Folk heroics

By MIKAEL WOOD  |  June 19, 2007

Provided you look in the right places, Ward seems to be everywhere these days. When I call him, he’s in Little Rock, chilling in his hotel room before opening a concert by Norah Jones, in whose live band he’s playing. (They’re headed to Europe next month after wrapping up a string of American dates in Portland, Oregon, June 30.) He worked on recent records by Cat Power, Beth Orton, and Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley. He appears on the soundtrack to this summer’s Ethan Hawke–directed The Hottest State — an album of covers of songs by Jesse Harris, another Norah Jones collaborator. He’s an occasional member of fellow indie-folk rocker Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes. He organized last year’s tribute to acoustic-guitar pioneer John Fahey, I Am the Resurrection. And next year he expects to release an album he produced by actress Zooey Deschanel that grew out of a duet the two performed for The Go-Getter, a new film starring Deschanel that screened last weekend at the Nantucket Film Festival. “She’s an amazing singer,” he says of Deschanel. “I’m excited for people to hear her songs.” (The actress was slated to appear as part of Ward’s ensemble at the Pops shows.)

Ward’s own recordings exhibit an attention to detail that makes it clear how important each and every song is to him. But he says, “I’m just as interested in producing other people’s records as I am my own.” What he’s not interested in is what he calls “the modern producer’s job: to get something on the radio.” His definition of the producer’s role is somewhat more old-school: “I look at it the same way someone hosts a good party. You wanna create an environment where people are comfortable no matter where it is or who else is in the room.”

It’s not hard to imagine that requests for Ward’s services will soon start to trickle in from beyond his widening circle of musician friends — that is to say, from strangers with deep pockets. Yet he says that his working on a project “requires a personal relationship with the person whose record it is.” It’s enough of a challenge, he points out, “when you’re bringing in, say, a piano player you’ve never met, and you have a microphone on them, and you’re asking them to express themselves.”

As a producer and co-writer, Ward says he’s devoted to “just trying to get out of the way of the song — figuring out where the song wants to go, instead of maybe where the artist thinks it should go or where the engineer thinks it should go or where I think it should go.” That process often involves as much talking as rocking, he explains. “It’s been great talking to Norah about music,” he says of Jones, with whom he says he shares many of the same influences. “There’s only so many hours in the day that you’re actually on stage or in the studio making music. A lot of the time, you just end up sitting around at the hotel waiting for a taxi.” He laughs. “It’s like any other working relationship, you know? Talking about ideas is sometimes just as necessary as the execution.”

The shows with Jones have afforded Ward the opportunity to play for his largest audiences yet, and he says it’s been a great experience. “Norah’s crowds are ready to listen to music, as opposed to other crowds that might go to musical events to party or be a part of scene. They definitely have very open ears.” The same could be said of the Boston Pops’ audience. Alas, Ward — the biggest deal in alt-folk right now — will have to wait a year to find out.

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