When M. Ward got ready to start recording his new release, "A Wasteland Companion," he decided he'd shake up the nuts and bolts of his operation.
Before this record, Ward, who headlines the Twilight Concert Series in Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park on Thursday, Aug. 23, worked cozily on previous albums at his home studio in Portland, Ore., on his trusty four-track.
This time, he went gypsy, working at studios as far-flung as Europe; Tucson, Ariz.; Omaha, Neb.; and New York City.
"It was time," said Ward, calling from home in Portland, Ore., fighting the effects of a Tokyo flight the night before. "I had been exposed to different studios in Europe and parts of America that I had never created time to actually record in. I hadn't been willing to open myself up to the chaos that involved.
"I wanted to create something between a hybrid of a live album and a studio record. And I had a great time. This might be my new way to do things."
When he writes a song, Ward said, he thinks of who might be a good fit for it, so far as drawing friends in to work with.
"Whenever I am writing the songs, I start to hear people's voices -- their drum styles, the piano styles. It is one of the things I can't really explain about songwriting. You kind of hear finished things in your head, and then go out to find who can make that happen."
He has worked with Zooey Deschanel, Howe Gelb, Conor Oberst and Neko Case and others to fulfill those voices in his head over the years.
Writing itself is a solo effort.
"I mainly do it by myself in hotel rooms or at my house -- me and my guitar and my four-track. The process begins there. I normally write quite a lot and then allow time to go by. If a song sounds good to me after six months or a year or a couple of years, it will probably make it on the record. It takes a little while to see."
"A Wasteland Companion" opens with a song called "Clean Slate," dedicated to Memphis rock legend and Big Star founder Alex Chilton. That band produced an influential album in the 1970s.
Chilton, who was to do a much-anticipated performance at Austin's South By Southwest Festival in 2010, passed away just days prior to the performance. His place was taken by many of his acolytes. John Doe (X, The Knitters), Sondre Lerche, Chuck Prophet and another Big Star member, Andy Hummel, who flew in from Europe for the show, paid homage.
Ward was there, too, performing Chilton's "Big Black Car."
"It ended up being like a funeral for ... music fans who really don't get invited to these things," said Ward. "I think it was a personal moment for all his fans and the people who knew him well, too."
A cover song he chose for the album is from one of the most outside of Austin's outside artists, Daniel Johnston. He is a lauded singer/songwriter who has battled crippling mental illness. Ward gives Johnston's "Sweetheart" a sparkling, almost vintage Beach Boy reading. Zooey Deschanel, whom he sings with in She & Him, joins him on that song.
"I am always covering people's songs when I am messing around with my guitar," said Ward. "Certain times, they feel good enough or fresh enough to start singing. I think so many of Daniel's are as good as John Lennon or Brian Wilson songs."
Ward said one of his favorite moments in the recording process was going to P.J. Harvey's producer, John Parish, and his studios in Bath, England. They recorded the song "Primitive Girl," giving it a warm fuzz-tone, primitive twist.
"It was memorable for me to see his studio. I had been familiar with P.J. Harvey's music for a long time, and I wanted to see where he (Parish) worked. I was expecting a majestic studio, but it is actually a cavern beneath an old church. It was really wonderful to see and a cool place to work, too."
• Rodriguez, a San Luis Obisbo, Calif., trio, included M. Ward and Kyle Field (later of Little Wings and also The Microphones); the two played with various drummers. The band lasted from about 1992 to 2000, and completed a full-length album, “Swing Like a Metronome.”
• Ward is a member of Monsters of Folk, something of an Americana supergroup formed in 2004 that also includes Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes, as well as Jim James from My Morning Jacket. The band, which also sometimes includes drummer Will Johnson, has thus far released one eponymous album, in 2009.
• Ward formed a musical partnership, She & Him, in 2008 with Zooey Deschanel. They have released three albums to date, including a Christmas record in 2011.
• Howe Gelb, enigmatic frontman from the Tucson, Ariz., band Giant Sand, helped Ward launch his solo career by releasing his debut on Gelb’s own Ow Om Recordings label. Gelb joins Ward on his latest, “A Wasteland Companion,” as do Deschanel, Mogis and other guests Ward has met along the way.
Sources: Standard-Examiner interview with M. Ward, www.mwardmusic.com, press materials from “A Wasteland Companion,” www.allmusic.com