The deep-voiced M. Ward, known to many as the "him" in She & Him, speaks barely above a whisper. "I'm definitely more of an introvert than an extrovert, and I'm happy to say so," the Portland folk-rocker admits.
It's no wonder that "living the dream," through Ward's eyes, is being the guitarist rather than frontman. "If the song is right, I'm perfectly happy just being that guy who hits the triangle once in the orchestra," Ward jokes.
So how does the background player take the driver's seat? As old adage preaches, it's all about the company you keep. On his eighth solo album, "A Wasteland Companion," Ward leads 18 different guest stars, including Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, Dr. Dog's Tobey Leaman, John Parish, and She & Him partner Zooey Deschanel.
Out April 10 on Merge Records, the album was recorded in eight different studios all around the world and thus features eight different engineers. Yet Ward insists that cohesion was not a concern for him.
"A clearer picture of how I spent the last three years was recording while I'm traveling," Ward tells Billboard.com. "The studios that I hear about that I've been hearing about for ten years that I've never had the chance to record, I made a point to actually do that this time. I spend a lot of time thinking about sound, but I'm not one of those people that believe that in order to have a cohesive record it all needs to be recorded in the same room with the same people. I was much more interested in the idea of trying to record a record with different studios, different rooms, different people, and try to find a spark that way."
Ward indeed found a spark in the form of instrumental variety: "A Wasteland Companion" illustrates why he's a bona fide guitar anti-hero, but there's more piano and orchestral elements than ever before. Here, Ward shows that his talents transcend that of the folk singer-songwriter strumming away oh-so earnestly. That's there, of course, but as listeners heard a hint of on 2006's "Post-War" and a bit more on 2009's "Hold Time," Ward can pen those catchy, throwback-y pop tunes (see: "Sweetheart" feat. Zooey Deschanel on "A Wasteland Companion," or anything She & Him's ever released).
"The last few years I have been becoming more and more aware or cognizant of the need for balance in a song and a record, and my opinion is that this new record is my most balanced -- it has a backdrop of being dark and the foreground is really something hopeful," Ward says. "If you put someone's record on, every song is just about how sad they are, or just all the things that are wrong in life, it's not interesting for me. I'm much more interested in your experience being balanced. If you dig deep into any character, fictional or non-fictional, you should be able to find both elements. A lot of them are contradictory, and I'm interested in those kinds of things."
Ward's collaborative spirit doesn't end with "A Wasteland Companion." There's more in the works for She & Him and Monsters of Folk, his "supergroup" with My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, who released their debut in 2009.
"It's definitely not a one-time thing," Ward says of Monsters of Folk. "We all see each other pretty often, there's just been a lot of activity for all of us. We'll definitely make something new."