Most musicians like to take a break from their jobs sometimes—to catch up on sleep, or focus on the other parts of their lives that have been neglected because of rigorous tour cycles and studio absorption. Maybe even to polish up their golf games. But singer-songwriter Matt Ward, one of modern music’s most prolific artists, doesn’t think writing and playing songs is even work in the first place.
“It seems like I would feel burned out, but the fact is that with music, you’re never really working,” he says. “The only time I’m really working is when I have to travel and spend time on airplanes, and that’s been the thing that I’ve had to scale back on.”
Scaling back hasn’t been any easy thing for Ward to do. The old-fashioned songsmith/producer released his first solo album, Duet for Guitars #2, back in 1999, establishing his trademark sonic palette: gentle folky fingerpicking, slightly lo-fi production, and that gravelly, haunting voice. He has released an album basically every single year since—solo discs, an album as part of She & Him (his high-profile collaboration with actress/singer Zooey Deschanel), or one of his other many collaborative projects like Monsters of Folk, which also featured My Morning Jacket’s Yim Yames and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis.
“When I first starting touring pretty often, in 2001, 2002, and 2003, I was getting a lot of offers to go all over the place,” Ward says. “And it seemed really stupid to say no to these tours where you get to play music with these great musicians like Yo La Tengo and My Morning Jacket and Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley, so I went all over the places with these great people. But after while, I learned that you need to create space and time for being at home and nurturing whatever it is you’re nurturing, so now that I have a better balance between home and away time, I’m much more excited about touring.”
Ward recently blocked off time to play throughout Europe, traversing Scandinavia and hitting up many of the small towns he’s missed during his 10 years of traveling there. But on the other end of the spectrum, he decided to visit some stateside venues he’s never had the chance to play.
“I’m gearing up to head out on my Tennessee waltz,” he says, referring to a section of dates in Memphis, Chattanooga, Nashville, and Knoxville. “This year has sort of been about me playing places I don’t normally play. It was just a good opportunity, and the stars just aligned in that way.”
His upcoming solo gigs will be stripped-down, which is probably the best way to catch an M. Ward show. Onstage, all by his lonesome, armed with only an acoustic guitar or a piano, he’s an absolutely transfixing performer, and his songs typically aren’t fancy in the first place. In a way, he’s really not out promoting anything—his last album, the wonderful Hold Time, came out back in 2009, and all of his other recent projects (like She & Him’s 2010 release, Volume Two, and the Tired Pony album The Place We Ran From) are true collaborations, not fit for an M. Ward solo show.
Though he’s billed 2011 as his most laid-back music year, he has worked on a couple of different projects, one of which was writing songs, along with Deschanel, for the Winnie the Pooh movie that hit theaters this summer.
“You know, I love working with film,” he says. ”I don’t do it very often. The idea of working on a children’s film never really occurred to me until the invitation came about, but Zooey is just very talented, and her songs and voice just make for a great backdrop, and it seemed like an especially great backdrop for a children’s film. And after watching, I don’t think it’s just a children’s film. I think it’s made just as much for adults as it is for kids. The whole project just turned out great.”
In addition to their work on Pooh, She & Him will release their first holiday album, A Very She & Him Christmas, in October. And, of course, it wouldn’t even be a calendar year for Ward if he didn’t find time to work on a new studio album.
“I am still working on a new record, and I will, fingers crossed, have a new record out next year. I’m in post-production. All of the scenes have been shot; I’m just now in the process of tying everything together, and that’s a huge part of it for me, but I love the process. I love how everything’s coming together. It’s a little too early to say exactly what it is because I still don’t know what that is—but so far, so good.
“The inspiration for me always comes from all over the place, but mainly it comes from listening to older records, being inspired by older production styles, older guitar styles.... I never really suffer from a lack of inspiration because there are so many incredible records out there to listen to, so I’ve never really had that problem. The biggest problem I really run into is just finding time for everything I want to do.”