If M. Ward isn't on your radar yet, he should be. The soft-spoken Portland, Oregon musician has released seven solo albums, toured with Norah Jones, co-produced a Jenny Lewis album, and recently teamed up with actress Zooey Deschanel to make one of the best folk-pop albums of 2008. Ward doesn't write songs so much as he makes melodies with words; the tunes will stick with you long after they've left your ears. His latest album, Hold Time, comes out Feb. 17. M. Ward talks to TIME about his songwriting process, living in Portland, and why he's been reading a lot of Wallace Stevens. In case you're wondering, the M stands for Matt.
Tell me a little bit about Hold Time. How did the album come together?
All of my records sort of start out the same way. I go through my tapes that I've been making for well, half my life, basically. Since I was 15. I write constantly, so there's a lot of material to choose from and there's a lot to discard.
What do you mean by 'tapes' ?
What I do at home is just make sketches on my 4-track very, very rough pictures of songs. Tunes, bits and pieces of things that I think of, that kind of thing. I'll have hundreds of songs on my tapes and then I take 20 or 30 of those into the big studio to record. Of those, the songs that fit together the best are the one that make it on the record. Basically I look for songs that I can thread together in some way.
That's so weird because when [your previous album] Post-War came out everyone was saying that it was a theme album about what America would be like after Iraq. I assumed that you'd written a number of songs around that.
I definitely was inspired by articles I was reading about the war, but the thing that I was most interested in was the cycle the similarities between what we're going through right now and what people went through after the last war we were in. So I'm more interested in common cycles than writing about something specific. I don't really write about proper noun-type events.
A 4-track is really old fashioned. Why don't you use digital?
For my sketches it's always 4-track and when I take the songs into the big studio it's always analog, which is one or two-inch tape. I feel like digital recording is a little bit too cold for me. Plus I spend a lot of my time listeing to older records that are recorded on older tape. That's the bar I've set for myself, to sound like that.
You always list older musicians as your influences yet you are very active in the contemporary indie scene. You worked on albums with Beth Orton and Cat Power and you co-produced one of Jenny Lewis's albums. Do you listen to contemporary stuff now?
Not as much as I listen to older music. I'm definitely inspired by music that's happening today and the music of my friends, but my biggest influences are still older records.
The reasons I started playing guitar was because of the Beatles. That's probably the first name that springs to mind. There's just something about them, I can't describe it. I think a good example of other people that have inspired me over the years come from the songs that I've covered. This new album has [Buddy Holly's] "Rave On" and [Chet Atkins's] "Oh Lonesome Me" so those are some others, I guess.
"Oh Lonesome Me" features Lucinda Williams, what was that like working with her?
I was beginning to record that song and I started to hear her voice come out of the speakers. I have been a fan of hers for a long, long time; she has just one of those voices that when you hear it you never forget it. It just seemed like it would work better with her, so we invited her to do the duet. She said yes and I was thrilled. I had never met her before.
Last year you made a record with Zooey Deschanel under the name She & Him. How did that project come about?
I was doing music for a film that she was starring in called Go Getter. The director had an idea to put us in the studio together to record a Richard Thompson song. So we met in L.A. and got along really well and eventually she sent me her demos and I thought they were incredible, so I told her you know, "Let's make a record." She came up to Portland and it took about no more than two months to finish the whole record. We called it Volume One. That was the fastest project I've ever worked on.
And you're planning a Volume Two?
Oh yeah, we're working on it. We haven't really recorded anything yet, just demos.
But you're also working on an album with Jim James of My Morning Jacket, aren't you?
I am! We expect it to be out in 2010. It's me, Jim, and then Conor [Oberst] and Mike [Mogis] from Bright Eyes. It's the four of us. It's still a pretty new project and we don't know what we're doing yet but it's going to be fun. We don't even have a name yet, we'll come up with one at the eleventh hour. Or maybe the twelfth.
What is the music scene like in Portland?
A lot of people are moving here, artists are moving here because by and large it's the cheapest city. It's incredible. I've lived here since 2000 which is when I starting making my first record and was making music full time. There's a big music scene and of course we have all the coffee shops. I love it. I have no plans on leaving. We have pretty dreary weather in the wintertime which draws people indoors to make music.
What do you do when you're not playing or recording music?
I have a lot of friends and family that live here so I spend time with them. I walk around. I eat. Normal everyday things. I have no significant hobbies unless you call reading a hobby. Is that a hobby?
I would call that a hobby.
Ok, then reading is my hobby. I recently rediscovered the joys of Wallace Stevens. He is incredible. I think he passed away a couple decades ago.
You've been making albums since the 90s but 2006's Post-War was the one that really got you known, how has exposure changed your schedule or your albums?
Well, I can do a duet with Lucinda Williams. That's a pretty big change. I stay pretty focused on the act of writing and recording. I still go through the same process, it has not changed. At all. The influences are growing because I'm meeting more people, I guess. And I spend more time talking to journalists.
Which clearly you enjoy.