M Ward strays from indie ways

Posted by Eric Volmers on 24 July 2013

For critically acclaimed cult artists, there are perils to flirting with mainstream success.

Now that singer-songwriter M. Ward is increasingly associated with She & Him, the duo he formed with actress-singer Zooey Deschanel, his admirers in the media seem to have become increasingly vigilant in detecting hints, imagined or otherwise, that he has left his indie ways behind. This is silly, of course. She & Him is hardly Justin Bieber. But they are unabashedly pop and they have won a Grammy. They even released a Christmas album in 2011.

So while Ward's 2012 solo record, A Wasteland Companion, received good reviews in general, it's not hard to detect a certain wariness from some of the hipperthan-thou scribes pining for his lo-fipast.

For instance, one came to the curious conclusion that the relatively upbeat Primitive Girl was "overly polished." Others dismissed the sunny cover of outsider songwriter Daniel Johnston's guileless Sweetheart, which happens to feature Deschanel on vocals, as disposable pop. ("Chokingly poppy," sniffed one critic).

On the line from his home in Portland, Ore., Ward is certainly diplomatic when discussing that peculiar sense of ownership some have taken over his music, particularly as he strays from the rambling folk that first brought him to attention more than a decade ago.

"I know that I do that when I go out and buy a new record from an artist I love," Ward says. "You end up getting attached to a certain sound and I think it's natural. But, the fact is, nobody wants to make the same record over and over. Nobody wants to write the same song over and over. People change and they want to experiment. I think, by and large, the people that buy my records are open to an experiment now and again."

Wasteland Companion was, in fact, a bit of an experiment for the songwriter. Released three years after 2009's Hold Time, Ward abandoned his usual modus operandi of recording in the comfortable Portland environment he was used to. He travelled to eight studios in the U.S. and the U.K., used various engineers and an army of musicians.

"It was healthy for me, I think," Ward says. "I think the best records are the ones that are able to represent that time in your life. The making of this record happened to have a lot of travelling in it. So when I hear the record, I'm hearing all these different places and people and musicians that I had a chance to work with."

Ward will be playing the main stage of Calgary Folk Festival on Thursday as part of a power trio, which will again require some tinkering of both the new and older songs.

While he may have changed up his recording habits for A Wasteland Companion, he still sees the material that emerges from a studio setting as merely one stop in a song's life.

"My feeling is that the song should always be changing and the way that the songs are down on the record is just a picture of how they are developing," he says. "I think if you are playing the song over and over live, it's only natural for certain parts to change and grow and hopefully get better. (The power trio) puts more emphasis on the guitar for me. And I love the challenge."

Aside from She & Him, Ward gained popularity as a part of the "supergroup" Monsters of Folk alongside My Morning Jacket's Jim James and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis. Ward has guested on albums by both My Morning Jacket and Bright Eyes, plus records by Jenny Lewis and Jolie Holland, among others. And while Deschanel writes most of the material for She & Him, Ward plays guitar and produces the records and has also toured as part of the act.

All of which may suggest that he is wearing himself thin and putting his solo work on the back burner, particularly since his last record took three years to record. But Ward says his extracurricular activities are generally timed for his convenience. Which is not to suggest he has a timeline for a followup to A Wasteland Companion.

"The She & Him tour is now done," he said. "I am now doing occasional shows around North America and I'm going to do an Australian tour in the fall. I don't have any plans at the moment to make a new record. At the moment, I'm happy just playing occasional shows and visiting beautiful parts of the world like Alberta."