M. Ward still doing lots of discovering on A Wasteland Companion
M. Ward’s wonderful new album, A Wasteland Companion, is a medium-fi tour of a country both barren and full of hidden riches. The nod to T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem is self-evident, and so is the soulful singer-songwriter’s appreciation of artists like Alex Chilton, Buddy Holly, Daniel Johnston, and Louis Armstrong. Louis Armstrong?
Along with a varied batch of originals, ranging from the thumping “Primitive Girl” to the transcendental closer, “Pure Joy”, there’s “I Get Ideas”, here done as a Texas two-step, but popularized by Satchmo and, later, Desi Arnaz. It actually started as an Argentinian tango known as “Adios, Muchachos”.
“I think it’s really important to keep rediscovering music,” says the singer (born Matthew Stephen Ward, a little over 38 years ago), on the line from his home in Portland, Oregon. “You know songs are great when they can withstand almost any treatment.”
Wasteland ripples with Americana references, both intended and accidental. In “Me and My Shadow” he refers to a character called Billy Rose. That’s the namesake of the real-life lyricist behind a song also titled “Me and My Shadow”, although Ward’s tune of the same name is an original, and a duet with frequent singing partner Zooey Deschanel.
The musician is notably generous in his support of collaborators like Jenny Lewis, Neko Case, Conor Oberst, and especially Deschanel, his singing partner in She & Him. Has he ever needed to ask The New Girl to turn down the manic adorableness.
“No, I’ve never had to do that,” he says with a laugh. “Really, I don’t get to see that whole side of Zooey. I just love what she brings to the process. She’s a wonderful vocalist, whether providing harmonies and hearing new things in the songs.
“For my first album, every part was analyzed, studied, and over-rehearsed, and I think the result was a little sterile. After that, I decided to bring in friends to help, with the proviso that they haven’t heard the songs before. That way, they surprise you in the studio. It’s really based on trust. I have a great list of friends and compadres—mostly people I’ve shared a stage with and who create a spark when they’re around.”
Recently, his stages have been getting bigger and more far-flung.
“I just flew in from Tokyo,” he says, somewhat wearily, and touring soon takes him to Austin, Texas, and then to Mexico City. Thanks to constant travelling, Ward has taken the Companion part of his wasteland journeys literally, releasing an app named after the album. Available free on his website , it’s intended to help travellers find independent radio stations while driving hither and yon.
“I spend a lot of time in rental cars, and I’m usually stuck for a while with other people’s presets,” he says. “At some point I realized it would be nice to be able to memorize stations visited over the years—places that play noncommercial music. It can be a lonely life on the road, and good radio is a real inspiration when you’re flying solo.”
M. Ward plays the Commodore Ballroom on Thursday (August 30).