‘The records they made were genius, but there was confusion on how to market them because they didn’t fit into an easily marketable genre.”
M. Ward was describing ’70s underground pop legends Big Star, but he just as accurately could have been describing himself.
Ward, one of the most highly regarded and in-demand guitarists and songwriters on the indie/ Americana landscape, will be making his Israel debut on June 25 at the Gesher Theater in Jaffa.
Whether on his numerous eclectic dust-bowl-meets-West Coast folk albums like the recent A Wasteland Companion, or via constant collaborations like Monsters of Folk with Conor Oberst and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, She & Him – his ongoing partnership with actress and singer Zooey Deschanel – or tours and recordings with the likes of Neko Case, Cat Power, Beth Orton and Jenny Lewis, Ward has proven to be a master of all trades in the folk, country and rock tradition.
“A lot of artists like working with new machines and technology, the latest keyboards. I get very bored with that, I’d much rather work with a new voice or a new brain – a creative mind I haven’t worked with before,” said Ward (whose first name is Matthew) last week from his home base in Portland, Oregon. “That’s what suits me more. I’m not one of those solo artists who are happy alone in the studio. I would get lonely and it wouldn’t be very interesting.”
A pursuit of “interesting” has led Ward down various paths, with usually brilliant results like A Wasteland Companion that features 18 guest musicians (including Deschanel and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley) and was recorded in eight studios. Organic and understated, the material ranges from Nebraska-style folk arrangements to country/gospel rave-ups and rustic retro vibe.
His guitar playing – described by one critic as “controlled fury” – can expertly tackle surf-punk punky barn burners one minute and quiet but breezy acoustic interludes the next. In 2006, Ward helped produce and contributed a song to the album I Am the Resurrection, a tribute to cult folk guitarist John Fahey.
“I learned about Fahey’s music a little later after I had already learned guitar and started my career,” said Ward. “The first thing I read was there was this obscure guitar player who had written and recorded hundreds of songs with only one steel guitar. That concept was enough for me to go out and buy some of his records, and I was amazed. Anyone who plays guitar or enjoys listening to guitar should check him out.”
Championing unsung musical heroes like Fahey and Big Star (Ward appears in the 2012 documentary on the band, Nothing Can Hurt Me) is one of the perks for Ward, who is known to include nicely placed covers among his vast repertoire during his live shows.
“I think the same thing about people like Daniel Johnson – a genius songwriter who’s very much in the underground but inspiring thousands of people like myself. One of the benefits of making music is the ability to introduce people to songs and artists they might not have otherwise heard,” he said.
Ward’s show in Israel, the beginning of a modest three-week European jaunt, will be a solo affair, in which he promises to “play some old, some new, some borrowed, some blue.”
“It’s safe to say it will be close to a career retrospective, since I’ve never played in Israel before,” he said, adding that he’s arrived at a balance in his life between touring and recording after spending seven to eight months on the road in the past.
“When I was first starting out, I was always saying ‘yes’ to all the invitations I would get to out on tour with these artists I really love,” he said.
“It was a great education, but I was away from home most of the time. Now I’ve cut my touring in half and I get to spend more time writing and in the studio... and when I do go on tour, I get to go to interesting places like Tel Aviv.”
Regarding his most high-profile collaboration – the She and Him duet with Deschanel that has netted four albums since 2006 – Ward said that despite the TV and film star’s obligations, it’s an ongoing concern for both of them.
“We don’t perform as much as we used to because of her TV show (New Girl) but we make time to record a little every year,” he said. “I’m pretty satisfied with all of my collaborations and projects I’ve been involved with.
Whenever I think about a new one, I just remember all the things I already have on my plate.”