Monday, April 9, 2012

Matt Ward Talks His Inspiration and Creative Processes Behind "A Wasteland Companion"

M Ward's new album, A Wasteland Companion, is his first album under his own name since 2009's Hold Time. Since that record, Matt has continued to work with Zooey Deschanel, recording two more albums together (Volume Two and A Very She and Him Christmas), as well as a collaboration with Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes),Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket), and Mike Mogis, (Bright Eyes) as Monsters of Folk.

Matt has expanded his musical palette considerably since his first full-length, Duet For Guitars #2. His early recordings sound timelessly antiquated, precious, and something to hold close, almost like a secret. Spending time with his recordings, it's quick for one to realize that Matt Ward accomplishes this without any reliance on nostalgia, but rather an exploration of his own singular style of songwriting, which is rooted in some impressively catchy fingerpicking guitar work, paired with his gently hushed vocals.

Over the years, specifically with She and Him and Monsters of Folk, as well as on his own records such as Transistor Radio, Post War, and now with A Wasteland Companion, Matt Ward has fused the undeniable appeal of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and pop while maintaining his unique guitar playing and vocal persona firmly, and identifiably intact- which is no easy feat for any songwriter.

After listening to his upcoming album last month, I had the pleasure to speak with Matt for a telephone interview regarding his new collection of songs. I decided early on that rather than run through a set of "new album" questions, I chose to approach our conversation on a more philosophical direction, hoping to dig into some of the more artistically murky aspects of Matt's work.

As a longtime fan of Matt Ward's albums, particularly his distinctive guitar playing, I really thought it would be exciting to ask him about his most significant sources of inspiration and how they feed into his creative processes. I am very happy to share this revealing glimpse into the songwriter's journey, largely in Matt's own words, of his experiences crafting A Wasteland Companion.

Here's our conversation:

I would like to start by asking you if you can describe what your "bare essentials" are when you begin working on new songs?

Matt Ward: I always I begin from the demo, which normally involves just a guitar and voice. I'd say that half of the time, the finished product largely remains guitar and voice, simply because that is what I've been hearing myself ever since high school. I've just grown accustomed to that kind of intimacy in my own recording processes.

There are times when some songs are just asking for a bigger production and those are the ones that will introduce drums, bass, keyboards, piano and things like that into it. There's a million tricks to production, but for me personally, it's always about trying to find out where the songs want to go naturally, and trying not to force them into any other areas. 

I read that you wanted to create something like a "musical travelogue" with A Wasteland Companion. That quote kept popping in my mind each time as I listened to your new record.

Matt: Part of the idea of this record was for it to sound more like a "live record". We actually recorded it from the different parts of the world where we happened to be at the time. There were a bunch of different studios around the world where I always wanted to record, and this is actually the record where I actually went there and invited friends, and sometimes even strangers, to come and play with me in these different rooms in order to try to paint a more accurate picture of what the last three years of my life have been like.

Not only did you record in different locations, but you worked with eight engineers and a bunch of guest players on the record. Can you discuss these experiences, and how these were most significant and most rewarding for you creatively?

Matt: I probably recorded about 25 songs for the record, and every experience in which I was recording was different. It all depended on the amount of time I had, and the kinds of songs I wanted to try with these specific instrumentalists I had chosen.

There is a song on the record called "Watch The Show" which was a very weird song that I had as a demo. I introduced it to Steve Shelley (of Sonic Youth) and Tobey Leaman (of Dr. Dog), who were both in one of the groups I was working with in New York City. When I brought that song in, I was just thinking that it was going to be a giant experiment. I honestly did not expect it to turn into a finished song for the record. I found that working on that song together turned out to be a really, really inspiring experience for me. As a result, that tune became one of my favorite songs for the record.

I would also say that additionally, a really significant aspect of the process for me is being open to the chaos of just playing, and bringing things to people who have never heard them before, and allowing them to just following their instincts as we explore different aspects together. Overall, it's all very much an experiment in that way, and it is really rewarding.

My own process always begins with just me and a guitar, or me at a piano. Sometimes I'll be working on, or even just thinking about a song for years before I feel like it is finished. Before I even have a finished song, or even a finished demo, I am usually already thinking ahead about how I want to produce it. It's very much about trying to get in touch with whatever the inspiration for what that song originally was, and then trying to create a direct link between the inspiration to the listener's ear.

It's an abstract thing to try to explain, but that's it in a nutshell. Inspiration is a pretty mysterious thing. But it is where songs come from, and that's what I try to translate as best as I can to the listener. I realize that this may sound abstract in an interview.

There are a lot of places where it can get murky. In my experiences, I think that ego is responsible for getting in the way of the best expression.  I think that if the inspiration for a song is, for example, a tree in the rain, then I think that you should, as much as possible, try to get that image into people's brains. Then it's about coloring it with your personality and your imagination. In my experience, that has been what I try to convey: these images.

What would you say is the common thread that connects all of your work together?

Well, for me, my biggest source of inspiration and the thing that keeps me going enough from getting bored with my job, is discovering older records, older guitar players, and older guitar styles, older singing styles, and older production styles.

These are the things that I love discovering and experimenting with myself, and what I enjoy bringing into the new musical environments as I am trying to create things that I have never heard before. That's the biggest commonality I would say, that connects all of my records, and this new one is no different.

Whenever I contemplate what inspires me, it's always difficult to quantify. But because inspiration comes from everywhere, and that is something that I believe records naturally become being about. I am always considering where inspiration comes from, and how it is related to things like improvisation and spirituality. I think there there is a strong connection between improvisation, inspiration, and spirituality. To be honest, I don't really have any answers, I just have a lot of questions myself. I think music is a great way to express that search.

That reminds me of when I learned how to play guitar. I did it by studying The Beatles songbook and catalog of recordings. I would literally check off the songs in the table of contents of songbooks as I learned them. That's how I learned chords, chord progressions, and all of that kind of stuff.

Then over the next 10 or 15 years, I started to get inspired by the people who inspired The Beatles' recordings. Which means I began studying Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, and Chuck Berry. Then from that point, I kept digging deeper and I found out who was inspiring those guys, people like Little Richard and The Louvin Brothers. You can just keep going, and going further and further back. It's a constant search. There's just so much to listen to, explore, and learn from.

How would you say that your own search for inspiration, and your process of personal exploration translates through A Wasteland Companion, and possibly even beyond?

Matt: I am constantly working on this balance that I feel my favorite songs have, between shadows and light, or major and minor. That relates to chord progressions, but it also relates to lyrical images as well. Simply put, certain instruments have a brighter sound, and certain have a darker sound. So I am constantly trying to find this balance within each song, as well as throughout the record.

I feel like this newest record is the most balanced record that I have made. I'm sure I will say the same thing about the next one too, just because I am constantly learning more about it as I go along, which is really exciting to me. I feel that this new record has a pretty good balance, and I think that balance is right there in the title of the record: A Wasteland Companion.

Well, that sounds like a perfect way to sum up this conversation. Best of luck with the release of "A Wasteland Companion" and with your upcoming tour. 

Matt: It was really nice talking to you too, Chris. Thanks a lot and have a great day.

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