At 38-years-old, Portland singer Matt Ward has rarely been without a guitar in his hands. Two decades ago, the gospel, folk-rock singer was at the center of the burgeoning Indie scene with California band Rodriguez. After releasing solo albums that at first struggled to gain attention, Ward is now collaborating with heavy hitters like Neko Case, Cat Power and Norah Jones.
It’s a journey that Ward has been infusing into his music from the beginning of his career.
He begins his seventh studio album A Wasteland Companion with the track “Clean Slate,” echoing that theme as he sings “When I was a younger man I thought the pain of defeat would last forever. But now I don’t know what it would take to make my heart back down.”
Reflecting on the road to success is a theme repeated throughout the album and, according to Ward, who will perform at Bend’s Domino Room on Sept. 21, is the result of his approach to songwriting.
“I love the idea that records are, or can be, really useful documents of where you were in your life when you made the record,” said Ward during a recent phone interview with the Source. “I think the thread that connects the songs is it all comes from my own life.”
Ward sings about his past using traditional folk rock with hints of 1960s country music and even sprinkles in some ‘40s doo-wop on A Wasteland Companion’s fourth track “Sweetheart”—a song that features actress and sometimes singing partner Zooey Deschanel.
Deschanel also came on board for the gritty rock track “Me and My Shadow,” which pits Ward’s alter egos against one another. For Ward, getting that personal requires he marinates in the themes for a while.
“Normally I don’t start recording until there is a song I have lived with for half a year or a couple of years,” said Ward. “It’s about getting the listener as close as possible to what inspired the music.”
Ward, who is originally from California and moved to Portland as an adult, finds that putting his life to words and song has become a bit easier for him in the Pacific Northwest landscape.
“Most of the music I’ve written has been here in the Pacific Northwest,” said Ward. “I’m inspired by open spaces. It’s good to have room to roam around in.”
Perhaps the perfect depiction of that space on A Wasteland Companion is found in the album’s sixth track “The First Time I Ran Away.” It’s a song set to Nick Drake-styled acoustic guitar that evokes Ward’s struggle to feel like he deserves his success and conjures up the image of driving a 1950s Chevy truck down a tree-lined sun-speckled country road.
Of course there is likely more for Ward to run toward nowadays than to run from. After connecting with Deschanel to pen a song for the movie The Go-Getter, which was set in Eugene, the pair collaborated on three successful albums as She & Him. Ward also joined forces with My Morning Jacket front man Jim James and members of Bright Eyes, Connor Oberst and Mike Mogis to form the super-group Monsters of Folk. As a result, Ward spends a ton of time on the road.
With all of the traveling and working with other artists Ward has experienced, it’s nice to hear the singer once again break his life down in a personal way. Most of A Wasteland Companion is a sleepy afternoon journal that deals with discontent as much as it does happiness. It’s an album listeners can use to gain insight into Ward’s rise to prominence as well as use as a mirror on their own lives.
Friday, Sept. 21, 9 p.m.
51 NW Greenwood Ave.
$23 at bendticket.com