That’s what M. Ward wants to give listeners with his songs. There are plenty of them on his new record, Post-War.
Portland-based singer-songwriter M. Ward says that the best way to judge a song’s quality is to let time go by: A melody that’s still in your head a few months or years after you hear it, he figures, is one worth remembering in the future. “I’m always seeking out older records,” Ward says, explaining how his theory impacts his listening habits. “When I was in college, I worked at a record store, and I was really excited about whatever music was coming down the pipeline. But I’m not like that anymore.”
That interest in history plays a central role in Ward’s own music. The songs on Post-War (Merge), his fourth and latest album, sound like relics from a forgotten age, delicate little folk-pop ditties built for acoustic guitar and Ward’s lush vocals, which carry a potent whiff of rambling-man mystery. Lately, Ward has become an in-demand songwriter and producer in the indie-rock world, doing fine work on recent records by Cat Power and Rilo Kiley front woman Jenny Lewis (with whom he covered the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care”). But as he tells us over tea at New York’s Maritime Hotel, the place he feels most at home is at home. »
Your records all have a really intimate sound to them — sort of hushed and personal, almost handmade in some way. It comes naturally to me because I spent my whole life recording on a four-track in my bedroom. When I was living with my parents, I’d record stuff without really wanting to wake anybody up. So it’s this style that sort of accidentally happened. Now it’s something I go after in the way the vocals are recorded, in the way the guitars are recorded.
Was it difficult to preserve that vibe once you moved out of your bedroom and into a professional studio? Well, it’s always an experiment to keep the feeling there no matter what else is happening. The new record was an experiment to see if we could have big drums but still have a feeling of intimacy. It took some work, but I think we did it.
Do you think it’s something you’re getting better at? I feel I am, yeah. I think this new record is the best thing I’ve made. When I look back to my first two records, I think that was me having more of a loose-cannon approach to production, trying out everything under the sun. You see a machine in the studio, you wanna try it out, see what it does. Now I know what most of the machines that I use do, and I’m feeling comfortable with having a more organized approach to it. I want to create something with songs that work together to create a unified whole.
Post-War definitely works that way. Listening to it feels like taking a journey of some kind. I want there to be some sort of surprise for the listener. I think there should be movements. There should be moments when you laugh or maybe moments where you feel sad, moments where you’re happy — like a good film. And I think it’s good to be able to have a space for the listener to bring in his own interpretation of the song. I read this interview with David Lynch about why he titled one of his films Mulholland Drive. He said that, for one reason or another, the phrase just captured his imagination and that it allows the audience to dream. That’s an inspiration for me, to have every song have some sort of open door.
You don’t leave the door open for long: Most of the tunes on Post-War end before the three-minute mark. That’s uncommon in music today. You know, Everly Brothers songs were never over three minutes. My favorite poems are short; my favorite novels are not supersize. I think you can have complexity within that framework. I guess it’s just a brain-capacity thing — maybe I have a smaller brain capacity.
Why do you think we’ve moved away from short songs?
It’s hard to say. Great classical songs are long, but the reason that classical songs can get away with it is that there’s constant movement. I guess with the popularity of dance music, it sort of makes sense to keep the song going longer if you’re on the dance floor and you’re just getting into it. But then I don’t really make dance music.
For tour dates and more information, head to www.mwardmusic.com. For more DownLow interviews, head to www.americanwaymag.com.