Change of Heart

M. Ward's new album is damn fine folk -- from a guy who used to ignore folk music

M. Ward is tinkering with his acoustic guitar onstage at the Great American Music Hall. The small crowd -- which, like Ward, is seated -- looks up at him with an air of quiet curiosity. The singer, alone among mike stands, random chairs, and a grand piano set up for headliner Howe Gelb, looks like an odd combination of young boy and old man. Maybe it's the way he hunches over his guitar or the childlike shock of hair rising above his cherubic face, but he appears downright fragile.

Then he starts to play, and his whole demeanor changes. While he still bends over the mike with a posture that would give a chiropractor nightmares, his fingers pick at the strings at an impossible speed, sending flurries of bluesy notes in all directions. His voice is rough and cigarette-strained, yet it is so pretty that the audience bends forward, afraid to miss a word. By the time Ward finishes his set, the crowd sits in rapt attention. As he walks from the stage, he carries a different air, one of casual triumph.

Ward -- who shortens his first name, Matt, so as not to be confused with a Christian singer of the same name -- is an anomaly in modern music circles. Once an indie rocker, he now travels the solitary road of acoustic bluesman, playing mostly solo sets. His voice, his picking, and his songwriting all adhere to a style that is as dusty as a set of encyclopedias at the Playboy mansion. But with his wondrous new album, End of Amnesia, he may convert doubting listeners -- just as he was converted himself.

Laurent Orseau

Ward grew up in the Ventura County town of Newbury Park, a tiny burg 30 miles north of Los Angeles where tourists "stop on the way to the beach." Like many of his friends, he thought folk music was dull compared to the guitar-driven rock of Sonic Youth and the Smiths.

"I was afraid of country and folk because my dad used to listen to Kenny Rogers and the Oak Ridge Boys," Ward says during an interview in a friend's Haight District flat. (Ward is living in the Bay Area for the summer.) "I just filed it in that category of stuff my dad likes to listen to." When he started the band Rodriguez in 1991, his songwriting was indebted to late-'80s post-punk acts like fIREHOSE, rather than to the traditionals his father favored.

"Then Uncle Tupelo came along and we started listening to them," Ward says, referring to the altcountry forefathers. "The band became a cross between both [Uncle Tupelo and fIREHOSE]."

In 1993 Ward went off to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, with his bandmates in tow. After adding drummer Mike Funk (who eventually played with S.F.'s For Stars), Rodriguez began noising up folk numbers like Townes Van Zandt's "Loretta" and toying with quieter acoustic selections. But Ward didn't feel an affinity for the blues until his friend John King bought him an Elizabeth Cotton record for his birthday.

"For a long time, the blues were taboo," Ward admits. "I just thought of the blues as Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan. When I heard [Cotton], I thought, "There's no artifice with this.'"

Ward was hooked. He began digging deeper into King's record collection, discovering artists like Robert Johnson, John Fahey, and Mance Lipscomb, many of whom played with their fingers instead of a pick. Although he'd heard this style via the Beatles and the Smiths' Johnny Marr, he was inspired to try it himself only after hearing the blues players. "It kind of opened up this new thing for me that I didn't hear that many people doing. It wasn't a conscious step, like, "I'm going to play like Elizabeth Cotton,' but rather, "This is really fun.' I haven't used a pick on an acoustic since."

Most of his new heroes played solo, so it made sense for Ward to go his own way when his Rodriguez bandmates graduated in 1997. He headed to Chicago, spurred on by a job with a clinic that treated dyslexic kids.

"Chicago was a great city to experience the city thing," he says. "Living in San Luis Obispo and Southern California, I was very hungry to see what that had to offer. Besides, it was the birthplace of so much music that I liked."

The new songs Ward began recording on a four-track were very different from his Rodriguez numbers. "When you take performance out of the equation, you get more ... I guess "insular' is the word. When you put performance into the equation, you have to think about what you're doing in terms of other people around you. When four-tracking, you can say and do whatever pleases you."

The results of his workshopping were decidedly quieter, bluesier, and spookier than his previous songs. But for the moment they would remain unheard.

"I learned in Chicago that I needed some wide-open spaces -- air and trees," Ward says. Taking a page from his wayfaring predecessors, Ward moved to Seattle and then Portland. In Oregon he reconnected with his friend Adam Selzer, the multi-instrumentalist who had recorded half of Rodriguez's album Swing Like a Metronome(Grandaddy's Jason Lytle engineered the other numbers). The two set about putting Ward's recent songs to tape.

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