published Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Q&A with singer/songwriter M. Ward

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Portland, Ore.-based singer/songwriter M. Ward about his collaborations and friendships with other artists, his need for wide open space and the possibility of music to enact change.

CP: Have you been to Chattanooga before?

MW: It will be my first time.

CP: What are your expectations about coming here, if any?

MW: I'm expecting Chattanooga to be the kind of place you visit and then you want to move there. That's what I've heard. I've heard very good things about Chattanooga. Just the whole state of Tennessee has incredible musical history. I'm looking forward to seeing all four corners. This is my first time trying to do a Tennessee tour - a Tennessee Waltz - and I'm looking forward to it.

CP: When will you get a chance to get off the road? What are your plans when that happens?

MW: I'm off the road right now. I'm in the middle of taking a week off. I just got back from Sweden four days ago. I did a tour of Scandinavia, and that went really well. I'm following up that tour of Scandinavia with the tour of Tennessee. Then, I'm going to play a festival in San Francisco called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Then, I have a good amount of time off.

CP: I don't know what kind of pre-show planning you do as far as preparing set lists, but looking back at the last few weeks, what music has been making its way into your shows? Is it material from “Hold Time” and “Post-War” or do you pull from further back in your catalog?

MW: I normally fly by the seat of my pants. I'll be doing some collaborating with some friends of mine in Dawes. They're a Los Angeles band that's really great. I've been collaborating with them on and off this year. The set will be a little bit of me solo, some songs from my catalog and some songs with Dawes.

CP: Your career for the last 10 years has been defined by your collaborations with everyone from Neko Case, Lucinda Williams and Esperanza Spalding to Zooey Deschanel and, of course, Monsters of Folk. What, if anything, does working with new people do for you, creatively?

MW: It fills out the sound for me and puts a lot more surprises in the records. A lot of times when I'm in the studio, I'm thinking about how someone can play a certain part, and then I make the part. I've been lucky to work with some very talented people. I'm fortunate to have a lot of talented friends. One of the best parts of what I do is getting to collaborate with great artists. I've never been that interested in making a record on my own; that doesn't sound very interesting to me.

Maybe some day, if I get really lonesome, I'll do that, but I like people. I'd rather collaborate with talented people than get into the technical aspects of recording and be up to date on the latest gear and recording technology. I'm much more interested in experimenting with humans than with machines.

CP: You mention that all these artists are your friends. Which aspect of the relationship typically comes first? Does the musical partnership develop out of the friendship or is it the other way around?

MW: It's a good question. At this point, it is complicated because I made my first record about 10 years ago, and since that time, you travel around the world and meet incredible artists, and they become your friends. It's one of those weird things like if someone asks who your friends are, do you scratch out all your coworkers or your family or your employees? It's one of those things where it's both; it's everything.

CP: In an AV Club interview a few years ago, you described your creative process as involving “find[ing] the greatest artist in whatever you do and rip[ping] them off, with respect.” Who are some artists you unabashedly admit to having ripped off?

MW: I don't know where to begin, really. There have been so many. Just recently, I was in the studio, and I was working with my engineer to make this guitar solo sound the way that Elmore James's guitar solos sounded.

We experimented with different microphones and amplifiers and guitars, and we got something that definitely wasn't a replica but definitely was inspired by him. That kind of stuff happens all the time in the studio for me. You try to make your snare drum sound like this record or that record, and you just use your imagination to fill in the blanks when you're creating the record.

My biggest inspiration is older records. I try to only rip off dead people. That's a huge part of anyone who is alive, what they're doing. For me, that's my main inspiration: Older records.

CP: You've described moments from the recording process. Does that same desire to emulate others extend to songwriting or is that an area where you prefer to remain completely individual?

MW: You know, I think I have maybe an unusual vision of what the individual is. I think the individual is just an amalgamation of all your influences. It doesn't matter if you're talking about me or some other singer or guitar player.

I think you're just the summation of all these influences. If you get enough of them in the stew at the same time, that's who you are. If you're bringing in these elements that have come from far and wide, I think that's when you start to realize what your sound is. You can't just be influenced by one person or one singer or one guitar player.

I think it's much more interesting to incorporate all of your influences, whether we're talking about movie directors or artists or poets or songwriters. When you make records for a living, you have the capability of being inspired by all of these different media and turning them into an LP. It's incredible. I'm very happy that I'm able to make records for a living because I'm able to incorporate all these different influences I have in my life.

CP: Conor Oberst is highly respected as a songwriter, and he has been outspoken in his admiration of your writing. So have Norah Jones and Jenny Lewis. What, if anything, does that kind of praise from your peers mean to you, artistically speaking? Do you give it any credence?

MW: I guess I give them just as much credence as when I appreciate any of my other friends' work. I don't know. It's a weird thing to think about, actually. It's a mutual admiration society. It's a nice place to live and work because I love what they do, so what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

CP: In a 2004 interview, you discussed your need to have wider open spaces to think and have less stimulation. It seems like being out on tour more and more often would limit your opportunities to have that. Has that been the case, and if so, has it affected your songwriting?

MW: I think there was a time when I was touring when I just started touring and getting these incredible invitations from these artists I really respected when I may have toured a little bit too much and didn't spend enough time at home with family and friends and real life.

After a few years of that, of touring seven or eight months out of the year, I started to realize I needed to get a better balance. It's all about finding whatever balance works best for you creatively. I'm lucky that I've found a much better balance between work and home, so I don't really find it difficult.

CP: When you came to that realization that you were spending too much time on the road, was it a slow-burning realization or more of a eureka moment?

MW: I think it was a slow-burning realization that the only thing you're really able to nurture when you're traveling is your music. That's a very shallow existence, I think. Most people who write songs are inspired by all kinds of different things. I think that spending time at home doing normal, everyday things with friends and family just opens up the door to normal, real-life kinds of inspirations.

It's a convoluted answer to the question, but it was a slow process of realizing that. [Laughs.]

CP: I read an interesting quote from you online in reference to “Post-War” that you based that album on the idea that “producers and writers and artists … helped in a miniscule way [after World War II] to change the mind-set of America.” Do you think that degree of potential influence is still true of music today? Of your music?

MW: It's hard for me to put perspective on my own music's influence, but I think that novelists and poets and film directors and musicians and record producers and journalists definitely have an influences on the way the culture thinks and looks at the big issues and answers the big questions.

I also believe that there's a zeitgeist effect where we aren't able to see it really clearly until a decade after the fact. Any student of art or art history could tell anyone that artists definitely have an influence on language, for one thing. Once you start changing people's language, you start changing the way they look at their own attitudes towards the big questions.

CP: That seems like it would put a lot of pressure on artist to have it in the back of their mind that there's that kind of potential in their music to enact such significant change. Do you ever think about that when you're writing?

MW: It's a good question, but I think, for me, I never think about these things in terms of my own music. I think bout them in terms of other people's music. That's a liberating way of looking at what you do for a living. Don't wake up in the morning thinking about your legacy. That's a bad way to start the day.

CP: It's been two years since “Hold Time.” I understand you're working on a She & Him Christmas album and a new solo album. What can you tell me about those projects?

MW: The record is not finished, so it's a little bit too early to say what it is, but I'm excited about having a record next year, and I'm pretty sure there's going to be one.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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