A Four-Track Guy in a Digital World
THERE is a century-old house in the southeast section of this city, with an attic full of vintage instruments and audio equipment and a drum kit in the dining room, and this is where the indie musician M. Ward likes to record. Reel-to-reel tapes are stacked on the linoleum floor upstairs; a broken film projector with an old coil speaker serves as an amplifier; bells and shakers crowd a shelf in a studio lit mostly by Christmas lights; the Wurlitzer gets a lot of use.
Mr. Ward — the initial stands for Matt — is a connoisseur of the old-fashioned, like the Japanese-made circa-1970 Epiphone guitar that Mike Coykendall, the owner of the house and one of Mr. Ward’s longtime producers, handed him to strum.
“Want to see Matt’s favorite microphone?” Mr. Coykendall, a genial man with long silver hair and excitable eyebrows, said, producing something out of date. “Be very careful with it, it probably cost $2.”
Mr. Ward, 35, a singer-songwriter and guitarist, doesn’t hide his nostalgia, or his taste for the homemade. “I don’t like expensive sounds,” he said. “I’m still using the same four-track I bought when I was 15 to write songs.” That retro-crafting is evident in his sixth studio album, “Hold Time,” which will be released by Merge Records on Tuesday. About half the songs were produced in this house. Like his previous work, it is indie folk with some pop glimmer and more country pluck, and a roster of starry collaborators, like Lucinda Williams and his partner in the duo She & Him, the actress Zooey Deschanel, who sings backup on the peppy, toe-tapping single “Never Had Nobody Like You.”
“The blogosphere will eat this track up,” the editor Amrit Singh wrote on Stereogum.com, the influential music blog, which also named “Hold Time” one of the most anticipated albums of the year. It has been streamed more than 100,000 times in the last month on NPR.
It was also in this house that Mr. Ward recorded most of She & Him’s debut, “Volume One.” Released last year by Merge, it was his biggest hit, selling more than 120,000 copies and winning his solo act new fans. He will play the Apollo Theater in Harlem on Thursday and, for the first time under his own name, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., in April.
“She & Him definitely broadened the number of people who would hear Matt’s new record,” said Mac McCaughan, a founder of Merge. But even before that project, “this would have been our biggest release in the first half of this year,” he added. “His last record sold more than 60,000 copies. For us that’s a huge record.”
For Mr. Ward that success has been a slow and steady build. In the decade since he moved to Portland to record his first album, he has supported himself through music — a reflection of the city’s livability as well as his career as a sideman. Something of a musician’s musician, Mr. Ward has performed as a slide guitarist with members of Calexico in Europe, as an orchestral player for Bright Eyes in concert and on TV, and at Madison Square Garden with Norah Jones. His other collaborations on the road and in the studio read like a Who’s Who of the indie-love firmament: Jenny Lewis, Cat Power, Neko Case, the White Stripes. In addition to She & Him’s “Volume Two,” among his next projects is Monsters of Folk, an album with Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.
“I think our voices and spirits blend well together. When we played together, it just felt natural,” Mr. James wrote in an e-mail message. “His music is eternal and people will be listening to it as long as they have ears.”
Through it all Mr. Ward has maintained his own distinctive style, built equally on his croaky, plaintive voice, his fingerpicking musicality and his throwback aesthetic sense. He doesn’t listen to much contemporary music or read newer books. He watches movies, but as for TV, he said, “I’ve never taken the plunge, except for ‘Twin Peaks.’ ”
It’s not that he’s a Luddite — he buys songs on iTunes and does late-night YouTubing like everyone else — or a misanthrope who believes that art was better in someone else’s day. “I know there’s great stuff out there,” he said. “But I don’t want to be influenced by stuff that’s going on around me. I’m more interested in consuming stuff that’s stood the test of time and the hard work of filtering has already happened.”
Is he just a little bit lazy? “I think lazy isn’t too far off,” he said. Even so, Mr. Ward is not out of step; contemporary indie music has caught up to his brand of revivalism. And he’s more diverse than he lets on: he likes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” and grew up, near Los Angeles, on KROQ, then home to British new wave and acts like Sonic Youth and Firehose from the punk label SST.
“Listening to something that’s brand-new, I get a little bit excited about it,” he said, mentioning Fleet Foxes, a young harmonizing Seattle band, as a recent discovery, though he doesn’t yet own their album. “But I get more excited about stuff that’s obviously weathered storms.”
Creatively and professionally Mr. Ward is industrious. At 15 he picked up his older brother’s guitar and taught himself to play from an anthology of Beatles songs. (George is his favorite.) Now he has a workaday routine that includes composing and playing guitar, ideally every morning. “That’s the best time to write, because my brain is fresh,” he said. “It’s one step closer to the dreaming mind, which I think is what you shoot for, that kind of immediacy.” His lyrics are often centered on the past or the passage of time, wistfully reminiscing and longingly romantic (he is married to a writing professor). And of course he is unabashedly fond of covers and references. On “Hold Time” he has a duet with Ms. Williams on “Oh, Lonesome Me,” a 1950s country song by Don Gibson.