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Change of Heart 

M. Ward's new album is damn fine folk -- from a guy who used to ignore folk music

Wednesday, Jul 25 2001
M. Ward is tinkering with his acoustic guitar onstage at the Great American Music Hall. The small crowd -- which, like Ward, is seated -- looks up at him with an air of quiet curiosity. The singer, alone among mike stands, random chairs, and a grand piano set up for headliner Howe Gelb, looks like an odd combination of young boy and old man. Maybe it's the way he hunches over his guitar or the childlike shock of hair rising above his cherubic face, but he appears downright fragile.

Then he starts to play, and his whole demeanor changes. While he still bends over the mike with a posture that would give a chiropractor nightmares, his fingers pick at the strings at an impossible speed, sending flurries of bluesy notes in all directions. His voice is rough and cigarette-strained, yet it is so pretty that the audience bends forward, afraid to miss a word. By the time Ward finishes his set, the crowd sits in rapt attention. As he walks from the stage, he carries a different air, one of casual triumph.

Ward -- who shortens his first name, Matt, so as not to be confused with a Christian singer of the same name -- is an anomaly in modern music circles. Once an indie rocker, he now travels the solitary road of acoustic bluesman, playing mostly solo sets. His voice, his picking, and his songwriting all adhere to a style that is as dusty as a set of encyclopedias at the Playboy mansion. But with his wondrous new album, End of Amnesia, he may convert doubting listeners -- just as he was converted himself.

Ward grew up in the Ventura County town of Newbury Park, a tiny burg 30 miles north of Los Angeles where tourists "stop on the way to the beach." Like many of his friends, he thought folk music was dull compared to the guitar-driven rock of Sonic Youth and the Smiths.

"I was afraid of country and folk because my dad used to listen to Kenny Rogers and the Oak Ridge Boys," Ward says during an interview in a friend's Haight District flat. (Ward is living in the Bay Area for the summer.) "I just filed it in that category of stuff my dad likes to listen to." When he started the band Rodriguez in 1991, his songwriting was indebted to late-'80s post-punk acts like fIREHOSE, rather than to the traditionals his father favored.

"Then Uncle Tupelo came along and we started listening to them," Ward says, referring to the altcountry forefathers. "The band became a cross between both [Uncle Tupelo and fIREHOSE]."

In 1993 Ward went off to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, with his bandmates in tow. After adding drummer Mike Funk (who eventually played with S.F.'s For Stars), Rodriguez began noising up folk numbers like Townes Van Zandt's "Loretta" and toying with quieter acoustic selections. But Ward didn't feel an affinity for the blues until his friend John King bought him an Elizabeth Cotton record for his birthday.

"For a long time, the blues were taboo," Ward admits. "I just thought of the blues as Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan. When I heard [Cotton], I thought, "There's no artifice with this.'"

Ward was hooked. He began digging deeper into King's record collection, discovering artists like Robert Johnson, John Fahey, and Mance Lipscomb, many of whom played with their fingers instead of a pick. Although he'd heard this style via the Beatles and the Smiths' Johnny Marr, he was inspired to try it himself only after hearing the blues players. "It kind of opened up this new thing for me that I didn't hear that many people doing. It wasn't a conscious step, like, "I'm going to play like Elizabeth Cotton,' but rather, "This is really fun.' I haven't used a pick on an acoustic since."

Most of his new heroes played solo, so it made sense for Ward to go his own way when his Rodriguez bandmates graduated in 1997. He headed to Chicago, spurred on by a job with a clinic that treated dyslexic kids.

"Chicago was a great city to experience the city thing," he says. "Living in San Luis Obispo and Southern California, I was very hungry to see what that had to offer. Besides, it was the birthplace of so much music that I liked."

The new songs Ward began recording on a four-track were very different from his Rodriguez numbers. "When you take performance out of the equation, you get more ... I guess "insular' is the word. When you put performance into the equation, you have to think about what you're doing in terms of other people around you. When four-tracking, you can say and do whatever pleases you."

The results of his workshopping were decidedly quieter, bluesier, and spookier than his previous songs. But for the moment they would remain unheard.

"I learned in Chicago that I needed some wide-open spaces -- air and trees," Ward says. Taking a page from his wayfaring predecessors, Ward moved to Seattle and then Portland. In Oregon he reconnected with his friend Adam Selzer, the multi-instrumentalist who had recorded half of Rodriguez's album Swing Like a Metronome (Grandaddy's Jason Lytle engineered the other numbers). The two set about putting Ward's recent songs to tape.

