He’s the “Him” in She & Him. He’s a Monster of Folk. He’s an acclaimed solo artist and he’s one of the best guitarists in indie rock. He’s M. Ward – the guy who makes new music sound like it’s from a 1940s radio show and who makes old songs feel like they could have been written yesterday.

Lately, Ward has been teaming up with his She & Him partner Zooey Deschanel for a U.S. tour that will take them to New York, Hollywood, St. Louis and Nashville this summer. The pair are promoting their sophomore release, Volume 2, released in March. Between tour stops, M. Ward talked to Gibson.com about how he met Zooey, his approach to cover songs and why the Johnny A model is the perfect guitar for him.

You’ve been pretty busy lately – Hold Time last year, the album with Monsters of Folk last fall and the new She & Him release this spring. Are you trying to be the indie rock Stephen King?

(Laughs) No, I’m not trying to … It’s been a busy couple of years, but for good reason. People have good songs and they want to put them out into world and I’m happy to oblige.

So people are coming to you and asking for your help?

I’m lucky to be friends with very talented people. It’s just been a really productive couple of years. We’ll see if it keeps up.

It seems like you’re always collaborating with someone. Does it help your creative process to bounce ideas off of someone else?

You can’t help but be inspired and influenced by your friends. But, to be honest, I just love working with talented people and that’s one of the greatest parts about what I do for a living. It’s getting the chance to work with incredible voices.

How did the She & Him thing come together? How did you meet Zooey?

I was doing music for a film that she was starring in. And the director had an idea of putting the two of us in the studio together to record a Richard Thompson song. And that’s where we first met.

From there, you learned that she had all these songs, these demos?

Yeah, she sent me some of her demos and I thought they were incredible and I suggested coming to Portland to record them with all these great engineers and musicians I know up here. One thing led to another and we just released our second record and everything’s going really well.

Zooey is the primary songwriter for She & Him. Does that have you flexing different music muscles? When you’re doing you’re solo material, you’re writing, but with Zooey you get to act as an arranger and performer.

Absolutely, I love the perspective of focusing on production and arrangement and guitars. The songwriting and lead vocals are in extremely capable hands with Zooey. It’s a whole new approach for me and for her to get our creative ideas out in the world.

Earlier you mentioned the Richard Thompson cover that you and Zooey did. You’ve done more than a few covers together, and they’re often very stripped-down. Why is that approach successful?

For some reason, my biggest influence is older production styles, older guitar styles, older singing styles … I feel like the best way to present a song is as simple a way as possible. I think that’s the best way to see if the song can stand on its own. Maybe that’s old-fashioned, I don’t know … But I prefer to see if the vocalist and a simple rhythm and simple guitars can carry an idea across.

It seems like it emphasizes the songwriting.

That’s what I hope. I hope people come away from the record I produce with a better understanding of the people who sang and wrote the songs rather than the people who tweaked with the studio gadgets.

People have talked about the pre-rock feel of your solo records and there have been a lot of AM radio comparisons with She & Him. When you start an album, are you going for a “sound”?

Yes and no. What I’m hoping to do is stay true to the demo and stay true to what I feel the inspiration of the song was. It’s a never-ending challenge to create a production that’s as classic as I can possibly try to make it. It’s a hard thing to explain because I’m so inside of it. I have no perspective on it. I love the challenge of trying to approximate the sound of the records I grew up loving. And that will hopefully never end.

I heard you were a fan of Gibson’s Johnny A guitar. What do you like about it?

Everything. I was at the Gibson showroom, probably about four years ago, and I love electric guitars with whammy bars. This was one of the few they had in the room with a whammy and so it was like, “Let’s try this out.” Just everything about it was extremely responsive, no matter where you are on the neck. It’s just the perfect guitar for me. It’s not too heavy, it’s not too light. It just does everything I ask it to. (laughs)

Do you use it live or in the studio?

Both. I have two of them now. One is a newer model. It just keeps getting better, I have to say.

I know you use a Hummingbird, as far as acoustic stuff goes– 

I do, yeah.

Why that acoustic over the options that are out there?

Well, I have a Hummingbird and a J-45, and I love them both equally. It’s just one of those things where you like how it feels around your shoulders. I play with a lot of different guitar tunings and it’s important that they stay in tune. The Hummingbird, the J-45 and the Johnny A have all been put to the test and I’m happy to say that they continue to surpass my expectations.

You mentioned tunings. You’ve created – and correct me if I’m wrong – a D6 tuning?

Yeah, it’s a tuning that I stumbled across accidentally, maybe eight or nine years ago. It’s now … I use it as often as standard and there’s a D-minor tuning that I like and an open E that I use a lot. So there’s a few. But my favorite is D6.

Why is that? You stumbled across it, but what keeps it around?

Probably because my favorite chord is a sixth chord and you end up with surprising nuances to the chords you play when you’re playing in alternate tunings that stray a bit from your standard tuning. I’m just very comfortable with it now.

Have you converted anyone else to using it, like Conor Oberst or Jim James?

You know, I don’t think those guys mess around with tunings. It takes a long time to experiment with tunings and it takes a long time to get comfortable with it. I’m happy to say I’ve been messing around with it for a long time now, and I feel comfortable with it.

In the video for (the She & Him single) “In the Sun,” you’re playing a Les Paul. Was that just for the video or is it a Les Paul on the recording?

Oh, that was just for the video. It’s a beautiful Les Paul, though. One of my first guitars was a Les Paul and I was sad to see that he passed away and I never got a chance to see him play in New York City. Zooey and I are both huge Les Paul and Mary Ford fans.

That could make for an interesting cover, down the line.

They’re a huge inspiration and we’ve referenced them many times in the studio.

One of your songs made it on the True Blood soundtrack. Is that something that’s cool for you, to have your music in TV shows and movies?

If the television show or the movie is great and the application of the song is great, then I couldn’t be happier. So far, I’m happy with everything I’ve seen.

You’ve probably been asked this a thousand times. Why did you go with M instead of your full first name, Matt?

It’s an old nickname. M. Ward – my friends started calling me that years and years ago. And it just sort of stuck.

 

She & Him, “In the Sun”

She & Him, “Thieves”

She & Him, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”