M. WARD – Interview

Foto-© Sanne Ahremark

Man hatte schon fast vergessen, wie schön das ist für einen Musikjournalisten: mit einem Singer-Songwriter – und dann auch noch einem, dessen Werk man schon lange und gut kennt – in aller Ruhe “face to face” im sympathischen Berliner Künstlerhotel Michelberger zu reden. In echt also – bei einem Interview wie “vor Corona”. Und Matthew Stephen Ward (49) – als Künstler nur kurz und trocken M. Ward – enttäuscht die hohen Erwartungen an diese Rückkehr zur Journo-Normalität nicht.

Der US-amerikanische Grenzgänger zwischen Fifties-Pop, Folkrock und Blues ist in allen seinen Antworten freundlich, aufmerksam, nachdenklich – ein idealer Gesprächspartner. Zumal einer, der mit dem neuen Album Supernatural Thing (VÖ 23.06.2023) wirklich etwas Tolles zu “verkaufen” hat. Am Vorabend hatte er einige Songs daraus bei einem umjubelten Bar-Club-Gig im Neuköllner Prachtwerk vorgestellt – am Vormittag danach nimmt er sich viel Zeit für den Bedroomdisco-Plausch.

Hi Matt, it’s a great pleasure to talk to you “face to face” finally again. Thank you so much for this opportunity to interview you “in person”. First of all: Wonderful concert last night at Prachtwerk! You seemed to enjoy the Berlin audience very much. Lots of artists from America say it’s a pleasure to play to German audiences – because they really listen.
Yes! I love coming to Berlin. The audience ist always warm and receptive and attentive. Just always the right spirit. They are not just enjoying it – they’re absorbing it. It makes Germans, in a way, the perfect audience. I have nothing concrete right now but I’ll definititly come back with a band, at the end of this year or next year.

I’m looking forward to that. So, let’s start talking about your new album Supernatural Thing. A brilliant one again, Your best since Hold Time in my opinion, with a comparable dream-like atmosphere. How does it compare, or differ, from Your recent records?
It’s a little bit more outward-looking. Migration Stories was an inward-thinking record. If I had to compare it with something I did before, it would be Transistor Radio because it borrows some of the ideas I was obsessed with when I was making that record. Which was the idea of turning a memory into an album – my first exposure to radio and that feeling of the mystery behind it. This is endlessly inspiring to me. Supernatural Thing is in line with that.

Transistor Radio was published in 2005 – so your new record is a kind of continuation 18 years after that?
Yes, it’s from the idea that all my records are chapters from the same book. Even if I’m the only one who sees the threads, for me creating threads between records is just as important as creating threads within the record. It helps me tie everything together in some way.

Does Supernatural Thing have kind of an overarching concept?
It’s similar to Transistor Radio trying to recreate the fascination I had with radio before I knew what radio power was. In addition it’s music about music and songs about songs. My first exposure to music goes hand in hand with my exposure to radio. I think it changed my life. That was before I even started playing guitar, when I was age 8 or 9 – pre puberty, I would say. And music continues to change my life: Why is it here, what’s the importance of it? Good questions I hope are never answered, because I’m a bit obsessed with the mystery of it all.

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What does The King, Mr. Elvis Presley, have to do with the album and it’s title song? He plays quite a prominent role in the song video.
That song came out of a dream I had about meeting Elvis at the time of my first (anti Covid) vaccine. It was an euphoric feeling to travel again. And it was an euphoric dream I quickly turned into a song where Elvis said to me: “You can go anywhere You please”. It was only 30 minutes to write. We all went through this Covid thing globally, and it’s fascinating to me which kinds of films and music are gonna come out of this rollercoaster.

Foto-© Jacob Boll
Foto-© Jacob Boll

Dedication Hours, the new song with Neko Case, is quite interesting – it could come directly from the fifties in my ears. Do You especially love this decade?
I absorbed a lot of that music, and if you absorb something enough, it ends up coming out in whatever you do. The influence for this song? The piano playing of my friend Gabriel Kahane elevated it to a level I wasn’t expecting. The spirit of I Only Have Eyes For You – a song I’m endlessly obsessed with.

