Listen through M. Ward’s discography and you’ll find the dogeared archival work of a student of music history. Dating back to 1999’s Duet For Guitars #2 and through the 2000s with End of Amnesia in 2001, 2003’s Transfiguration of Vincent, and Transistor Radio in 2005, Ward’s early scrappiness shimmered with the remnants of legends like John Fahey and early Dylan. And like any voracious student, Ward continued to catalogue along the way. Glimpses of Tom Waits and Howlin’ Wolf were exhumed in the grit of his mid-aughts era and beyond.
Post-War in 2006 spurred fruitful relationships with Jim James and Neko Case that would develop into career-spanning collaborations. The second half of the 2000s oversaw Ward’s shift into the commercial spotlight with the formation of several high-profile supergroups, including Monsters of Folk and the Zooey Deschanel fronted She & Him. All the while, he continued to release solo records—Hold Time in 2009, A Wasteland Companion in 2012, and the introspective More Rain in 2016.
In late 2018, Ward, flanked by producer Craig Silvey, migrated to the parky metropolis of Montreal to begin tracking a new record with Arcade Fire polymaths Richard Reed Parry and Tim Kingsbury at Le Studio du Arcade Fire with producer Teddy Impakt. Ward found inspiration in stories of migration, particularly within his own bloodline; his grandfather was a Mexican rancher in California, but there’s also roots from native tribes in the Pacific Northwest. The resulting eleven tracks are postcards from a tumultuous time in America where financial struggle and familial upheaval are alarmingly present today. Economic apocalypse and barren land fade in the rear view mirror. Ward’s rootsy croon, comforting and familiar, sounds like it’s wafting from the window of a sandy saloon.
Following the surf-tinged landscape of 2018’s What a Wonderful Industry, Ward’s sprawling and reflective tenth studio album Migration Stories,set for release on April 3 via ANTI- Records, bears its influence with mid-19th century migration folklore and Pax Americana folk, sung to the rustic hum of heavy guitar strings and vintage Americana. We caught up with Ward amidst our own cross-coastal quarantines to talk Migration Stories, bloodlines, the magic of first-takes, recurring earthquake dreams, and the insanity of modern times. words / c ruddell
Aquarium Drunkard: I think you might win the award for most timely and relevant release of the year. “Heaven’s Nail and Hammer” is so on the nose.
Matt Ward: It remains to be seen, but who could have expected these circumstances. There’s a lot of songs that journalists are telling me some interesting interpretations of now that time has passed and circumstances have changed. I enjoy hearing their interpretations. I’m here in Los Angeles and have noticed the sky is a lot cleaner. Last night, I noticed for the first time that you can see a lot more at night time in the sky than you can on normal nights because of the air quality and this huge change in smog and pollution.
AD What was the launch pad that sparked the concept for Migration Stories?
Matt Ward: It all starts with demos and songs that have been in my archives for sometimes months, sometimes years. Normally what happens when it’s time for me to make a record is I compile the songs that no one’s heard that I’m most excited to just play alone in my room. For one reason or another, some songs are more enjoyable to play when it’s just you as an audience, and you as the performer. The songs that seem to be finished are the songs that I can visualize playing to an audience, and not feel like, “Oh man, I let that one out of the bag too early.” It’s a sign to me that it’s probably going to be a song that’s easy to work with in the studio. Once you compile a couple thousand of them, in my case, then you just start putting the puzzle pieces together. I think the first song that steered the direction of the record was a song called “Coyote Mary’s Traveling Show.” Once that one was in the can—and this happens for all the records I’ve ever made—once you have the first song finished or the first couple songs finished, you can start to visualize where this train is headed. You build things around it to make it make sense to you in some way. It’s hard to explain. The first couple songs, they just have this domino effect. They affect your production choices and song choices for the rest of the record, and also your choices in production which involve more textural, instrumental ideas.
AD: What are your own stories regarding migration? Where does your family come from?
Matt Ward: The more I talk to my family, the more I’m learning. To put it in a nutshell, my mother’s father immigrated from Mexico about a little over 100 hundred years ago. He went through El Paso, Texas, and I think they said it cost about 50¢ to get legal entry and become a resident. It’s incredible. He eventually made it to California where my mother was born, working odd jobs, but especially working as a rancher. There’s also, as I discovered through my family, a lot of Native American in my blood. It’s one of those things that you’re just always learning. There’s so much behind you.
