Singer/songwriter M. Ward has seen his profile, and album sales, rise steadily in the past five years, and in 2008, he cracked the six-digit barrier for the first time thanks to the Merge debut from She & Him, his duet project with actress Zooey Deschanel.
But Ward, who in the past has worked with everyone from Norah Jones and Jenny Lewis to Bright Eyes and My Morning Jacket, is keeping his focus on the music as the Feb. 17 release of his next Merge solo album, "Hold Time," approaches.
The response to "Volume One," on which Ward served as the producer, guitarist and arranger, exceeded expectations, though he says the publicity it received was "of a different flavor" than he was used to. "I treat the act of making a record very much like working in a laboratory, experimenting with sounds and ideas," he says, sipping iced tea in a dimly lit hotel restaurant in Manhattan. "Whoever chooses to latch onto [the album], great; whoever doesn't, that's fine, too. The reaction always pales in comparison to the weight of the act of production."
On the heels of "Volume One," which has sold 123,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and Ward's prior solo effort, 2006's "Post War" (which is at a career-best 75,000), "Hold Time" paints on a much more eclectic canvas than the sparse compositions that marked his earliest work.
"What I was shooting for on the production side was to make the larger sounds even more widescreen, and to juxtapose them with smaller, thinner sounds that you can find in any pawn shop," he says. "We used a lot of cheap Casios and cheap guitars and cheap microphones to record certain elements of every song, but then we also used really nice equipment and really lush strings to try and find some sort of balance that I had never heard on a record before. That was a new experiment for me."
The album features guest spots from Lucinda Williams on the string-backed, heartbreakingly beautiful "Oh Lonesome Me"; Grandaddy's Jason Lytle and Deschanel, who lends vocals to the jaunty first single "Never Had Nobody Like You"; and a cover of Buddy Holly's "Rave On." Of including cover songs, Ward says, "It puts the listener I think in a little bit of healthy confusion, where you're not exactly sure where the sounds are coming from." A full band backs Ward throughout, including three drummers on "To Save Me" and "Epistemology."
Ward will tour long and hard behind "Hold Time," beginning Feb. 18 in Boston and including a host of summer festivals, with details to be announced.
Meanwhile, Ward and Deschanel are in the early stages of work on She & Him's "Volume Two," which will be out in 2010. Also coming that year is a long-in-the-works album from Ward, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, which Ward acknowledges is moving at a "glacial pace."