Willamette Week spoke with Ward, who plays a long-delayed homecoming gig at the Aladdin Theater this week, about writing and conceptualizing his new album.
WW: Explain the concept behind A Wasteland Companion.
M. Ward: I've had this idea over the last couple records to make some kind of record or some kind of photograph of the years when I was making [the album]. The last few years I did a lot of traveling, so for this new record there's a lot of traveling built into the production. We used about a dozen different studios all over the place.
What considerations are most important in putting together an LP?
The big picture. I believe the best songs recognize there is a dark side of the street, but they don't stay there. I personally like music that's somewhat hopeful and has some sort of light at the end of the tunnel. But at the same time, I don't really like music that's pure sunshine and happiness. I don't think that's telling the true story about people's lives.
You told The New York Times you can trace your songs to a particular moment. What are some significant moments tied to these songs?
They're all significant. What I said to the NYT was a little bit of an exaggeration, maybe. The most significant moment that I can think of for every song is that moment when you're introducing a new song to a talented musician who's never heard it before. That's a great moment to get the tape going, get first instincts on the tape, and more often than not, that's when a song comes alive in the studio.
Tell me about your relationship with your voice.
I don't think about my voice so much. I started just playing guitar, so the vocals have always been an extension of the guitar. That has rescued me from over-thinking the vocals. It has probably also been a little bit of a curse because, more often than not, what you hear on the record is my first or second take.
You've talked a lot about the influence of dreams in your songwriting.
A lot of my favorite books and movies have that feeling of a dream, where anything can happen. I've always loved the idea that music can give you that same sensation. That means creating space for the listener to fill in blanks and not beating them over the head with some idea. I'm interested in the dreams I've had that shed some light on something in my life or something going on in the world. That's a little bit where "Watch the Show" comes from on this new record. It's a strange story, but to me, it seems to put certain things in perspective—which the subconscious is very good at doing if you stop and listen.
So you feel like you're making new realizations by writing about the subconscious?
Every once in a while, I write down the interesting dreams I have. Some of them are just weird. There's useless weird and there's useful weird. I try to put the useful weird in the record.
SEE IT: M. Ward plays the Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., on Thursday, Sept. 20, with Mike Coykendall. 8 pm. Under 21 permitted with legal guardian. Sold out.