Who’s this Mr. Dixon from the song with Shovels & Rope? A Blues man, I suppose.
Yes, Willie Dixon became popular in the middle part of the last century. He’s commonly as one of the original architects of the Blues. He later on had law suits against Led Zeppelin and various artists who just took his music and didn’t credit him. There are still so many people in America who still don’t care of the debts we have to Afro-American artists and their culture and the music they made. The Black Lives Matter movement helped me see how ignorant lots of Americans are. So that song came out of that.

This album, like others before, has some interesting special guests: First Aid Kit, Neko Case, Scott McMicken, Jim James – some of them old friends of Yours. How did that happen? Did You just take the phone and call them?
No, it starts with an e-mail (laughs). Especially First Aid Kid, hearing them and meeting them in the studio was such a great thrill. They are, as sisters, just natural harmony singers. I’m honoured to have them singing on two songs of this record, Too Young To Die and Engine 5. They took both of these songs to a level I was not expecting. I definitely hope to work with them again.

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Once again you have a great choice of cover versions: David Bowie’s very last song I Can’t Give Everything Away and Daniel Johnstons Story Of An Artist. Why did you chose these special tracks?
Well, I spent half my life covering other people’s songs. It’s the way I advanced as a guitar player, as a songwriter. The songs of David Bowie and Daniel Johnston have always had this special place in my brain. There are so many songs of the both who have to be exposed because few people actually know them. Story Of An Artist – there s always a great reaction when I perform that song. So I’ve been covering Johnston songs for years, I’ve been covering Bowie songs for years. There’s something about these guys that makes me very happy to return to their catalogue. With Bowie’s song, it was the melody that he wrote – I wanted to turn it into a swansong. Like You said: the very last song of his last record. He’s an artist I’m indebted to.

Foto-© Sanne Ahremark
Foto-© Sanne Ahremark

Concerning your carreer as a solo artist: You’re quite well known to Folk fans, but not so much to the general public. More people know your music from the She & Him project with Zooey Deschanel. Do you think this might change now?
I think that my recordings with She & Him and everything we achieved is on a different track that I’m on. It’s possible to have them both operating at the same time. I love what Zooey does – she’s an incredible singer and a great writer, but it’s not something like a full time job for either of us. That’s a key to its longevity – originally we just wanted to make one record and that was it, but it kept snowballing. The response was great, it turned into many records, and now here we are. It’s surprising to all of us. For me it’s nice to not sit in the driver’s seat as well.

So, will there be more She & Him albums?
I would expect so. But nothing is planned yet. I think the next record is gonna be She & Him originals after the Beach Boys project.

There was another project of yours, the celecrities’ band Monsters Of Folk. Can we expect another album with Jim James, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis?
We talk about it. I see them maybe once or twice a year, we are still friends. The latest talk is to re-issue the one record we made. And we might be adding a few songs.

You’re a quite unique musician in my opinion – unique voice, unique style, unique songwriting. Are there any artists you’d like to be compared to?
Interesting question… But nothing comes to my mind. If there is somebody I would prefer somebody from the past. Because that would be the most thruthfull, that’s what I’m mostly listening to: older vocalists, older guitar styles – everything from the twenties up to 2000, especially the forties and the fifties.

So, Matt, you will be turning 50 in October. Is there anything new you really want to experience as an artist, as a songwriter? A big hit record perhaps? A film score?
There’s no specific goals like that other than the very open-minded goal of continuing what I’m doing to be suprised – to travel, to work with singers of foreign languages, especially Spanish and French. My mother is Mexican, so Spanish is a part of me. I like the idea of expanding my vocabulary in that way. I love German too but I only know five words.

So, no ambitions to be a superstar?
Not at all. That’s never been my intention. I don’t mind the occasional spotlight but I don’t want to live there. I’m very happy to collaborate with people that have that comfort level, but I’m much more interested in producing in the Folk scene, the guitar side of things. That’s a full life for me. I’m fascinated by what music has done – and that goes hand in hand with the overarching theme of this new record Supernatural Thing. If music has this power over me, mysterious power, therapeutic power – why is this not the same for everybody, why have I been so controlled by this force?

Nice interview, Matt, thanks a lot!

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