It’s a remarkably humid day for the onset of spring, and the cafes along Kensington High Street are fuller outside than they are in. Rather than being worried and concerned at how untypical this is for the time of year and fearing that the end of the world may be nigh, the general populus look entirely non-plussed, instead the clientele sip on Pimms and soak up the rays oblivious to all. Equally as calm, M. Ward sits in an affluent hotel lobby; the epitome of zen in his signature dark sunglasses. Don’t be fooled by the sunshine glaring in through the window, however, you can bet your one bedroom flat that the perpetually-bespeckled songwriter would be wearing them regardless. But unlike all those that scatter the West London haunts on this sunny day, from just a short time speaking to Ward you realise he is aware of the larger picture of things yet all the while keeping his focus squarely on the present.
It’s rather intimidating interviewing or even trying to hold a conversation with a man whose eyes, and thus expressions, are shrouded by such tinted mystique. If the eyes are the gateway to the soul then I am being kept the other side, having to exchange conversation via an intercom. Before our interview begins M. Ward, introduced to me as Matthew, asks for a herbal tea or some fruit-infused water if the first option isn’t viable. Obviously he is a person who likes things to brew slowly and naturally. Small talk is brief, maybe because of jetlag from a cross-Atlantic flight straight from SXSW, or perhaps he’s just that kind of guy.
Instead, gaps in conversation are common. The singer even asks to “have a few seconds to think” about his response to specific questions, resulting in periods of silence that occur frequently throughout our 20 minute time slot. This is, however, by no means a bad thing professionally-speaking. Sure, on a personal level it does cause much awkwardness, but the answers you do get are attentively considered, with Ward very precise with what he wants to say and lucid-seeming on everything he’s doing.
This is a pattern that runs through everything surrounding the musician, it seems, and his music is no exception. “I’m a very patient person,” Ward says elongating every single stress in the short sentence. “It doesn’t make sense to me to record in one room anymore. All of my records before this were made this way, but this one is comprised many rooms and many places spanning over three years of my life.” Just like his gesturings in this very interview, M. Ward doesn’t seem a man who will be rushed, and yet despite this, he is a musician who manages extraordinarily prolificness nonetheless. His breakthrough release ‘End Of Amnesia’ came out back in 2001 and he’s racked up six albums since - his latest ‘A Wasteland Companion’ included.
“I’m always writing, almost every day - whether it’s editing half-written songs or jotting down some new ones,” he tells me as his drink arrives. “But I never get frustrated because I feel that songs need to cultivate or incubate. I’m just enjoying the process of things at the moment.”
The difference this time was that while in the past Ward may have recorded tracks here and there, working with some famous friends like Conor Oberst or Jim James, perhaps laying a few tracks down at one of their studios, for this release the songs were entirely born from time spent on the road. ‘A Wasteland Companion’ was written over the past three years, with each of the tracks recorded separately along the way, during a time which seems from an outsider’s perspective to be his busiest period to date. “I’d probably agree with that,” Ward replies coyly.
“I’ve always thought that records should be better than a photo of yourself, where it doesn’t just show appearances but also consciousness and the sub-conscious alike,” Ward ponders. While the idea of piecing together an album of tracks scattered over time could be deemed a little haphazard and slap-dash, on the contrary this method could be regarded as more difficult for the composer as there is a lack of a masterplan or guide. How does one know where to start and finish, at what to be working towards along the way? It is, however, a method that seems to compliment Ward’s seeking out of his own subconsciousness. “I think with my previous records I was too focussed with getting to an end destination,” he says and pauses. “That’s probably why the old records aren’t as good, at least not for me.”
The new record been described by the artist himself as a “travelogue” of the past 36 months, and this does seem a time ripe for artistic inspiration as well as commercial interest. Ward’s Bella Union debut sees him on the back of two further She & Him (his recording duet with Zoey Deschanel) records since ‘Hold Time’ came out in 2009, as well as a brief jaunt with Oberst, James and Mike Mogis as folk supergroup Monsters Of Folk. Ward seems to have fluidly channeled this into the record, with Deschanel popping up on a handful of tracks and Mogis helping out on production. “If I could feature all of the people I admire on a record, I’d probably bore people with a 3-disc release that nobody but myself wanted to hear.” The tracks, although disparate in character and sitting quite awkwardly next to each other at times, appears as a natural manifestation of where the singer has been and all the people he has been with.
While ‘A Wasteland Companion’ is never going to propel Ward into mainstream public consciousness all of a sudden - no matter how successful his musical partner’s new prime-time TV show is, it is never the less a showing of the troubadour at his best. Balancing perfectly on the knife-edge between bitter, sweet and downright sullen,the album’s a melange of differing thoughts, feelings and emotions, all weaved together with a blanketing sense of cosmic calmness - which is the exact same impression given of the musician as he takes off his shades momentarily as the interview nears to a close. “I’m just taking things as they come and enjoying the process of it all in the meantime,” he concludes before putting his sunglasses right back on.
M. Ward's new album 'A Wasteland Companion' will be released on 9th April via Bella Union.
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It might be his most impressionistic yet.