Music makes M. Ward's world go 'round
Staying true to his roots has never been an issue for Portland musician M. Ward, who still records music the same way he recorded at age 16 — back in the 1980s.
Ward sits in his home many times and records on analog four-track cassette, literally with the same Tascam machine he has used for decades. It's music that is then re-recorded and enhanced in a studio, but it's ultimately a different sound. Raw and nostalgic, personal and unpolished, romantic and real — it's a sound, inspired by blues great Robert Johnson and singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, that Ward has always enjoyed, even 10 albums into a very successful music career.
Ward, having recorded with his acoustic guitar, will release "Think of Spring," a collection of Billie Holiday classics, his 11th album, and "this record has more four-track than any other I've made," he said.
"I did most of it at home in Portland. It's four-track, which is really a bare-bone cassette tape, that I bought when I was 16; I still have it and still use it." Like with Johnson and Johnston recordings, "they are immediate and you feel like you're more like a fly on the wall of the recording process and writing process. It's not something you get from polished pop records. Still a tool I love to use."
The thing is, Ward still won't be able to do what he really loves to do for some time. After the release of his 10th album in March, ironically named "Migration Stories," the country and the live entertainment world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A record release show had to be cancelled and for Ward, who tours every year, 2020 wouldn't allow for any migrating to play planned shows in United Kingdom, France, Spain and Scandinavia.
At least it gave him time to work on "Think of Spring."
"The next time I get to Europe is completely uncertain," said Ward, 47, whose official first name is Matthew. "I'm trying to make the best of where I am now. I'm looking forward to eventually getting [to travel] again.
"I'm looking at the entire side of live music, which has been part of my job forever, and it's all completely on hold. It's very little excitement for me to play for a video camera — it's a little bit of excruciating. I would rather work on writing or recording."
Doing Holiday music was a real thrill for Ward.
"I discovered her music from the moment I discovered Louis Armstrong in high school — music that I stumbled on through the radio or records maybe (my) parents had around the house," Ward said. "Most of my friends were into heavy metal at the time; 'And Justice For All' had just been released by Metallica.
"It's a strange feeling when you discover something that feels eternal like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. I was excited about Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth for a few years, but something about (heavy metal) told me it was a dead-end road, would only take me so far. I discovered Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, felt it was discovering something that is eternal and (has) no end to the depths of what's happening in the music."
He began singing "I'm a Fool to Want You," a song Holiday sang, as an instrumental in 2010. He went on to learn more Holiday songs and eventually started recording some of the music (yep, on his four-track). So, now he's sharing the music with "Think of Spring."
"I'm now releasing this record 'Think of Spring' in ways that I never thought about before, by not playing songs live and not touring," he said.
The album "Migration Stories," like the Holiday cover album a product of Anti- Records, was born from Ward reading newspaper articles about the migration crisis in America and Europe.
"If you read enough about something, it ends up turning into music," Ward said. "The characters' names change, but the big picture to me ends up being fuel for music.
"Obviously I had no idea we'd be in the middle of a pandemic when I released the record. It's interesting getting people's interpretations about songs about movement at a time when movement is not allowed. Who could have guessed we'd be in this situation?"
He is, in general, a folk and blues-inspired Americana performer. He's been a member of indie pop duo She & Him (with Zooey Deschanel) and the folk rock group Monsters of Folk.
Ward wishes he could share his music on the road. Ward admittedly doesn't play many gigs in Portland, and he splits time living here and in Los Angeles. He grew up in Glendale, California.
But, he has called Portland home for 20 years, currently living in Northeast.
"I love that you can disappear into nature very quickly in Portland, something that you can take for granted when you're in Los Angeles or New York City," said Ward, who likes visiting Mount Hood and the coast. "And, I'm trying my best to support my favorite places — restaurants, coffee shops, radio stations. I'm hopeful all these pillars will stay (after the pandemic/shutdown)."
Portland "has changed over the years, and one of the reasons I loved it in 2000 or when I first got here in 1999 was it was off the map and no one was talking about it," he added. "When you're touring around for a living, it's a pleasure to be somewhere that is almost an escape from the business and what I do for a living. Things have changed a little bit now in Portland, but I feel like it has the same heart. The city is going through a strange phase right now … I believe better days are ahead."
During the past six months, "I've made the best of it," he said. "I'm spending time with family here in Oregon, and I'm thankful for that. It's been a good time to spend time with family (and) focus on the recording side of work, which is what I prefer anyway. There are great studios here in Portland."
As far as his old four-track cassette and recorder, "it's like an old car, keep it greased up and oiled. It was built like a tank in the '80s."
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