AD: What brought you to Quebec to work on this record?
Matt Ward: My manager and I were talking about producers, and I told her I would like to work with a co-producer this time. She brought up the name of a guy she really, really loves. His name is Craig Silvey. We started talking about places to meet up, and he suggested a few. One of them was in Montreal where he had done some work with Arcade Fire. We discovered that we had a few mutual friends because I met Arcade Fire years ago through the Merge Records connection. I’ve always been a big fan of their songs, especially how their records sound. I really like them as people. It just seemed like a really logical place to meet up. I’m really glad we did. It’s an incredible city and was a great experience.
AD: What kind of records were you digging with Tim, Richard, Craig, and Teddy?
Matt Ward: I’ll play reference songs for a lot of these songs that made it to the record. The first one that comes to mind, maybe because you mentioned “Heaven’s Nail and Hammer,” is “I Only Have Eyes For You.” It’s a golden oldie. There’s just tons of production ideas just from that song and production that someone could be inspired by.
AD: A lot of the record is a first-take process. Why was that important for these songs?
Matt Ward: My personal opinion is that if it takes too many takes, it’s probably a structural problem with the song. If it feels like you’re trying to put a square peg into a round hole, then that tells me that the peg needs to be redesigned and go back to the drawing board. Destroy it. Don’t throw it away. Put the pieces in the recycling bin, and those pieces will help build something that’s more complete and more finished in the future. I like to leave half of every production open-ended and open to X factors or surprises that your musicians might bring to the song. Quite often, the best things that people come up with, especially great musicians like Richard and Tim, it happens in the first couple takes. In my opinion, in the first couple takes, you’re thinking on your toes. You don’t really know the changes that well, and happy accidents usually happen in those first couple takes. If you’re on take 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 of a song, then you start thinking about the song a little bit too much. You become a little bit too familiar. In my opinion, it’s more of a cold feeling for the production. Whereas, if you put a lot of effort and attention into that first take, it’s more of a warm feeling.
AD: It looks like the video for “Unreal City” unfolds all over the streets of Paris.
Matt Ward: We did that in Paris a couple months ago in February. It was a press tour for this record in Paris, Berlin, and London, and then I did a couple shows in Portugal. During a couple days off in Paris, we were able to make this video. I love how it turned out. I love being able to walk around and not bumping into tourists all the time. It’s nice just to bump into French people.
AD: Is that that closest place to the unreal city you’re describing?
Matt Ward: I wouldn’t want to say it’s one particular place, but if I had to pick one, it’s probably Los Angeles because I grew up around here. I’ve been reading about this big earthquake that’s on its way, and simultaneously reading so many articles about immigration, like everyone else has. It’s hard to escape.
AD: What’s the story behind this earthquake?
Matt Ward: When you grow up in California, every so often someone will write a huge article that’s basically saying the big one is coming, and you need to be ready for it. There’s a built in fear-machine to that journalism. Every part of the world I think has something to be afraid of, and journalism makes a big profit off that. As someone that lives here, after finishing the article, you have to ask yourself, “What am I going to do with this information other than go buy more insurance?” I have reoccurring dreams of earthquakes and reoccurring dreams of tidal waves and tsunamis. A lot of times they find their way into the songs in one way or another.
AD: “Along the Santa Fe Trail” is a perfect piece of the record. Were there any other cover songs that fit within the concept that you considered including?
Matt Ward: I don’t think so. I was overloaded with originals on this one. I went to Montreal with about 20 and just the one cover song. I heard that song on AM radio a few years ago, and it struck a chord. I’ve been learning about my grandparents’ journey between Mexico and California during the 1930’s. There’s no photographs or diaries or YouTube footage from that adventure. You have to illustrate the passage in your own way. I think music helped with that. I do like looking at photographs from that era and the clothes they wore. I think music can sometimes say even more about the heart of an era.
AD: Where will you be when the world goes down?
Matt Ward: Probably where I am right now. In my lonesome studio here, but there could be worse places. I’ve always thought that I would probably wish to be cremated somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, but we’ll see. Sometimes my feelings on that change.
Related: The Lagniappe Sessions :: M. Ward
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