“I do love music, but I don’t love to do the same thing over and over again,” M. Ward told Rolling Stone over a glass of white wine on Friday night in Santa Monica, relaxing backstage before recording a live performance of songs old and new for KCRW-FM. “I’m lucky to have talented friends and talented collaborators.”
Ward’s friends keep him busy: He’s been working with Zooey Deschanel in She & Him and with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Jim James of My Morning Jacket in the trio Monsters of Folk, on top of his own acclaimed solo output. His new album, A Wasteland Companion, will be released April 10th.
“It’s all about waiting until there’s a new batch of songs that are finished and smoldering and ready to record,” Ward said of his various projects. “You always make time for things you love to do. It always ends up happening. It’s very weird.”
Songs from the new album made up half of his short set for KCRW, recorded in front of 200 fans and friends squeezed into Bob Clearmountain’s Apogee/Berkeley Street Studio in Santa Monica for broadcast and online video streaming (at kcrw.com) the day of release. But Ward began with some gentle forward motion on the lovelorn and questioning “Chinese Translation” from his 2006 album Post-War, strumming an acoustic guitar with his eyes shut as drummer Scott McPherson added a light shuffle on the brushes.
Wearing black and red flannel and a fishing cap, Ward sang, “What do you do with the pieces of a broken heart?”
For the sweet and melancholy “Paul’s Song,” Ward was accompanied on dreamy pedal steel by Chris Scruggs. Later on, Ward picked up an electric guitar for the new album’s “Me & My Shadow,” which built into a hard-charging rocker with a reverby Dick Dale-sized solo before ending with a crash. (Deschanel sings with Ward on the album version.) Another new song was “Cry After You,” with Ward bent over an upright piano for a sad melody and Scruggs on fiddle.
After spending the last decade recording mostly in Portland and Los Angeles, Ward made A Wasteland Companion at various studios around the U.S. and Europe. Among them was John Parish’s cave-like workspace beneath an ancient church in Bristol, England, where PJ Harvey and Portishead have recorded. It’s where Ward completed the song “Primitive Girl,” the album’s bouncy first radio single. There are studios in Italy and Iceland he still hopes to visit.
“The most important part of a new place is the people that are connected to it,” explained Ward, who now splits his time between homes in Portland and Los Angeles, not far from where he grew up. “It’s a great thrill to walk into a studio and work with the engineer who spent half his life there and knows how to manipulate the sounds so that it sounds beautiful to them. The engineer is an unsung artist, and I love to enter their architecture.”
The source of his own inspiration remains much more mysterious to him. “When people ask me what inspired a song, it’s the hardest question in the world because if I could say that, then it would be so mathematically easy for me to go and write another song,” Ward said. “It’s important that it stay a mystery.”
“Me and My Shadow”
“I Get Ideas”
“Never Had Nobody Like You”
“Crawl After You”
“Watch the Show”
Encore: “Fisher of Men” and “Rollover Beethoven”