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M. Ward: Pursuing his own Oregon trail

February 13, 2009 |  2:32 pm

M. Ward's imagination roams free in Portland, where small-scale creativity thrives amid the corporate pop business' decline.


Reporting from Portland, Ore.
— "We don't use the word 'grande' here," said the barista at Albina Press, one of the latte-obsessed Pacific Northwest's many shrines to the perfectly pulled cup. "That's a proprietary term of the Starbucks company. Do you mean 'large'?"

While I tried to sweet-talk my way out of a bitter drink, Matt Ward, who'd suggested we meet here, scanned the coffeehouse for a table. Every spot in the large, airy room was taken by someone hunched over a laptop or a book. This cross section of students, unidentified "creatives" and home-office refugees would not tolerate the noise of a journalist quizzing a musician.

So we sat outside, pulling our sweater sleeves down against the January damp. Ward didn't seem to mind. The 35-year-old recording artist, better known by his nickname, M. Ward, had been on his own laptop when I'd come in -- just another independent contractor pursuing his bliss.

Mward2__ In categorical terms, Ward is a singer-songwriter, but really he's a singer-songwriter-plus. He's a gifted guitarist known for his fleet finger-picking and loose, improvisational style; a singer who has developed a distinctive, creamy croon sprinkled with sugary grit; a lover of the American songbook spanning country, classic pop and blues, who doesn't rest in any of those avenues. His seventh solo studio album, "Hold Time," comes out Tuesday on Merge Records. It's a high point in a consistently thought-provoking career, comparable to Joe Henry's "Trampoline" or John Prine's "Bruised Orange."

"I love the idea that I planned my career. I did not," he said. "It started out by getting invitations from artists that I really love and respect, to share a stage. . . . I've been very lucky in that I haven't had to create a five-year plan. It's evolved."

Since releasing his first album on Giant Sand bandleader Howe Gelb's tiny label 10 years ago, Ward, who was born in Ventura County and moved to Portland after college, has kept walking through those open doors. His career is a model of sustainability and slow growth in the midst of the music industry's widely heralded collapse. A notable producer and frequent guest on others' albums, he recently gained a new level of notoriety after collaborating (beautifully, by the way) with actress Zooey Deschanel in the duo She & Him.

The crash of the corporate pop business has, in a way, helped make careers like Ward's possible. No longer even slightly tempted to strive for the kind of stardom major labels once supported, Ward and his friends -- including Jenny Lewis (whose solo debut, "Rabbit Fur Coat," he produced), Conor Oberst, Neko Case and Jim James of My Morning Jacket -- are making indie rock into an artisanal affair. A commitment to craft and an earnest but uncowed attitude toward history aligns them with post-baby boomer bohemians working in many other avenues: small-batch coffee roasters, letterpress printers, designers remaking vintage clothes in eco-friendly fabrics.

Patchwork songs

Ward similarly redesigns old patterns in his songs. "There's a lot of reference points of all my songs," he said. "I love the sound of Elmore James, the sound early guitarists like him got just by using minimal means. But I'd want to pair that with strings that remind me of a Billie Holiday record. Those are the kinds of juxtapositions I'm striving for. It's never going to happen where Chet Atkins played guitar with your favorite singer from some different decade. But I can pretend, and that's where the sounds often come from."

Ward's music has been called "mysterious" and "timeless" -- vague terms that fail to capture the intricate nature of his artistic process. It's more accurate to say that Ward is making a game of history, in the most serious and attentive way. His compositional process involves digging through four-track tapes he's been making since his teens, matching songs from different points on his own timeline until he comes up with a thread that coheres.

The story that emerges from this process is as much about Ward's exploration of pop history as it is about his emotional life. On "Hold Time," that story takes a spiritual turn. Informed by the music he heard going to Baptist services as a child, this set could be called "gospel," but the songs sound as much like meditations on Phil Spector or the Beach Boys as riffs on his favorite Carter Family hymns.

"There's a relationship between music and spirituality and inspiration and to a certain extent improvisation that draws me in, because I don't totally understand it," said Ward. "I know that those relationships have been telling me, since I started making records, where to go. What to write down. What in my mind will be durable, you know? You are exploring these mysteries that you're probably never gonna solve."

Like a collage artist or a postmodern novelist, Ward reconstitutes the past in ways that make us experience it differently. His version of Buddy Holly's "Rave On" turns that paradigmatic shot of jumpy teenage lust into a dreamy expression of spiritual contentment, while a duet with Lucinda Williams on the Don Gibson favorite "Oh Lonesome Me" redirects that country classic toward the California desert, where Neil Young also once took it, and toward the blues.

"I wouldn't want to cover a Hank Williams song in a country-western way," he said. "It doesn't occur to me instinctually to re-create productions. I'm interested in re-creating songs. Putting different clothes on them."

An indie mecca

After coffee, Ward and I hopped into his Subaru for a tour of the Portland that's nurtured him since he moved here with a handful of his college pals. We drove by Mt. Tabor, a big hill rife with evergreens where he often takes his headphones to listen to mixes, and the attic studio of Mike Coykendall, where he's recorded parts of his last few albums. Every neighborhood had its own strip of yoga studios, refurbished classic movie theaters, bookstores and, of course, cafes.

