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Coachella-bound M. Ward is becoming a more outgoing sort

His new album, 'A Wasteland Companion,' points to a more accessible profile for the introverted singer-songwriter. Other projects have shaken him from his comfort zone too.

April 11, 2012|By Margaret Wappler, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • M. Ward will be performing at Coachella.
M. Ward will be performing at Coachella. (Ross Gilmore, Redferns…)

Singer-songwriter M. Ward is an introvert blazing through an extrovert's world. In the span of 13 years, the 38-year-old artist (born Matthew Stephen Ward) has grown from recording hushed bedroom music in Portland, Ore.'s alt-troubadour scene to making albums with sitcom star Zooey Deschanel, co-founding the folk-rock supergroup Monsters of Folk and playing both Friday nights at this year's Coachella festival.

Ward hasn't lost his affection for closeted, sometimes experimental folk, but in the last few years he's let in more light.

His journey from the corners of his own mind to a more accessible profile continues on "A Wasteland Companion," from Merge. Balancing the spontaneity of playing live with his more intimate compositions, the album is Ward's most outgoing work so far. In a way that his other records haven't, "A Wasteland Companion" unabashedly embraces a wide audience.

"It was time to burst that bubble, that hermetic seal," he said, speaking in Hollywood at his manager's office. (Ward recently purchased a Los Angeles home but his base is still in Portland). The singer kept his sunglasses on as he spoke in slow, thoughtful cadences about his seventh solo outing.

It's been a long road for Ward. His first solo album of sparse guitar songs was released by friend and indie stalwart Howe Gelb of Giant Sand in 1999. From there, with his breakout albums from the mid-aughts, "Transistor Radio" and "Post-War," the artist created music fit for lounging near a campfire in the woods, seemingly beaming from one of the only radios for miles around.

Though some of his songs flirted with a rollicking edge, it wasn't party music. "When you look back at your records, you should be able to see yourself and where you were at then," Ward said. That's part of why he named his 2009 effort "Hold Time." "You can have that power with music: You can freeze the moment. With music your imagination is more at play than looking at a photo."

Recent projects have shaken Ward out of his comfort zone. For the last few years, he's exhaustively toured with She & Him, his band with Deschanel that blossomed from cutesy side project to chart contender. The duo's 2010 album, "Volume Two," reached No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and has turned into a beloved staple for the fair-trade coffee set.

Taking the stage alongside spitfire troubadour Conor Oberst and My Morning Jacket's Jim James, one of the most charismatic frontmen in rock, Ward also toured with Monsters of Folk. Sharing production and writing duties, the collective, which also includes multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, released a spirited if uneven debut in 2009.

Between all the various gigs, Ward recorded songs he'd written in spare moments with whoever was game in each city. He worked in eight different studios, including one in Bristol, England, where he played with PJ Harvey's frequent sideman John Parish. Using 18 musicians for his 12 songs, from Deschanel on a Daniel Johnston cover to Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, Ward realized, "I don't need the same band and the same people to make a cohesive record."

Ward is no stranger to working with a roving cast of collaborators. Jenny Lewis' now-defunct band Rilo Kiley served as Ward's backup act on tours some 10-plus years ago. In 2006, she looked to her friend to co-produce her solo debut, "Rabbit Fur Coat."

Perplexed at first, she'd watch him arrange seemingly disjointed fragments of guitar, piano and percussion. "Suddenly you'd find yourself transported to his sonic universe," Lewis said of the result. "He brought this ghostly feel to my record, a certain kind of David Lynch quality."

Ghosts haunt "A Wasteland Companion" too. "Primitive Girl" takes a '50s-style piano bop but smears it just enough to make it sound as if you're listening to a party from out on the rain-soaked street.

"I Get Ideas," his cover of a vintage ditty popularized by Louis Armstrong, longs for a time when simply dancing close to a woman could give a man some unwholesome notions — quaint material in the age of the sex jam.

At its best turns, "A Wasteland Companion" nimbly switches between nostalgic styles (floor-stomping rockabilly or contemplative compositions in the style of his Americana hero John Fahey) in the same gear-shifting manner as the Beatles' "White Album."

Oberst, who tracked down Ward in 2001 after hearing his "End of Amnesia," remembers the early days when Ward took the stage "hiding behind those baseball caps." Even one of his strengths, his skilled guitar work, doubled as a shield. "He's an incredible singer," Oberst said, "but he was more comfortable playing his guitar."

But both Lewis and Oberst notice he's more at ease on stage now, though his baseball cap was on for a set he performed for KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" last month. There he played a cover of "Roll Over Beethoven," a song so shopworn that's it hard to find any enthusiasm for it — but his rousing version wouldn't have it any other way.

Clearly, Ward has gathered new confidence. But when asked if he's gotten more comfortable onstage over the last few years, he said, "I'm not sure but if so, it's nothing crazy significant." Or maybe change is better viewed from a safe distance, especially if you're M. Ward.

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