It's three years since M Ward's last solo album, which sounds like some time. Until, that is, you factor in the two he has recorded with Zooey Deschanel as She & Him, in the interim, and the one he made with Conor Oberst, Jim James and their Monsters of Folk supergroup. Ward's new LP, A Wasteland Companion, was squeezed in as he produced and toured those other projects. But that might just be its USP: rather than record at leisure in Portland, as he did for his previous six LPs, he cut its 12 tracks at studios on the road, with an array of acclaimed collaborators.
His old friend and former producer Howe Gelb of Giant Sand is there, as is Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. Deschanel appears, duetting on a cover of Daniel Johnston's "Sweetheart". And the radio-friendly, reverb-heavy piano riff of lead single "Primitive Girl" was laid down at the Toy Box in Bristol, by longtime PJ Harvey producer John Parish. Also present in spirit is the late Alex Chilton, lead singer of Big Star, to whom the opening track, "Clean Slate", is dedicated. Chilton died in March 2010, days before he was due to perform at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Ward and others played a tribute set in his stead. The recording process took Ward back to Austin, to LA, to New York, to Tucson.
He went to this year's SXSW, but he was too busy with his own promotional activities to see more than a few of the thousands of other acts at the festival. "This is my blue-collar season," he explains. "I'm working now. Although all that really means is drinking tea and talking about music."
We're speaking in a bar on the 10th floor of a hotel overlooking Hyde Park. Ward is in London to talk about A Wasteland Companion, and to support Feist in concert at the nearby Royal Albert Hall. (Though he persistently plays it down, his list of collaborators includes a lot of talented, attractive women – Feist, Deschanel, Norah Jones, Beth Orton, Neko Case, Cat Power – which doubtless makes him the envy of many a male musician, not to mention many a male music fan).
The windows are large, the sun is bright, and Ward is wearing sunglasses indoors. Rock star affectation? Nope: jetlag. "I landed yesterday. I have sensitive eyes... but life is good." He's dressed in black and sipping a cup of Starbucks chai. There's a fabulously gritty edge to his voice when he sings, but he talks in a delicate near-whisper.
Ward was born and christened Matthew in 1973 in Newbury Park, California. The community is encircled by Americana: just south-west is Los Angeles, the country's beating pop-culture heart; just south is the ocean; and just next door is the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Newbury Park itself was once Chumash country, and contains clusters of ancient Native American burial sites. Nowadays, it's an affluent suburb, home to a number of high-tech companies.
His music spans a comparable range of influences, all of which are indulged in the course of A Wasteland Companion. When he covers Louis Armstrong on "I Get Ideas", he could be a character from American Graffiti, drawing up at a diner in suburban California, circa 1960, thirsty for milkshake. On "Crawl After You", the lilting piano could be that of some frontier saloon bar, his voice a whiskey-sodden cowboy's. And, in the echoing acoustics of "Wild Goose", he could be chasing the eponymous bird across the scrubby mountains towards Mexico under a vast sky.
Ward's parents, brother and two sisters were all, he says, avid listeners, but none of them played music. "My brother had an acoustic guitar that he was neglecting in his closet, and one day when I was probably 13 or 14, I just borrowed it and started to learn Beatles songs. That was day one for me discovering music. I taught myself with an A-Z Beatles chords book: as I learned each song, I checked it off. I still have the guitar, and the book. It's a really bad, cheap guitar called a Carlos Acoustic. Don't tell Carlos I said that.
"I'm not really interested in the collectors' aspect of guitars," he goes on. "You meet a lot of people who are just crazy about the different models and vintages, but I feel like the guitar you buy at a pawn shop can be just as valuable in the studio as a guitar that's worth thousands of dollars. I use a lot of cheap guitars and a few nice ones, but none of them is better or worse; they're just totally different sounds."
Though his guitars are interchangeable, Ward remains rigid in his adherence to old-fashioned recording techniques. if there's a crackle and hiss on his tracks, it's because he likes it there. One of the requirements of any studio he used during production of A Wasteland Companion was that it have analog tape. "You have to have good two-inch tape," he says, "but sometimes four-track makes it onto my records. The title track of the new album was lifted from four-track straight to CD. I use Garageband [Apple's home computer recording programme] on the road; it's great for taking notes. But digital always sounds like a waypoint to something else – it doesn't sound finished to me."
Though his sound is rooted in the history of American music, Ward learned most of what he knows from the Beatles. When he finger-picks, it recalls John Fahey, but he first trained himself in the technique by playing "Blackbird". "Once you discover the Beatles," he says, "you're learning the history of music. When I finished the A-Z, I started to explore some of the songs that inspired them, by Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, and that led me to their influences: the Everly Brothers, Howlin' Wolf. The Beatles songbook is a really interesting education."
Ward says he still sees himself as a guitarist first, a singer and songwriter second. But at some point he found his magnificent, haunting voice, and soon after moved to Portland to record his first album, the little-heard but lovely Duet for Guitars #2, released by Gelb's Ow Om label in 1999. The city is part of the Pacific Northwest's vibrant music scene. "I thought it was the greatest city on the West Coast," says Ward, who still has a house there and an apartment in LA. "It's still in my top two."
Portland is now the subject of a sketch comedy show, Portlandia, in which it's portrayed as a playground for right-on nouveau hippies, who complain about the provenance of restaurant food, browse in lesbian-run bookstores, and inflict twee handicrafts on unsuspecting visitors. "I haven't seen Portlandia, because I don't watch TV series," says Ward, "but from what I've heard, it feasts on the naively entrepreneurial spirit that exists in Portland. And that," he admits, "probably needed to be feasted on."
I ask him a couple of questions regarding the lyrics on the album. One track in particular, "Me and My Shadow", sounds partly autobiographical: "There's a singer everybody knows/ He makes the round of the late-night shows/ Shakes the hand of the host and the masquerade is on..." Ward is evasive when it comes to content: "I never have a nice clean answer to what inspired a song. I feel it's a mystery that, if it is solved, will be superficial – so it needs to stay mysterious. Inspiration is a phenomenon that, in my opinion, is required if you're going to be writing songs for a living. You're basing your career on this unseeable, unknowable force that you can't see, touch, taste or smell." There's a kind of woozy spiritualism to some of his answers, but I'm prepared to blame the jet-lag for that.
Later in the week, the Albert Hall show goes off with a bang. Feist's headline set is spectacular and complex: backing singers, multi-instrumentalists, crowd participation. Ward, meanwhile, is just one man: that guitar, and that voice (and no sunglasses). But he fills the room.
'A Wasteland Companion' is released on 9 April.