Matt Ward is superstitious about record-making: he has the weird feeling that if he talks too much about what he does, he’ll spoil it. Maybe he’ll give away too much about a song, and listeners will start hearing it his way instead of theirs. Or maybe, in trying to describe his recording process, he’ll unfairly demystify something that should remain outside the bounds of logic. Ward’s fifth solo album, Hold Time, is a dazzlingly textured work, rife with intriguing sonic references (the Johnny Cash shoeshine rhythm in “Fisher of Men,” the Phil Spector castanet rattle in “To Save Me”), literary allusions (to the poet William Blake in “Blake’s View,” to the Bible in “Absolute Beginners”) and adaptations of traditional forms (the Depression-era blues of “One Hundred Million Years,” the dustbowl folk of “Shangri La”), most of which Ward seems content to let speak for themselves. He’s not contrary — just protective. Still, in the name of fair game, he’s willing to let a few tantalizing insights slip.
A lot of the new songs, like “Jail Bird,” have something going on in the foreground, and something completely different in the background. The vocal line and guitar chords up front are melodic, but in the background there’s crazed, dissonant noise.
I spend a lot of time on atmosphere and things that people can’t necessarily hear, but they can feel. I like that aspect of music. A lot of my favorite classical music has a foreground and a background. In larger orchestras, the low end creates movements that you’re not necessarily supposed to listen to, because that’s what the high-end instruments — the violins — are normally for. But those lower sounds work on a more subliminal level. I love being able to play with that in the production.
What is going on in the background of “Jail Bird”?
It’s basically a combination of strings and samples and percussion. Nothing too fancy, but it took a long time to develop. These songs have been in my head for years.
When did you start working on the record?
About two years ago. That’s when I started taking the songs to the big studio. The actual age of the songs is hard for me to say, because the songs are sometimes pieces of songs that are maybe 10 years old that turned into a song that’s only five years old.
Do the songs germinate on paper, or do they begin as recorded bits?
I look at it as two different parts. The first part is the composition, which happens by myself with a four-track and a guitar and vocals. The other half is the production. The production is definitely more open to outside influences — meaning other people that you’re collaborating with. There’s a little more chaos involved with the production element of it. Both are equally exciting. I love the process. It’s not too fast or too short for me.
I pick up a lot of old-time folk and blues influences on the record.
Absolutely. I’m definitely inspired by those structures. I like when time is broken down that way. If you’re watching a movie, I like when you can’t tell exactly when it was made. The same with books and poetry and, obviously, music. I like books that carry you across multiple generations. You feel like you’ve lived a hundred years. I don’t know if a record can take you through a hundred years, but I feel more satisfied hearing something that’s more vast than someone who went into his studio for a week and put his feelings onto tape.
There’s a lot of death on the record. “Blake’s View” paraphrases William Blake: “Death is just a door/You’ll be reunited on the other side.”
A close friend of mine had a death in the family, and this quote from Blake came to my mind. The song sprang out of that idea.
“For Beginners” seems to be about youth and growing up and the way old people get angry at young people.
Absolutely. Is the phrase “absolute beginners” a reference to the ’80s movie?
I’ve never seen the movie. People have mentioned it to me. To me it’s two words put together. But if it reminds people of a movie they liked, that’s a good thing.
A couple of the songs, like “Epistemology” and “Stars of Leo,” purport to be autobiographical. How true are they?
[Pained:] I learned a long time ago that when I start to dissect the meaning of the song, it takes a bit of the fun away, because people are more hesitant to tell me what they think the songs are about. And one of the fun things about music is that it means all kinds of things to different people. I stay pretty true to that.
I’m just interested in where all these influences come from. You’re drawing on the past, and the process by which you filter those influences, and transform them into something that’s your own, seems central to your success as a musician.
My biggest inspiration is old records. I grew up in a pretty big family, and everybody listened to a lot of different kinds of records. My parents listened to gospel and country and classical music. So I was taking these influences in before I could remember. But how it all started, where it’s all going, is by and large a mystery to me.
“Outro/I’m a Fool to Want You” is a ’50s pop standard. What version of it are you familiar with?
Billie Holiday has a version of it on one of her last records, Lady in Satin. That’s another record that I’ve grown up with. If I had to pick a template for the feel of the record, it would be that. It pairs up a very rich, lush sound — the chord progressions, and the orchestrations — with Billie Holiday’s voice, which, at the end of her life, was a very non-lush, non-rich sound. I love the juxtaposition of those two things. It doesn’t seem to fit, and that’s why I love it.
Was there a song on the record that was particularly easy to complete, or particularly challenging?
Nothing involving the recording and playing of music is difficult for me. The studio is a laboratory where I can experiment with sounds and ideas with friends. There are never any true hardships or overly frustrating elements to making music. Outside of music is where frustrating things happen.