UCR INTERVIEW: M. Ward of She & Him

Photo Credit: Chantal Anderson

She & Him’s seventh studio album is a loving, LP-length tribute to one of the greatest living American songwriters and singers, Brian Wilson. Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson finds Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward diving deep into the legendary artist’s extensive songbook, offering fascinating and delectable new spins on time-honored classics and overlooked gems alike. These fourteen covers are infused with the familiar magic that She & Him fans know and love, opening a new window into Wilson’s iconic catalog. Wilson even features on a song with Zooey and M. Ward for the album, “Do It Again.” The band have enjoyed a friendship, and mutual appreciation, with Wilson over the years and She & Him was previously a guest vocalist on his 2015 album, No Pier Pressure. Recently, the band released “Darlin’”, the lead track and video from Melt Away.

She & Him will be stopping by Red Butte Garden Amphitheater on Tuesday, June 14. Utah Concert Review had the opportunity to visit with M. Ward ahead of their Salt Lake City tour stop. Kevin and Ward discussed Melt Away, what goes into creating a good cover song, and much much more. Enjoy!

M. Ward was interviewed by Kevin Rolfe

M. Ward: Hello Kevin.

UCR: Hi Matt. How are you? Am I allowed to call you Matt?

M. Ward: Matt is good. No, Matt is good.

UCR: Awesome. Hey, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. I appreciate it.

M. Ward: Of course. Nice to talk to you.

UCR: You’re gonna be here next week at Red Butte Garden. I can’t remember, have you played there before?

M. Ward: Yes. We’ve played there before. It’s beautiful. Can’t wait to get back to Salt Lake.

UCR: Nice. Random question, but are you from Newbury Park, California?

M. Ward: Yes. Well, I was born in Glendale, I later moved to Ventura County and I went to Newbury Park High School.

UCR: Okay. Well, I’m from Thousand Oaks. I went to Thousand Oaks High School (rival school).

M. Ward: Oh! Amazing.

UCR: I thought I saw that somewhere and I thought, ‘What are the chances two Conejo Valley guys meet while on a random interview?”.

M. Ward: That’s great. It’s a small world after all.

UCR: It really is. I don’t meet too many people who’ve gone on to become big musicians out of that area. It’s can be considered kind of a vanilla town, but it’s really close to Los Angeles. How was it growing up there as far as influencing you to be a songwriter, and musician.? If at all.

M. Ward: Growing up in LA and, Ventura County was, a great education. I definitely think Brian Wilson’s stature there, I feel like he really changed the sound of what we think of as music in California. It really was everywhere in the air growing up. Because my family was fairly large, there was five of us, and everyone listened to different kinds of music. And so I was just absorbing everything and of course, absorbing all the different radio stations down there coming from Los Angeles. Just so much of it. I remember The Beach Boys and Brian’s music having a great impact. And Zooey had a similar upbringing, growing up closer to Santa Monica. That’s partly where this record was born. When we were kids growing up in Southern California hearing Brian’s music all the time.

UCR: Yeah, definitely. My dad grew up in a nearby town from The Beach Boys in Bell while they’re from Hawthorne. He’s hearing this stuff as it comes out, and they’re guys basically just down the road. I think he found so much of that sound relatable in some way. We listen to some of this music and it kind of has this, I don’t know, I think of the Beatles or The Beach Boys. I think we’ve never not known it. We grew up with it. But what would it have been like to have heard “Don’t Worry Baby” or “In My Room” for the first time on the radio? It must have been amazing to hear this catalog in real-time.

M. Ward: It was truly groundbreaking. The mixture of these early rock and roll rhythms masked with these big, beautiful chords, vocal harmonies was a brand new thing. And he invented that. He had no formal education in music. For someone to come up with these harmonies it’s miraculous. The more you dig into Brian’s story the more there is to be excited about his catalog. And dig deeper and find songs that were not on the radio all the time. Some of them are just as good if not more impactful than “409” and all the songs that were on the radio all the time.

UCR: In order to make this album you really had to unpack layer upon layer to record this. When you and Zooey got into this, were you like, “What have we done? There’s so much!” Or was it just fascinating to really deep dive into creating this album?

M. Ward: Oh, it’s pure fascination. And love for his music. Every song is a labyrinth. So many puzzle pieces. I don’t think neither Zooey nor I look at it as saying this puzzle is too big to touch or to try to recreate.

UCR: That’s great! You’re up for the challenge! Which I think is inspiring because I think some others might simplify it too much or they won’t do it justice. From what I’ve heard so far, you guys have done it justice. Which means you’ve worked really hard at, as you said, getting through the maze or labyrinth to figure this out.

