M. Ward likes old things. He digs the now-hip eastern Portland, Oregon, neighborhood where he lives with his wife for the Victorian architecture and affordable prices. He loves William Blake, Walt Whitman and the Beats, but he sees no reason to keep up with contemporary authors because, he says, "I don't want too many modern voices infiltrating my bubble." And the 35-year-old singer-songwriter -born Matt Ward — plays a $50 pawn-shop guitar he's had for almost a decade and is philosophically opposed to using digital equipment to make his albums. "I feel like if you're going to spend your life trying to create something durable, you want the foundation to be sturdy," he says, carefully measuring words that drizzle out in a laconic velvet croak. "It maybe sounds overly intellectual, but I've never looked at music as a vehicle for some great angst that I need the world to hear. I look at music more as 'Let's roll the dice and see if you can create one small thing that's going to outlive you.' That's my greatest ally in making records: the passing of time."
The passing of time is a theme that looms large on his brilliant sixth album, Hold Time, due out this month. On songs such as "For Beginners," "To Save Me" and his cover of Buddy Holly's "Rave On," Ward continues exploring what has always been his most fertile terrain: the strummy sweet spot where haunting, understated folk textures meet classic Brill Building pop melodies. His albums prize atmosphere over fidelity, nuance over bombast, as if Ward appreciates the cobwebs as much as what they're stuck to. And, slowly but surely over the past decade, through word of mouth and opening slots for the likes of Norah Jones, My Morning Jacket and Bright Eyes, Ward has established himself as a career artist with both indie cred and mainstream appeal — the singer-songwriter's singer-songwriter. "He does this magic trick where he pretends like he doesn't know what's going on, but he does," says My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, who is working on an album with Ward and Conor Oberst for their "Monsters of Folk" side project — kind of an indie-rock Traveling Wilburys. He is always in control. lie's turned out to be a total gangster and one of my favorite friends. I also feel incredibly blessed I get to make music with him."
Ward's hero is George Harrison, and his Beatles fixation began early: When he got his first acoustic guitar at 14, Ward set the goal of learning to play every song in The Beatles Complete Chord Songbook, an intimidatingly thick 400-page guitar-tab guide to almost every song the group ever performed. "I wanted to play like George I Harrison," he says. "Nothing much has changed, really. When stuff hits you at such a young age, it stays with you forever."
Beyond that, Ward had no formal training on guitar. "Oh, I was studious with my Beatles book," he says. "I learned every chord that, in my opinion, needs to be learned, from that book." The first song Ward could play well was the 1963 "I Want to Hold Your Hand" B side "This Boy." He started writing his own tunes shortly thereafter, doing what came most naturally: rearranging Beatles chords and recording the results on his four-track, listening to "I Will" and "Julia" — the last two songs on Side One of the White Album — over and over in hopes of decrypting their unique magic. "They're mainly guitars and voice, but they're strange constructions," he explains. "Those two songs just hypnotized me. But the most important influences, for me, are not just these songs that I grew up listening to but the sounds and the atmosphere of those old recordings, and to try to update them is an endlessly amazing challenge."
THE YOUNGEST OF FIVE children, Ward left his family's Ventura, California home in 1991 for college a couple of hours north in San Luis Obispo. He'd planned on studying psychology but ended up getting his bachelor's degree in literature and joined a band called Rodriguez with some classmates. After brief stints teaching reading in Chicago and Seattle, Ward settled in Portland eight years ago, after falling in love with the town while recording his debut album, Duet for Guitar #2, in a friend's studio. "He’s both a really amazing songwriter and guitar player, whereas a lot of people have a strength in one or the other," says his longtime bassist, college pal Adam Selzer. "It always seems so easy for him."
Ward talks a lot about how he worries that he'll get swept up into a "scene." Sitting in a booth at the Doug Fir, a Portland comfort-food restaurant with a rock club downstairs, he muses about a Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit he saw and how he has always respected O'Keeffe's resistance to becoming part of any movement. "It's my instinct to avoid all of those," he says. "I do feel very, very lucky to have a great group of talented friends, not just here in Portland but around the country."
Back when he was trying to make his first record, Ward sent demos to two of his favorite modern songwriters: Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo and guitarist Howe Gelb of Giant Sand, both masters of the kind of haunting, dusty-road indie rock Ward has worked on refining over the course of his music career. "I looked up to Ira and Howe as arbiters," Ward says. "And I got these really nice responses from both of them that made me think, 'Why not try to do this music thing and see what happens?'"
By 2003's Transfiguration of Vincent, Ward had found ardent supporters in Bright Eyes' Oberst, who invited him on the Vote for Change tour and several subsequent outings, and Jenny Lewis, who tapped him to produce her debut solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat. "I'm learning that producing is sort of close to the improvisation for live performances," he says. "I haven't produced for a ton of people yet, because I have to really, really love the voice - not just the voice that comes out of your mouth but your larger point of view, on the compositional side of things."
He was pleasantly surprised a couple of years ago to discover one of his favorite new capital-V voices in doe-eyed actress Zooey Deschanel. They met when Ward was working on music for a film Deschanel was starring in, a sleeper with an awesome soundtrack called The Go-Getter, and she asked him for his opinion on some demos she'd recorded. I Ie loved what he heard so much that the two paired to record under the name She and Him, and they are in the process of writing a follow-up to 2008's acclaimed Volume One. "I was curious to meet him because his songs struck me as so beautiful they seemed spiritual," says Deschanel, 29. "I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but I wouldn't have been surprised if a monk walked in. Matt's very modest, and I don't think he knows what a genius he is."
Ward seems as proud of his many collaborations — Lucinda Williams guests on the new album — as he is of his albums. "It's been my experience that experimenting with people is more interesting than experimenting with advanced technology," he says. And he has always valued the role happenstance plays in his creative process. "Every song I've ever done has been an attempt to aim for perfection. You fall short, but then you end up with something new. I can't play like George Harrison, I can't sing like my favorite singers, so you end up with this weird hybrid of imperfections. It's one of the threads of Hold Time that the truth needs to be stumbled on through some combination of improvisation and inspiration."
Having examined it as thoroughly as he is willing, Ward pauses, then says, "It's a mystery that I don't want to unlock in any way, because it keeps things interesting for me."