When Norah Jones takes the stage this Friday at the Santa Barbara Bowl, latecomers may well have missed the highlight of the evening. Although Jones has taken the world by storm with her easy vocals and lilting melodies, opener M. Ward has a few tricks up his sleeve, too-and maybe some fancier ones, at that.
Five albums into his career, Ward picks up new fans the way a tour bus picks up groupies, without even appearing to be trying. One listen to Ward’s voice-which evokes Ed Harcourt after a bottle of Jack and a pack of Marlboro Reds-and you’ll know why. The Ventura native narrates tales plucked from dusty American landscapes with an unusual level of confidence, often sounding like the ambivalent god of a world that, simply by singing about it, Ward has actually called into being.
On Post-War, released last August, he turns his attention to the war in Iraq, or more accurately, to what he imagines American life will be like after the war has finally come to an end. But, in his quest to write a forward-thinking album, Ward has turned to the past. “My biggest inspiration is older records,” said Ward, “listening to the way they were made and the way voices and guitars were recorded.”
The presence of Ward’s musical idols is a heavy influence on the album. Like a voice over an old radio, Ward’s jangling harmonies and surf-era guitar solos could just as easily be about life post-WWII as life following the Iraq War. And perhaps that’s the point. Despite the details of this new conflict, the tales of horror and woe that it brings about are the same as stories from wars past. The fears expressed in “Right in the Head”-in which Ward sings of a brother in the war (“I hope his guardian angel puts a gun in his hand / If ever he gets ambushed or pursued”)-are universal, as are the sentiments in “Requiem,” an ode to a fallen soldier: “He was a good man, and now he’s gone,” Ward half sings, half shouts.
Ward’s tales of loss and redemption don’t come entirely from his head. Many of the war narratives were pulled together from and loosely based on stories he read in the New Yorker. “I was getting frustrated with the stuff I was reading in USA Today about the politics of war, and it was so refreshing to actually read about the people involved,” he said.
When it came time to make a record, Ward knew many of the stories he wanted to tell, and some of those stories had already been recorded. “Whenever it comes time to make a record, I always go through my four-track tapes,” Ward explained. “It’s like going through a journal.” It’s an unusual approach to song- and record-writing, and one of which Ward is rather proud. “I like that a record can be a reflection of a long span of time in someone’s life, instead of something a writer had to get off his chest one summer.”
The effect of Ward’s intentional song choices shows all over his work. It’s no accident that Post-War sounds like a long-forgotten, much-loved album you had to blow the dust off before hitting the play button. The results are breathtaking, and quite a few people are taking notice. In the last few years, Ward has worked with some of rock’s biggest names, including Bright Eyes, Jenny Lewis, the White Stripes, Cat Power, and My Morning Jacket. But Ward’s not one to let it get to his head. “My music community has been formed in the same way that you meet friends,” he said. “And I’m definitely lucky to be friends with some very talented people.”
The feeling is certainly mutual, and with the trajectory of Ward’s career thus far, the future looks bright. But regardless of what it brings-including some inevitable big-label offers-Ward holds tightly to his humble aspirations. “I’m not somebody who dreams about the goldmine in music,” he said. “I have small dreams. I started making music on my four-track in high school, giving them out to my friends and I still feel like I’m doing that.” Maybe so, but that circle of friends has grown much larger since Ward’s high school days. And after his show on Friday night, you might just call yourself one of them.