M. Ward's Hold Time is one of those albums that manages to actually hold time - it's… timeless. It could have been made in 2009 or in 1969, and every time one listens to it, it's easy to forget how long you've been listening to it for. So the fact that M. Ward is touring on the back of an album released two years ago now is a little disorienting - but nonetheless quite welcome.
"I do feel like I'm supporting the record in Australia because I haven't been in quite a few years," Ward muses in his quiet, soft and restrained way. Returning to Australia after many years to perform some of the biggest shows he's ever played here, his slow-paced, calm music is very welcome in our relaxed Antipodean land, even though he's still touring on the back of his 2009 album, which he now revisits on this tour with a renewed interest.
The return to Hold Time is a change of flavour for the musician, who has been collaborating with others on different projects over the last couple of years rather than focusing on his solo work. Recently, the work with the beautiful Zooey Deschanel in She & Him has been his main project, working with the young actress/songstress on a distinctly retro-flavoured set of folky albums. But now he says he's "sort of changing gears" and getting back into his solo groove.
"Very slowly I've been doing some recording, and I'm always writing," Ward assures me, though, proving that working with others hasn't dimmed his appetite for writing his own work, which has been put on hold lately. There might not be a new album just yet, but Ward is working on it. "Just lately I've had a little bit more time to go into the studio and do my own music."
The process of writing music for Ward is not just all about the songwriting, either - it's also very much about the sounds and the atmosphere, often striving to emulate the past. With some production duties here and there - for She & Him's albums, and Jenny Lewis on Rabbit Fur Coat - Ward is quite at home in the studio, and even a cursory listen to Hold Time will reveal this penchant for timeless production values.
"When I first started playing guitar, I didn't really know what production was," Ward admits sheepishly. "And then once I started four-tracking, which started a couple years later in high school, that was my first introduction to production. It sounds sort of funny when you produce something on four-track. It was my first introduction to layering sound. It filled countless hours in the studio, just imagining layers and producing songs."
He still occasionally uses that old four-track, but now it's more high tech. Kind of. "I use Garageband now when I'm travelling because it's easier to travel with… it's a pretty good program because is so easy and compact, but I only use it for demos and stuff."
No stress, M. Ward. Calm the fuck down. But seriously, his life seems so lovely and chilled; when I tell him it sounds pretty nice, he agrees: "It does. And it is."
Another big project recently has been Monsters Of Folk, which is (was? "We played a festival in Texas called Austin City Limits and we did a TV show which is probably online as well, called Austin City Limits. So that's what were at, we've all been pretty busy with our projects for the last year") a bit of a super-indie-folk-band made up of Ward, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis (both of Bright Eyes fame), and Jim James (of My Morning Jacket). It's part of a chillaxed jam-sharing communal music vibe that Ward is a part of in his home town of Portland.
"Yeah, Portland has a lot of great musicians and I'm very lucky to have a great community of musicians here," Ward says affectionately. "I travel to LA a lot and there's a whole other group of musicians there and New York is the same thing. I just did a little bit of recording in New York. Every little community has their own way of doing things, which is something I'm learning."
So collaborations definitely aren't a sign of the end of solo M. Ward, thankfully, who is recording new solo work at the moment, although he's not quite sure what direction it's heading. Considering that past albums have been fairly self-contained, a new album is an exciting prospect for fans of Ward's solo work. But in terms of any strong concepts, Ward seems to be pretty opaque. "It's a little bit too early to say because I've only recorded a few songs," he says. Perhaps the ideas the hold his albums together form later on in the process. Nevertheless, what he's doing is working out just fine for him: "I've been having a great time and I'm loving the process and that's always a good sign," he bubbles.
For Ward, the past is still a place of deep inspiration. He tells me he's currently reading All The President's Men, a book about Richard Nixon, and that he's been working on more retro-themed music with Deschanel, amongst other things. "We're doing little projects here and there and we've been doing some benefit projects, actually. We recorded a Buddy Holly song for a tribute and we just finished that. It should see the light of day in a couple of months."
I'm sure he's in no huge rush - his measured tones and quiet murmuring voice reference a patient, kind personality, happy to take things as they come. I imagine he'd be equally at home in Portland or in Adelaide, in 2011 or somewhere in the '50s or '60s. He's the kind of person that lives in old cassettes, browned photo albums and nostalgic, hazy memories.
"It's been too long," he says, talking about coming back to Australia. It certainly has.
M WARD returns to Melbourne to play The Palais Theatre with Holly Throsby in support on Friday February 18. Tickets and info from lovepolice.com.au, ticketmaster.com.au and 136 100. Hold Time is out now through Spunk/EMI.