After six albums, M. Ward might still be a cult artist, but he has fans in high places. Conor Oberst, Cat Power, Beth Orton, and current tourmate Norah Jones have all asked Ward to contribute his haunted vocals and ghostly guitar to their records. He also helped produce Jenny Lewis’ acclaimed Rabbit Fur Coat and a tribute album for bluesy folkie John Fahey, one of Ward’s biggest influences. Ward’s 2006 release, Post-War, draws on traditional folk and blues to gently comment on present-day, decidedly non-post-war strife, and it’s arguably his best album yet. Ward spoke with The A.V. Club about songwriting, his early experiments with four-track recording, and his short-lived Metallica phase.
The A.V. Club: For a long time you were known mainly for your guitar playing. Now you’re being asked to sing on other people’s records, including Norah Jones’ latest. Are vocals your new calling card?
M. Ward: It’s kind of half and half. I definitely don’t see myself as much of a singer because my upbringing is really based around the guitar, learning chord progressions and that sort of thing. So the singing aspect of what I do has been a secondary adventure.
AVC: When did you start experimenting with four-track recording?
MW: When I was about 15, I picked up the guitar and learned how to play by going through Beatles chords books. I got this Christmas gift with the entire Beatles catalog. I had fun trying to duplicate what I was hearing on these records only using the instruments I had at hand, which included an acoustic guitar and that’s all. It was endlessly amusing to me to try to imitate John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s harmonies using the guitar.
AVC: Judging by your records, it seems like you haven’t gotten much more technologically advanced.
MW: I’m using 2-inch tape. I don’t like the way recording to digital sounds. Most of the time when I’m recording to 2-inch tape, I still have a romantic vision of how songs sounded coming out of the radio when I was younger, and how they sounded coming out of my little four-track cassette player. That kind of immediacy and intimacy that you hear on Robert Johnson’s recordings and some of these older styles of recording are difficult to achieve with digital technology.
AVC: When did you start writing songs?
MW: That started in high school also, when I started to take literature and poetry classes. I started to get inspired by these new incredible works of art that I had never seen or heard of before. I wrote a lot of bad high-school poetry, just like pretty much everyone did, I think, at some point. For me, the inspiration never really stopped.
AVC: Were you always drawn to classic artists like Robert Johnson and The Beatles? You must have gone through a metal phase in high school.
MW: I got into one Metallica record. That was about it. I never got into AC/DC or Black Sabbath or any of that. I was interested in the side of heavy metal that had interesting guitar ideas, but that was a very short-lived thing. My biggest influence in music is older records, because I believe that the time in your life before you can even remember has more influence on your future. I went every Sunday to church when I was growing up, and I think that music had an effect on me before my memory can recall.
AVC: How so?
MW: I remember when I was 5 or 6 years old, gospel music felt familiar, like I had heard it in the womb or something. A lot of those old gospel songs still give me that feeling, that it’s older than time, and there’s actually music that can tap into a universal subconscious or whatever word you want to put on it.
AVC: How did you develop your own style?
MW: I don’t see that as something in the past tense; I see it as something in the present tense. The way that I’m working now is basically the way I’ve been working since I was a kid, and that’s find the greatest artist in whatever you do and rip them off with respect. I think there’s a big difference between ripping off with respect and ripping off in disrespect. Even though someone has died, a piece of their spirit can still be alive. That’s an exciting world for me to take music into, or to attempt to do that.
AVC: You’ve been reluctant in the past about discussing the meaning of your songs. Do you try to keep the songs mysterious to yourself as well?
MW: I just want the songs to have the staying power of my favorite songs. If you listen to any Hank Williams song, when you’re in a good mood it’s going to put you in a better mood. If you happen to be bummed out, you’re going to feel maybe a little more bummed out and better at the same time. At any time in my life, his music has had meaning and value to me. If a song can shape-shift in that way, that’s a sign of success.