Antiquated: Not the word that immediately comes to mind when considering a chart-topping pop album. Yet it’s the best means to describe the gracefulness of Newbury Park, Calif., native M. Ward and his sixth release, Hold Time (Merge Records).
There’s a haunting familiarity to this folk-inspired singer/songwriter. Soft-spoken yet captivating, he mystifies and enraptures audiences with a velvety voice and smooth musical progressions that feel closer to orchestral movements performed by simplistic keyboards and guitars than a room full of classically-trained prodigies. Even Ward himself embraces the description. If Hold Time is antiquated, he’s done his job right.
“That’s my biggest inspiration,” he beams about ghosts of musicians past. “I like older production and guitar styles and every record is an experiment.”
Ward understands how unusual it is to be a 36-year-old independent folk musician with closer ties to the 1920s than the 2020s. Yet to him, writing and recording music today has become disposable; so common that anyone with a computer and a spare half-hour can create the next big single. Moreover, those “artists” burn bright and fast but fade quickly. As with his heroes though, Ward’s music is slowly beginning to outshine those supernovas. His increasing popularity continues to blossom, proving that substance still beats style.
“I ask myself why I like older music more than current music all the time,” he confesses. “I think it might have to do with having a closer relationship to the music I listened to growing up before I knew what music was. Somehow with music in memory, childhood and spirituality, there are a lot of overlapping circles. For some reason, certain songs loom large in those areas. Most of those songs were not written by people like (one would find) today.”
As music forges on deeper into the digital age, this audiophile clings tighter to his analog ways. He only allows in enough technology to commit his craft to tape, not overtake it. While others may have forgotten music’s rudiments, to Ward, they are still very real; very present. Maybe that’s why we find him so enigmatic.
“There are pluses and minuses to having recording capabilities in every person’s bedroom,” he says, humbly dismissing the notion. “It makes life easy for everyone to record but not for everyone to hear. For myself, it’s not much of an issue because I still stay pretty focused on my inspiration … That’s how I did it when I first started and nothing’s changed.”