Catching Up With M. Ward

There are moments when only the language of magic will suffice. Describing the intentions behind his latest, Supernatural Thing, songwriter M. Ward recalls how, as a young kid, he viewed the radio as a totemic object, a source of mystic wavelengths. “I’m not a scientist, so I don’t exactly understand how radio waves are sent through the air,” Ward says. “But as a kid, it was magic. Making records over the years, [I’m always] trying to go back to that feeling and look at it from different angles. And it never gets old to me.”  

Supernatural Thing offers plenty of “spin the dial” variety, indulging in not only Ward’s signature rustic folk, but snappy piano pop, disco-tinged detours, and moving covers of songs by David Bowie and Daniel Johnston. All along, Ward is joined by guests like Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Neko Case, First Aid Kit, Kelly Pratt, Shovels & Rope, and Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog. In the title track, Ward describes a dream visit from Elvis Presley, who promises our trusty narrator, “You can go anywhere you please.” It’s easy to view Supernatural Thing as a place in Ward’s head, where old memories and ghosts of song linger on. He joined us to discuss Elvis, his collaborative process, the influence of Howe Gelb of Giant Sand, and more. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: You sing about a kind of dream visit from Elvis Presley on the title track. What does Elvis mean to you?

M. Ward: Well he’s connected pretty closely for me with The Beatles, which is how I’ve learned how to play guitar. I had the Beatles Anthology; I poured through as a teenager and then started eventually discovering who influenced them—people like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. That led me toward discovering an entire history of American music. He was kind of the gateway for me.

AD: Did you like Elvis

M. Ward: I didn’t love Elvis. [Laughs] I found it to be too sensationalistic, but everyone is gonna have a different look at it. But I imagine it made a lot of people  curious about his catalog. 

AD: There are a lot of interesting moments on this new one. “Mr Dixon” hits on a disco-punk vibe. How did that one develop? 

M. Ward: I love experimenting with my percussionists. With this record, we had time just try a bunch of different ideas. I love those old idioms. I love to mess with ’em. I love to combine things that don’t seem like they belong to each other. “Mr. Dixon” is a good example of taking some pretty simple basic chords just messing with them percussively.

AD: You’re joined by First Aid Kit on “Too Young to Die” and “Engine 5.” Had you met them before working together? 

M. Ward: They invited me to play with them in Los Angeles, maybe five years ago. But this was our first time working together in the studio. I became aware of their music through Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes. I always take his advice when he tells me to check something out. Their natural ability to harmonize is mind-blowing. That sister instinct that is impossible to find outside of blood relation, I think. 

AD: Another frequent guest who returns here is Neko Case. What brings you back to her as a collaborator over and over? 

M. Ward: I’m  just such a huge fan of her voice. Nobody sounds like her. If you can find that in a singer, you’ve found something really interesting. We did a little tour of Texas together a year or two ago, and just seeing her live in person is an incredible thing. It’s as real as it gets. 

AD: I wanted to ask about an early booster of yours, Howe Gelb, who was an early booster of yours. What has Howe taught you? 

M. Ward: Oh, he’s taught me so much. I first met him through a mutual friend in Jason Lytle from Granddaddy. That’s how I first heard Howe and Giant Sand. I ended up giving my very first record [Duet for Guitar #2] to Howe, just to get his opinion. He loved it and wanted release it on his little pet project record label, Ow Om. That’s how I started in America, and very quickly he, showed me the ropes in Europe.

He’s just an incredible improviser and he’s taught me a lot about staying in the moment.  You work with a lot of people in the music business who want to stay safe and color within the lines when it comes to live performance. They repeat themselves. Howe is polar opposite of that. It makes for an interesting show, you never know what’s gonna happen. I’m forever indebted to his kindness and ramshackle expertise. 

AD: You cover David Bowie’s “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” with Jim James and Kelly Pratt providing sparse vocals. Did you listen to Bowie’s final album Blackstar when it came out? I remember listening to it so much the weekend it came out and getting word of his passing that Sunday night.

M. Ward: I downloaded right when it came out. I had to drive to Seattle, so I listened to the whole thing many times. He’s one of these guys that I feel indebted to. I’ve been covering his songs forever. 

AD: Your version of “Let’s Dance” from The Transfiguration of Vincent comes to mind. 

M. Ward: He has so many songs that are legendary that nobody’s heard. [“I Can’t Give Everything Away”] is an incredibly moving song. It was an experiment for me to try and see what would happen if we stripped away the [lyrics] and just stuck to that beautiful melody. It was an experiment to see if it would stand on its own. And it does. It felt true in a way. I recorded it with no plans to actually release it, but it sort of just kept rearing its head as a perfect way to separate side A and side B. 

AD: Your recent projects with She & Him include a Brian Wilson cover album, and you also cover Daniel Johnston’s “The Story of An Artist” at the close of this new album—another artist you’ve returned to over and over again. What makes a cover work or not work? 

M. Ward: It’s a sign of a good song if it can be interpreted in multiple ways. [Daniel Johnson] is another guy that I discovered as a high schooler. He really gave me the confidence to not be afraid to release music that’s raw and un-produced. Like Bowie, [he has] dozens of songs that people don’t know. Songs that need to be heard. 

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