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Enigmatic singer-songwriter M. Ward is still a cult artist after six albums, but he has fans in high places. Conor Oberst, Cat Power, Beth Orton, and current tourmate Norah Jones have 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, which draws on traditional folk and blues to gently comment on present-day, decidedly non-post-war strife, is arguably his best album yet. Ward recently 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: Are you more confident as a singer now than when you started?
MW: Absolutely. When I first started making music, it was learning other people's songs and putting them onto four-track. Like Beatles songs and stuff. When I started writing, I used the singing side of the production as a vehicle for melody and lyrical ideas. Eventually, that process of using my voice to bring ideas across became more complicated, and I felt I could use it more as an expressive tool.
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—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: It sounds like you were interested in record-making early on.
MW: Yeah. I think that was definitely the blueprint for any further production that I was ever going to get into. I had no idea I would do this for a living, but from a very early age, I started to get really interested in how songs were put to tape. Not just listening to the songs, but the way the songs were recorded.
AVC: Judging by your records, it seems like you haven't gotten much more technologically advanced.
MW: I'm using two-inch tape. I don't like the way recording to digital sounds. Most of the time, when I'm recording to two-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 just 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 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 affect 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: 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 write songs by going through old demo tapes. How many do you have?
MW: There's about 60. It goes back to when I was 15 or 16. There's probably around 400 songs. It's still the way I spend my free time. The solitude I do get is spent just getting ideas down to tape and going through old ideas and finding a valuable bridge or lyric to resuscitate.
AVC: When you record demos, is it a process of free association, or jamming?
MW: I've never used the word jamming. [Laughs.] It's a matter of finding a great song and learning the chords, then slightly altering the vocal melody, and matching a classic chord progression with another chord progression. There's really no formula to it, other than saying that everything comes from my record collection. It's very much like building Frankenstein's monster.
AVC: Do you have a general philosophy when it comes to producing somebody else's record?
MW: My philosophy for producing a record is for everyone involved, including myself, to get out of the way of the song, and at the same time, listen to it as closely as you can, and listen to where the song wants to go. Try to take your vision and ego as far away from the song as possible. Give as much respect as you can to the song and the initial inspiration. My favorite recordings are the ones that feel like there were no middlemen in the creation. That's the biggest problem with most films and records being made today—too many people involved. I think it dilutes the artist's intent and inspiration.
AVC: So you basically want to be invisible?
MW: That's the way I see it, yeah. If you think of the way Howlin' Wolf made records, you get the feeling there wasn't a production manager onsite, or a publicist having his say on how he should sing the songs. When you listen to his records, you feel like you're tapping into his voice.
AVC: Have you produced any records lately?
MW: I'm just finishing work on production for singer Zooey Deschanel. She's been singing in films for a long time, but she never made a record. I just had an incredible time working with her. She's an amazing talent, and a genius vocalist and vocal arranger. It was a pleasure working on arrangements behind the songs. I'm looking forward to people hearing this record.
AVC: You've been reluctant in the past to discuss the meaning of your songs. Do you keep the songs mysterious to yourself as well?
MW: I just want the songs to have the staying power as 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.