Though some forge a space in the entertainment industry hubs of New York and Los Angeles, artists like Ward thrive in midsize cities like Portland, where relative isolation breeds community and a do-it-yourself attitude. For indie rockers, it has become a mecca -- famous inhabitants include Johnny Marr, Stephen Malkmus, Britt Daniel of Spoon and James Mercer of the Shins, and local bands from Sleater-Kinney to the Decemberists have taken the city's influence international.

Small-scale creativity has remained an important commodity in Portland, despite the presence of major corporations like Nike and Intel. Housing prices never skyrocketed the way they did in Seattle, and a fairly homogeneous population has made gentrification feel less perilous or politically incorrect than in more diverse locales. (Ward, in fact, is biracial; he mentioned late in our conversation that his mother is Mexican. But that fact of his lineage isn't something he plays up in his music or his public image.) Then there's the rain: Gray skies keep people inside, turning hobbies into a life's work.

As we drove past the Green Micro-Gym, I asked him if he thought sustainability was built into Portland's civic model. "Or people have enough community of friends that they can survive the lean times," he replied.

Localism has always been a key element of indie pop. Between the Internet and Jet Blue, a midsize city like Portland now is no less accessible to Ward's favorite musicians than anywhere else.

Aside from one summer in New Hampshire, where his wife, an academic, was checking out a school, Ward has spent his entire career here. He records for Merge, a label based in Chapel Hill, N.C.; he regularly works with a core group of musicians from Oberst's town of Omaha, Neb.; and he remains a member of She & Him, based in L.A. In another era, Ward probably would have felt a need to relocate to a "major market."

Scenes in particular cities may still grow hot and fade. What Ward's cultivating is something both smaller than that, and bigger.

"The idea of a community is a lot more permanent than a movement," said Mac McCaughan, co-founder of Merge Records, who himself has been a prominent indie musician since the 1980s. "To me it's a much more appealing way to think about it. Having relationships based on where you live has always been important and is part of our identity, but if you're a musician working in Chapel Hill but you're on tour and you meet people with whom you feel kinship in Nashville or Omaha or Portland, it is much easier to communicate and collaborate with those people than it was before. Then your relationships are based on a shared aesthetic, or maybe something else. The regional thing runs parallel with these other relationships."

In North Portland, Ward and I stopped at the Type Foundry, a recording studio co-owned by Adam Selzer, who was part of the crew that moved to the city after college. Other key members include John King, an artist who's done many of Ward's album covers, and David Welch, who recently opened Lincoln, one of Portland's newest slow-food hot spots, with his wife, chef Jenn Lewis. When Ward and I arrived, Selzer was working on a recording session with his wife, Rachel Blumberg, another Ward band regular. (Selzer and Blumberg also have their own up-and-coming band, Norfolk and Western.)

The Type Foundry is in an old warehouse. Its big rooms allow for Ward to get a more expansive sound than the one Coykendall's attic provides. Selzer has equipped the space with vintage instruments, including two pianos that are over 100 years old.

"It's impossible to get a piano this old to be 100% in tune," said Ward. "Whereas those new pianos. . . ."

"They almost sound like fake pianos," said Selzer, finishing his thought. "Digital pianos."

Like so much in this industrial city-turned-giant bohemian nest, the Type Foundry has been repurposed by resourceful people to serve their needs. "This place was not designed to be a recording studio," said Selzer. "The advantage to that kind of place is that it sounds really clean -- what you hear is what you're going to get. But it doesn't offer you the things that you don't want, which a lot of times end up being what gives a record personality."

Blumberg grew up in Portland and has seen its trends wax and wane. "Lately, the music scene is flourishing like crazy," she said. "This studio is central in a lot of ways. People come into town and become part of this amorphous group of really neat people, creative folks -- a lot of it is really grass-roots. There's a big fondness for getting together and making music in your living room."

Making it work out

Ward and his friends feel confident that Portland's music scene will outlast the current economic crisis. "It's easy for people to live, and people don't really want a lot," said Blumberg. "I think that's why there's so much art here. I have friends who are in the regular job world here who are having trouble. But in our own little DIY music world, we're still making things work."

The moral questions that usually follow the growth of a bohemian enclave, about who is shut out when arty folk move in, aren't felt by most to be major stumbling blocks. Some locals I talked to beyond Ward's inner circle decried the scene's insularity and participants' tendency to question each other's successes, tall-poppy style. But for Ward, who is preternaturally modest and private, it's an excellent place to operate. (He'll play March 4 at the Music Box in Hollywood.)

Such arenas have arisen throughout the history of underground music. But they're not launching pads any more. They're where someone like Ward stays, his influence quietly radiating outward.

"Maybe this is why indie rock doesn't sell as many records as the Jonas Brothers -- it's a more inward-looking thing anyway," said McCaughan. "To a certain extent, it's just doing work, in the best sense of the word."

For Ward, that work has made a comfortable life in a city full of family and friends. But the labor remains its own reward. "I hope I never figure out what I'm truly doing with music, because that's going to be a sad time," he said. "A dead end, I guess. If I knew exactly what I was doing, I'd know exactly how I was going to produce the next song. There's just no fun in that. I like to work a little bit in the dark."

-Ann Powers

THOUGHT-PROVOKING: Singer-songwriter Ward’s album “Hold Time” is a high point in a career that has included working with Zooey Deschanel in the duo She & Him. Benjamin Reed / For The Times