M. Ward unplugged

Matt Ward is from California, although he currently lives in Portland, Oregon. He began playing guitar and singing as a teenager. Now in his early thirties, he has cited Jimmy Page, Neil Young, Django Reinhardt and Johnny Marr, amongst others, as six-string favourites. Artists including Brian Wilson, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and John Fahey excite Matt. He has supported Beth Orton, Bright Eyes and Yo La Tengo. Jim James (My Morning Jacket), John Parish (PJ Harvey), Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley and The Postal Service) and Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) helped Matt to record his latest album. Released in February 2005, Transistor Radio is Matt’s fourth long-player. All of Matt’s records have been released under the moniker, M. Ward.

Matt has previously commented: “M. Ward is a nickname I had when I was younger. It’s more to the point. More formal.” Reading past interviews with Matt, this formality becomes very tangible. He comes across as calm, courteous and considerate – not cold – but at times a little distant. This is in contrast to the warm, intimacy of Transistor Radio. The opening track – an instrumental cover of the Beach Boy’s You Still Believe In Me – gently washes in on an acoustic, fingerpicked tide. The album slowly draws you under until Americana-hued currents safely cocoon you. The sixteen tracks ebb and flow along bluegrass, country, folk and rock-tinged shorelines; never stagnating. Constant throughout are Matt’s weaving arrangements, rich, Marlboro-red vocals and thoughtful, evocative lyrics.

I spoke with Matt as he travelled to Hamburg, as part of his European tour. He was calm, courteous and considerate. “Transistor radio goes back to my own memories of radio,” begins Matt. “The feeling of hearing the voice of the programmer, of someone making a connection with you. Radio was where I first heard music. My introduction to radio and introduction to music overlap in quite a meaningful way I guess.” Meaningful? How? Why? I wanted to engage Matt, scratch the formal veneer and get beyond the question and answer routine. Perhaps even get a fluid conversation going. It was proving difficult.

“Do you mean what really got me about radio?” questions Matt. “Specific songs, specific artists,” he continues, “the sound and atmosphere of the songs; you never know the next thing you’re going to hear.” Whilst talking with Kristen Rask from NadaMucho.com, Matt commented, “I’m not really concerned with the reaction to the music. I try to stay focused on the act of making music.” And if you peer through the lyrics of Hi-Fi, the fourth track on Transistor Radio, you might get a glimpse of why radio means so much to Matt: “let me turn the volume up, give me a little hi-fi; drown out all the sirens in the back of my mind.” Later in the song Matt sings, “how are you going to settle your ties when you ain’t got binds to tie-up.”

Perhaps radio is one of Matt’s ties. “Radio seemed like a magical, mysterious force when I was younger,” he says. “But my education has grown leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. I’ve visited a lot of radio stations and have seen how it works. As you get older I guess your vision of things changes. In America I think that Clear Channel (a multi-station-owning media and entertainments giant) will become an obvious problem in the next couple of years. It’s scary how political the channel is and how tight it is with the administration.”

The sleeve notes to Transistor Radio begin: “Hello again D.J. – this record is dedicated to the last of the independent and open format ones of yr kind.” Matt’s affection for airwaves free from the lure of advertisers and shareholders is evident in the production, as well as the lyrics of Transistor Radio; and alongside his memories, it’s an affection he still finds on the dial: “You can still get that feeling. I’ve travelled around a lot with people over the last couple of years and we’ve discovered independent stations still alive and prospering. But it’s not always easy financially and there is a real concern that they will not be around in ten years.”

When asked how radio should be, Matt replies, “Programmers playing the music that they love. Why aren’t there more John Peels?” Matt plays the music that he loves; there are four covers on Transistor Radio including Sweethearts On Parade, also recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1932, Well Tempered Clavier by J. S. Bach and the BeachBoys track already mentioned, You Still Believe In Me. Talking about the BeachBoys, Matt reveals what is possibly another of his ties: “I did get to see Brian Wilson in Australia. It tore me to shreds. I think it would have been different if I hadn’t been raised in California,” he continues. “Because I was, I guess I can relate to him a lot stronger. It’s in the lyrics, melodies and production and sentiment of the songs. It’s something to take pride in, coming from the same place as Brian Wilson.”

Matt left California to live in Chicago, where he taught kids to read at an elementary school: “but I guess the west coast is where my home is,” he states, “and Portland is the cheapest place to live. Amazing things happen there.” As we made our goodbyes, Matt was calm, courteous and considerate. And perhaps this is the way he likes it, diving deep into the music he loves rather than wading through shallow-watered interviews. Matt has previously commented: “I think it’s the artist’s job to blur the lines.” When I ask how he blurs his, he replies, “I think that’s up to the critics to decide.”


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