These days, Matt Ward is a hard guy to pin down. When he's not making earthen dream-folk records as M. Ward, he lends his talents to some high-profile partnerships. Alongside Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Ward performs as part of the Monsters of Folk. This weekend, he's a LouFest headliner with another of his projects: She & Him. The classic-sounding pop project pairs actress Zooey Deschanel's vocal and songwriting prowess with Ward's guitar skills and '60s-inspired production. Ward talked about touring schedules, his preferred sonic palette and the art of choosing a great cover song.
Christian Schaeffer: I would assume that you and Zooey don't get to tour too often.
M. Ward: Well, you know, we make a good amount of time after we release a record to support it. Neither of us are that interested in being on a tour bus for twelve months straight, so what we find works best is to divide the shows up over the year. So we can live normal lives and still promote the record, because we really believe in the music. We've been having a great time touring.
How does she take to the rigors of the indie-rock touring lifestyle?
She's great. She loves every aspect of it, really. It's all brand-new to her, so it's especially exciting.
Along with She & Him and the Monsters of Folk, I wonder if it's odd to have these recording projects that have a limited touring options.
Every tour is different, and every record is different. We both feed off of that. I'm really happy to be in this role that I have in this band, of being the guitarist and producer and backing vocalist, and giving more room to the lead vocalist. I love it. Comparing the two is a little like comparing apples and oranges, which is obviously hard to do. [Laughs]
Was the approach to the new She & Him record different this time around, or were you still mailing demos back and forth?
The process is pretty much the same. We loved how the process worked for the first one, and we didn't want to reinvent the wheel and take on new roles. We went down the same road and just took it a little farther. We feel like this new record has more emotion in it, and more dynamics.
As a producer, do you approach these records with Zooey differently than you do your own solo records?
Yes and no. No, because I treat her demos the same way I treat my own demos, which is to listen to them on repeat for a long time and try to find out where the song wants to go. But the answer is yes, too, because she writes completely different songs than I do, and that's part of the fun of the process is trying something new.
For lack of a better term, both the She & Him records and your own records have something of a "vintage" tone to them. As someone who has by now made a bunch of records, have you homed in on how you like your records to sound, or do you tinker around to create new sounds?
I still think the best records that I've heard sound timeless. You're not exactly sure what year they were recorded. I feel like that's healthy confusion for the listener, and I am drawn toward songs that lend themselves to that kind of production. It's a hard question to answer, but in general I'm drawn toward stories and productions that don't really have a specific place in time.
Did you both have some sonic touchstones in mind? Were there certain records or producers or techniques that you were pulling from?
[There are] hundreds and hundreds of songs that we are throwing back and forth for inspiration. It's hard to begin to talk about what records inspire you, but the productions of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector and George Martin and Quincy Jones are a good place to start.
I think that's a good place to start for just about anybody.
I think so, I think so. [Laughs]
You've never been shy about putting cover songs on your records. How do you choose those songs, and how do they fit into the whole of a record?
We're just constantly covering songs, whether it be on tour or in the studio, just to have fun with music. Some of the songs, when you're covering them, seem to have a life of their own. And those two [covers on Volume Two] definitely had an identity and a life of their own, so we put them on the record.
What I like about your records too is that aside from a song like "Let's Dance," a lot of songs are a little less known. Without reading the liner notes, you could be fooled into thinking that they were M. Ward or She & Him songs. The covers on Volume Two weren't songs I was familiar with, so they work nicely as a gateway for new listeners.
I think that's healthy confusion also, if you're not sure who wrote the song or how old the song is. I think that helps the overall goal, for me in producing a record, is to create something that's hard to pinpoint.
— Christian Schaeffer