You started working with Deschanel a couple of years before she began filming New Girl. Has it been surreal watching her cross over to mainstream success?
M.W.: It's definitely not surprising. I'm maybe the one person who has the privilege of being able to focus solely on her songwriting and her voice, which are both beyond great.
F.W.: You've always been celebrated for connecting old music and old recording techniques to modern audiences. As your work has reached more ears, have you updated your ideas or methods?
M.W.: My love for all those older inspirations hasn't changed at all — it just keeps getting broader as [I] realize the endless amount of music to uncover.
F.W.: As you've segued into more of a producer and collaborator role, have guitar and voice still remained
your primary forms of creative expression?
M.W.: Yes, but I've produced all my records since my first one in 2000. So the line between songwriting and producing is very, very thin for me.
F.W.: Do you feel like you still have a lot to learn as a guitar player?
M.W.: People like Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, Elmore James, John Fahey and Chris Parkening remind me [that there are] still an endless amount of things to learn on the guitar. o