For Matt Ward, 2008 was a big year. She & Him, his band with actress Zooey Deschanel, forced the Californian singer-songwriter into the spotlight, but now it's time to get back to normal, which for him means "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." On his sixth album, Hold Time, the gorgeously hoarse-voiced guitar virtuoso may rely on tradition, but once again his approach has come through for him.
"I've been working and reworking and recycling and reusing all of these songs so they end up in this massive, chaotic cluster of tapes," he says. "It's a pretty private process of going through my old four-track tapes and finding songs that seem to fit together in some way that I can understand, and nothing has changed in that way. I love the process and I don't want to change it."
Though he digs for scraps and song fragments, M. Ward is a stickler for quality. "I'm very selective about what makes it onto a record," he explains. "For every song that's durable, there are ten that are overly whimsical and worthless - those ones are manure for future records. I would never want to put manure on the public's plate."
Ward is building on the breakout success of 2006's Post-War, an album that Noel Gallagher told Exclaim! was one of the best he's ever heard. "I wanted to have the big sounds be bigger and the small sounds be smaller, and I wanted find the balance between those two, production wise," he explains. "We used a lot of cheap guitars and cheap microphones going against orchestra sounds and timpani drums. That was an experiment I hadn't heard before on a recording that utilizes more expansive sounds."
His vision rings clear throughout Hold Time, especially on his cover of Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me" with Lucinda Williams, which strikes a fine balance between the beautiful and the raw textures from Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin, which he claims was the album's biggest influence. However, between the diamond-rough splendour of that song and the title track, Ward maintains a varied disposition. There's the effortlessly cool take on Buddy Holly's "Rave On" and the tickled folk of "Shangri-La." When I tell him "Never Had Nobody Like You" is totally T-Rex, he responds with excitement. "That's good, I like T-Rex!"
"I just think there are more flavours on this record," he adds. "It's not necessarily better or worse, I just think it's different. It goes in more directions than the last record and every song is an experiment and you hope to surprise yourself with every song and every production. I think this album is full of surprises."
Surprises are nothing new to his fans, but one thing people won't be surprised by is his undying commitment to rejecting the simplicity and convenience of the digital age in favour of his two-inch tape. "Digital sucks," he says with conviction. "I have experimented, and I do use digital for demos and things like that, but the sound quality by and large is too nice and neat for me to get excited about. The Beatles set the benchmark for sound - it wasn't set in the '80s with the Miami Vice soundtrack. I'm shooting for something that's gonna be more durable than music with a foundation that is computers."