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Pursuing his own Oregon trail

M. Ward's imagination roams free in Portland, where small-scale

February 15, 2009|ANN POWERS | POP MUSIC CRITIC

PORTLAND, ORE. — "We don't use the word 'grande' here," said the barista at Albina Press, one of the latte-obsessed Pacific Northwest's many shrines to the perfectly pulled cup. "That's a proprietary term of the Starbucks company. Do you mean 'large'?"

While I tried to sweet-talk my way out of a bitter drink, Matt Ward, who'd suggested we meet here, scanned the coffeehouse for a table. Every spot in the large, airy room was taken by someone hunched over a laptop or a book. This cross section of students, unidentified "creatives" and home-office refugees would not tolerate the noise of a journalist quizzing a musician.

So we sat outside, pulling our sweater sleeves down against the January damp. Ward didn't seem to mind. The 35-year-old recording artist, better known by his nickname, M. Ward, had been on his own laptop when I'd come in -- just another independent contractor pursuing his bliss.

In categorical terms, Ward is a singer-songwriter, but really he's a singer-songwriter-plus. He's a gifted guitarist known for his fleet finger-picking and loose, improvisational style; a singer who has developed a distinctive, creamy croon sprinkled with sugary grit; a lover of the American songbook spanning country, classic pop and blues, who doesn't rest in any of those avenues. His seventh solo studio album, "Hold Time," comes out Tuesday on Merge Records. It's a high point in a consistently thought-provoking career, comparable to Joe Henry's "Trampoline" or John Prine's "Bruised Orange."

"I love the idea that I planned my career. I did not," he said. "It started out by getting invitations from artists that I really love and respect, to share a stage. . . . I've been very lucky in that I haven't had to create a five-year plan. It's evolved."

Since releasing his first album on Giant Sand bandleader Howe Gelb's tiny label 10 years ago, Ward, who was born in Ventura County and moved to Portland after college, has kept walking through those open doors. His career is a model of sustainability and slow growth in the midst of the music industry's widely heralded collapse. A notable producer and frequent guest on others' albums, he recently gained a new level of notoriety after collaborating (beautifully, by the way) with actress Zooey Deschanel in the duo She & Him.

The crash of the corporate pop business has, in a way, helped make careers like Ward's possible. No longer even slightly tempted to strive for the kind of stardom major labels once supported, Ward and his friends -- including Jenny Lewis (whose solo debut, "Rabbit Fur Coat," he produced), Conor Oberst, Neko Case and Jim James of My Morning Jacket -- are making indie rock into an artisanal affair. A commitment to craft and an earnest but uncowed attitude toward history aligns them with post-baby boomer bohemians working in many other avenues: small-batch coffee roasters, letterpress printers, designers remaking vintage clothes in eco-friendly fabrics.

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Patchwork songs

Ward similarly redesigns old patterns in his songs. "There's a lot of reference points of all my songs," he said. "I love the sound of Elmore James, the sound early guitarists like him got just by using minimal means. But I'd want to pair that with strings that remind me of a Billie Holiday record. Those are the kinds of juxtapositions I'm striving for. It's never going to happen where Chet Atkins played guitar with your favorite singer from some different decade. But I can pretend, and that's where the sounds often come from."

Ward's music has been called "mysterious" and "timeless" -- vague terms that fail to capture the intricate nature of his artistic process. It's more accurate to say that Ward is making a game of history, in the most serious and attentive way. His compositional process involves digging through four-track tapes he's been making since his teens, matching songs from different points on his own timeline until he comes up with a thread that coheres.

The story that emerges from this process is as much about Ward's exploration of pop history as it is about his emotional life. On "Hold Time," that story takes a spiritual turn. Informed by the music he heard going to Baptist services as a child, this set could be called "gospel," but the songs sound as much like meditations on Phil Spector or the Beach Boys as riffs on his favorite Carter Family hymns.

"There's a relationship between music and spirituality and inspiration and to a certain extent improvisation that draws me in, because I don't totally understand it," said Ward. "I know that those relationships have been telling me, since I started making records, where to go. What to write down. What in my mind will be durable, you know? You are exploring these mysteries that you're probably never gonna solve."

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