It’s interesting that this is the first time you recorded on the road. Is the first single off the album, “The First Time I Ran Away,” a metaphor for this?
It’s more of an imagined story. I’ve always loved the idea that musicians and filmmakers and painters—really everyone in the creative arts—are capable of creating a mythology. A lot of it comes from this, trying to uncover a story that’s…
…yet to be told?
Exactly. The goal is to try to create something that could be interpreted a million different ways.
It’s storytelling. Very few songs I write are autobiographical, but having said that, I do believe there’s more fiction in non-fiction and more non-fiction in fiction. Something I’ve been rereading over the past year is Dante’s Inferno. It’s on the border of fiction and non-fiction. Dante takes a journey to hell but he has a poet as a guide, and he is basically his wasteland companion. That’s partly where the title comes from; it’s a very ancient recipe that has a backdrop of dark ends, despair, and shadows, but in the foreground it has hope and light.
I heard you taught yourself how to play guitar with just one songbook.
Yes, I learned an entire Beatles songbook when I was 15. I never had a guitar teacher, so it was sort of like Lennon and McCartney were my mentors. It was a good education.
Recording this album away from home, did you have any epiphanies along the way?
You know —and I think this is maybe a truism for life—the show and the theater that you think will be the greatest evening of the whole tour is often the worst. And the show that you’re not looking forward to, the room that you’re just not excited about, that ends up being your favorite. I feel like we live in a world of paradox.
What was the first song that you ever wrote?
I’m happy to say that it was never recorded. As a general rule, I have to write about 10 or 15 bad songs before I have a song that’s either worth finishing or worth keeping around to scavenge off of later on.
Do you remember the first song that ever made you cry?
No, but I can remember the last time that I cried at a performance and that was seeing Brian Wilson at the Sydney Opera house. His music just makes a grown man weep. It’s something about his songs, and his voice, the innocence and the journey. Also, I grew up in Southern California, and he’s created this incredible mythology there.
How do you measure the worth of your songs?
I use the passing of time as my biggest indicator. I feel like if I write a song tomorrow, I won’t know if it’s any good until I come back to it 6 months to one year from now. There’s value in a song if there’s something about it that makes me want to press rewind and play again -- usually something I can’t put my finger on.
Anytime I read about you, it always has some relation with older literature or old records or old songs. Are you ever sick of hearing your name associated with that word, “old”?
[laughs] Good question. I guess it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it should bother me more? The only thing I don’t like about it is that it sort of infers that the music that’s happening right now is of no use, which it absolutely is. That might be the only downside to having the “old” tag, that it infers that I have no patience or time or need for music that’s being made right now.
M. Ward's A Wasteland Companion album cover
If you could live in another era, would you?
It would be pretty amazing to go back to that time, any era before the turn of the century, for a day. I think about how music must have sounded to people when recordings weren’t around, when your only opportunity to experience a song was in the theater or on a street corner or listening to live music. Did people leave the theater wishing they could listen to it over and over again in their homes?
Let’s talk about your collaborations with Zooey [Deschanel]. You’re often credited for championing her musical talent.
Zooey is constantly writing, so She & Him has been alive and well. We both take a lot of inspiration from older music and older records. We have a lot of records in common that we love, but there are also a lot of records that we will introduce to each other. We are pretty productive.
How do you know when a song is complete?
It’s very much a balancing act. A lot of times, if you have happy lyrics with happy chords and happy drums, it doesn’t feel right, or true. On the flipside, if you have images of despair and sadness with sad chords and a slow tempo, nobody wants to listen to that. I don’t want to listen to that. There needs to be recognition of both sides of the world, to tell the story of dark and light.
M. Ward’s “Ultimate 5 Song Playlist”
Ramones— "Baby, I Love You”
The Ronettes—“When I Saw You”
James Brown—"I Know It’s True”
Buddy Holly—"True Love Ways"
The Beach Boys—“I’m So Young”
Portrait: Autumn de Wilde; Cover: courtesy of Merge Records