M. Ward: Yes, and the more you get into the songs, you just start to create your own take on it. The fact that no one is ever going to replicate The Beach Boys’ harmonies means that you create something new along the way. And that’s what so many cover songs I produce have been built around that. This was also during COVID times and we didn’t have these big orchestras or, wall of sounds that he recorded with. So as a result, you record with what you have at hand. For me, it was an army of guitars and synthesizers. And for Zooey, it was an army of harmonies and vocals and vocal ideas. That process connected to these incredible songs creates something new and interesting.

UCR: You’ve done such a good job in covering songs. Whether it’s on your own with David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, or I really love your guys’ cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On”. Then obviously with what I’ve heard from this album, do you have a certain mindset when you go into a cover? Obviously, you want to do the song justice. You want to touch on the familiarity, but at the same time, you really do make it your own. What goes into really making that happen? Cause it’s not easy.

M. Ward: For me, it all comes down to the guitar. Quite often, I would say half the time it starts with playing chord progressions in alternate tunings. When you change the tunings on your guitar, you end up creating new melodies without even thinking about it. That’s where a lot of my cover songs come from is, deconstructing songs into guitars with different alternate tunings. It starts there. I love to play with rhythm. I’ve no interest at all in copycat productions or copycat harmonies. So with that interest and fascination, that’s where it comes from.

UCR: Thanks for breaking that down for me. I enjoyed hearing that. I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times. But he’s just such a fascinating man and I think it’s so cool that Brian Wilson actually joins you guys on this album. What was that like? Did you know him before? What was it like to work with him on this? Was that intimidating? I’m asking a million questions, but just, what was that experience like?

Photo Credit: Chantal Anderson

M. Ward: It’s a dream come true. You know, working with your idols. We’ve known Brian for many years. I played with him, at the Hollywood Bowl. Um, Zooey has interviewed him years ago, maybe even 10 years ago. We covered a couple of his songs on our first Christmas record that we made, and he invited us to play on his album called No Pier Pressure a few years ago. Where we were all in the studio together. I think there’s a mutual respect for each other’s work. Which sounds just so foreign to say that. It’s surreal and a true honor that he sings on our record.

UCR: Yeah, that’s so cool. What an experience to have worked with somebody like that. Do you remember the first time you performed live?

M. Ward: I think it was in probably Newbury Park, High School. Just playing guitar with friends in the quad while people were eating lunch. It was an exciting time being a teenager and learning an instrument for the first time, completely on my own. Without any proper education except for reading Beatles cord books. Covering songs at that age was how I learned how to play guitar. And covering songs at my age now, it’s still the way I advance my learning about songs. In a lot of ways, it’s how I look out and see the world. It’s through songs and also songwriting.

UCR: You’ve toured and played live a ton, so it’s hard to pinpoint probably, but was there a time in your career when touring was the best? Maybe it was the best tour or the best type of show that you played where you just really enjoyed it more than any other time?

M. Ward: It’s a hard question because they’re all great in their own way. If I had to say one thing, it would be the first tours you ever do in countries you’ve never been to is always exciting. Having said that we haven’t been to Utah in years. So it’s gonna be a great pleasure to see everyone again. It’s almost like visiting a new country for the first time. (laughs)

UCR: We’re excited to have you guys back. Is there somebody that you would tell people to make sure to see live?

M. Ward: I would say, oh, there’s so many. One of my heroes growing up is a bass player named Mike Watt. And so that’s the first name that comes to mind. The first real live concert I ever went to, was his old band called Firehose. He is still touring and is definitely my favorite bass player of all time. So his name is the first one that comes to mind.

UCR: Okay, last question! What can people expect up at Red Butte Gardens when they see this She & Him concert?

M. Ward: It will be a cocktail of Brian songs and songs from the She & Him catalog. We can’t wait to be back. We’ve had some of our best shows ever in Salt Lake City so we can’t wait to get back.

UCR: Awesome. Well, again, thank you so much for the time. It’s been a real pleasure. And frankly, an honor to talk to you, I really have enjoyed your music and career. I can’t wait to see you.

M. Ward: Well, thanks. Nice talking to you and, um, go Lancers (Thousand Oaks HS mascot), right?

UCR: (Laughing) Go Panthers! Oh! Incidentally, Brian Wilson is playing here the same night you guys are, which is not awesome.

M. Ward: Oh, you’re kidding. In Salt Lake City?

UCR: Yep. I sure wish he was playing another night so I could see you both!

M. Ward: Oh, that’s interesting. Well, maybe there’s time for some people to come to both. Go see him really quick, then rush over to catch us.

UCR: That would be quite the feat!

A few tickets are still available for the She & Him June 14th show. To purchase tickets to the concert click here!

To learn more about She & Him, their upcoming album Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson, or to follow them on social media, go to sheandhim.com

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