M. Ward is hours from playing to the biggest audience of his career, but over the phone from Philadelphia he sounds relaxed. Ward usually plays in small clubs or at outdoor festivals of 10,000 people, but on this night he's playing guitar for Bright Eyes, who's opening for Bruce Springsteen on the Vote for Change tour's stop at Philly's Wachovia Center--which seats 20,000.
Ward's sophomore effort, End of Amnesia, caught Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst's ear and earned him a spot touring with the band in 2002. Since then, Ward has released his third album, The Transfiguration of Vincent, and completed a fourth, Transistor Radio, which is scheduled for release next February. His latest work includes guest spots from Vic Chesnutt, Rilo Kiley, members of My Morning Jacket, and Portland acts the Decemberists and the Thermals. Ward might not have a very high profile in Portland, but he is making friends who can introduce him to larger audiences.
Ward's laid-back demeanor--he looks like an early-'70s Cat Stevens and sounds like a soft-spoken Tom Waits--reflects the "less hurried" lifestyle of his Southern California youth. Ward says the first music to catch his ear was church hymns. While he incorporates rock, blues, ragtime and country into his acoustic folk songs, the soulful sincerity of his voice remains ever reminiscent of that first love. When he sings, "If you're gonna' leave, better call the undertaker, take me under, undertaker, take me home," for instance, you believe every word.
Ward says his "music comes from a subconscious place I don't understand," but he's also aware of his influences. "You expel what you consume," Ward explains. He describes writing music as "an amusing journey to expose styles and ideals while learning a lot about where you come from and where you live."
Now only 30 years old, Ward credits Portland with helping him avoid the influence of "modern music trends." He also appreciates the non-musical benefits of Portland: "In Chicago, you drive for miles and miles just to feel away from architectural claustrophobia," he says. "Portland offers more breathing room."
The nostalgia of Ward's music makes one doubt he's spent much time in any city or even lives in the present day, but this falls in line with his musical goals: "I want to be selfless in a way that exposes your influences. If you can do that," he adds, "you have a channel into the past."