Folk heroics

Or, how M. Ward became such a big deal
June 19, 2007 1:46:20 PM

SIMPLE AND COMPLEX — even the Pops needs time to do him justice.

“Why is he such a big deal right now?” a friend asked with some exasperation earlier this month when I mentioned that I had a phone date with M. Ward. A singer/guitarist/songwriter who cut his teeth in the Portland (Oregon) indie-rock scene but recently relocated to New Hampshire, Ward was scheduled to play two shows with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall, June 26 and 27, as part of the Pops’ annual EdgeFest. Last Thursday, however, he announced that the concerts — which he’d told me “sounded like a dream come true” — were being postponed until 2008 because of “unforeseen circumstances in the Boston Pops family.” The Pops’ explanation? A shortage of “time needed to create the best possible arrangements for this unique collaboration.” The shows will now feature the New York countrypolitan outfit Hem in Ward’s place. (Cowboy Junkies are also set to appear with the Pops at Symphony Hall, June 23 and 24.)

Neither the Pops’ explanation nor Ward’s, of course, explains very much. We can speculate that there was insufficient rehearsal time to make everybody happy with the results. Just this past March, James Levine and the Boston Symphony postponed a commissioned Gunther Schuller premiere because, though the piece had been delivered on schedule, Levine felt there wasn’t enough rehearsal time to do it justice. Still, neither side can be happy about this postponement. M. Ward has lost a unique and high-visibility gig. The Pops is bringing in a lower-buzz substitute that figures to sell fewer tickets and generate less excitement. (The Pops is making refunds available to M. Ward ticketholders.) You have to wonder what was so difficult that it couldn’t be resolved.

In a way, perhaps, the postponement answers my friend’s question. When Ward started releasing solo albums, in 1999 (following a stint in the unremarkable indie outfit Rodriguez), his work hardly seemed like the kind of stuff that would someday call for orchestral accompaniment. His first few discs — including Duet for Guitars #2, which the singer’s current label, Merge, will reissue with bonus tracks on July 10 — are slight but pleasant alt-folk efforts full of the subgenre’s typical strum-and-mumble.

Yet his last two full-lengths — 2005’s Transistor Radio and 2006’s Post-War — have showcased a much more remarkable talent, one with an uncommon grasp of the history of American music and a knack for distilling that history into short, sweet songs suffused with mystery and romance: Greil Marcus’s “Old Weird America” for Generation iPod. His recent material is simple and complex in a way that connects with a much broader audience than most of his alt-folk peers can command. In short, in less than a decade he’s gone from a barely heard bedroom troubadour to a guy that the Boston Pops might need time to create arrangements for. And that’s why he’s such a big deal right now.

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.”

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