Recorded in the middle of 1998, the resultant solo debut, Duet for Guitars #2, is a low-key wonder. The tunes are intimate, sounding as if Ward were sitting on the back porch, singing to his lazy hound dog. Besides the occasional brushed drum or plucked mandolin by Selzer or backup vocal by For Stars leader Carlos Forster (who went to college with Ward), the album is mostly the singer and his guitar. The emphasis is on his delicate picking, his cracked croon, and his lyrics, which vacillate between the understated nostalgia of "Beautiful Car" and the rural surrealism of "He Asked Me to Be a Snake & Live Underground." Duet is the kind of record that Johnson or Cotton would've admired.

In fact, the album is so endearing that it inspired Giant Sand leader Howe Gelb to finally start his long-rumored record label, Ow Om. Ward had given Gelb a rough cassette copy of Duet at a Seattle show in late '98, only to have Gelb call him a week later with the offer to release it on Ow Om.

Duet came out in early '99, in a die-cut package with a moody cover painted by Ward's musical godfather, John King. Gelb then took Ward on tour with Giant Sand; Ward opened shows and played lap steel guitar with the band throughout the U.S. and Europe.

"I definitely learned a lot about improvisation," Ward says of the tours. "With Howe, you just learn to go with it and try to stay in the moment as long as possible. There's no rehearsals, no set songs."

When it came time to start working on his next record, Ward had internalized Gelb's spontaneity. "His influence was there in subconscious ways. This record is a little more playful than the last one. I felt free to play with ideas and go out on a limb."

End of Amnesia took two years to finish, in part because Ward joined more tours, this time with Grandaddy and the Willard Grant Conspiracy, but also because he wanted a grander scope. To that end, Ward and Selzer began adding more textures to the songs, including samples from 78s played on an old Victrola crank turntable.

"I had this song, "Bad Dreams,' that I felt like [a 78] would fit on. I wasn't really expecting to keep it, but after a few listens [I realized] it fit perfectly."

Ward ended up weaving samples of Mance Lipscomb, Jimmy Rodgers, and Big Bill Broonzy throughout the record, not just at the beginning of songs but in the midst of choruses.

"I thought it was amusing to have, instead of a gnarly guitar part, a sample from the '30s," Ward says in reference to "Flaming Heart," the record's one rocker. After a tinkly toy piano intro, the song builds to a crescendo -- only to move into a warbly vocal sample rather than the expected guitar solo. The fact that the song's title comes from Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" makes the tune even more oddly familiar.

"A lot of [the lyrics] come from one particular line of a song," Ward admits. "It makes me feel good to be part of [a] tradition. It's something I'm hungry for in general, and so to be able to cre- ate some semblance of that is important to me."

Ward's songwriting places him in another fine tradition, one comprised of talented storytellers like John Prine, Lucinda Williams, and Leonard Cohen. Songs like the elegant "O'Brien" -- the story of three old friends meeting on a baseball diamond, inspired by David Lynch's The Straight Story -- or the Tom Waits-ian "Seashell Tale," in which a porcupine pokes the narrator's cactus hide, swim in vivid details. Part of the reason for the success of such songs is Ward's conversational delivery: Every moment feels thoroughly lived.

"There's a realism there; he's just a real dude," says Dennis Mitchell, co-owner of Future Farmer, which is putting out End of Amnesia. "Some guys write a song about driving their dad's old car, and you say, "I really liked that song about you and the car,' and they say, "What car? I made that up.' Not Matt. You can tell he's lived his songs."

Ward's playing is equally genuine. Instrumentals like "Psalm" and "Silverline" have a timeless quality that could easily stand against a '40s Hawaiian ballad or a '60s blues tune. But Ward isn't just deifying the past; he's creating something new. Each listen reveals a fresh sonic touch -- the ricocheting string feedback of "Half Moon," the wind chimes of "Archangel Tale," or the cascading steel guitar of "Color of Water." End of Amnesia is as much a headphone experience as a back-porch record.

"I feel like the old music is not so different from new music," Ward says. "Giant Sand isn't terribly different from Hank Williams if you take away all the peripherals."

Ward's fans, new and old, obviously agree. Following a review on NPR's All Things Considered, End of Amnesia rose to No. 14 on Amazon's CD sales list on its first day of release. (Radiohead was down at No. 30.) Maybe there's a place for heartfelt, well-constructed, idiosyncratic folk music after all -- even if it takes a 27-year-old former indie rocker to craft it.

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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