There's a difference between being a showman and a showboat. For living proof, look no further than M. Ward, who has little patience for social niceties, despite making a career of singing from a stage to adoring crowds. He captures that sentiment beautifully on "Phenomenon," one of the best songs from his new album, More Rain (out March 4 on Merge) when he sings: "If you can talk to your friends about it / To a stranger it's strictly taboo."
"Being on tour, the amount of small talk that you have to go through sometimes drives me crazy. I'm not somebody who goes out of my way to have such interactions," Ward tells Exclaim! "This song comes from a desire to have conversations with people beyond that. Unfortunately, in America, the conversations just seem to be getting dumber and dumber. And I think if someone does speak from the heart about what they really believe in, then they're immediately pigeonholed."
Many of Ward's songs harken back to a simpler, more earnest era of songwriting. More Rain's music matches that sentiment. On songs like "Time Won't Wait" and "Little Baby," Ward layers his vocal performances subtly and seamlessly, evoking the Everly Brothers and the Beach Boys. His attention to detail is of an old-fashioned craftsman — he spent four years recording More Rain — which is especially refreshing in an era of rapid, digitized recording sessions.
"What I love is revision, then starting from scratch and doing it over again," Ward says of his exacting process, adding that More Rain highlight "Girl from Conejo Valley," is a perfect example, because it's 20 years older than the rest of the meticulously made LP. More Rain engineer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) knew exactly how to treat the dog-eared tune, infusing it with a synthesizer that whirred and reverberated like Morse Code transmitted through a short circuiting antenna.
"I'd tried recording it in a few scenarios over the years," Ward says, "but Mike helped me create a new landscape for that song. He's an expert with synthesizers — if you can imagine a sound, he can find it on a keyboard."
While Mogis appealed to Ward's geeky sensibility, another recent collaborator pushed him far out of his comfort zone. Last year, during a break from unending More Rain sessions, Ward jumped at the opportunity to produce for legendary gospel songstress Mavis Staples. Released last month, Livin' on a High Note featured songs penned by Neko Case, Nick Cave, Justin Vernon and more. Ward, unsurprisingly, immersed himself in the songs, and although he was technically prepared for the prearranged sessions with Staples, Ward was still taken aback by her recording style.
"I have a feeling that she may have just listened to a few of these songs," he says with a loving chuckle of the veteran performer's loosely intuitive approach — the starkness between their styles was a surprise. Staples only had a scant couple of days allotted for the sessions — plenty of time for a seasoned pro to knock out her takes, but a skimpy one for Ward, who's long favoured minutia over intuition.
"She's a talker. I'm definitely more of an introvert. We have a similar love for a lot of the same kinds of music. But it's safe to say we're pretty much opposites."
Just as disparate are the end results: Livin' on a High Note and More Rain. The former is a whirlwind one-off with one of his heroes; the latter is a cozy and contemplative return home. That reliable comfort is apparent in More Rain's title track, which features audio of the gentle drizzle that's ever-present in his adopted Portland home. The cover art, meanwhile, is a picture of the aged space heater that Ward uses on those chilly, damp days.
"When you know you have to spend the day inside, you get the heater going. And a lot of time is spent indoors in Portland which, for me, means time spent working and experimenting with sounds. So that picture seemed like the perfect cover art for the record."
Check out More Rain's "Confession" below.