When Matt Ward entered a Montreal recording studio last year, the world was a very different place.
At the time, the plight of international migrants and refugees was constant fodder for newspaper headlines. Issues surrounding immigrant rights were also pushed to the forefront in the United States by many of the policies of the Trump administration.
Dismayed by the coverage and the tenor of the discourse surrounding the topic, Ward left that studio with eleven beautiful, hazy folk songs tied together by themes of movement. The album, “Migration Stories,” humanizes and, at times, spiritualizes the act of faith that migrants and their families complete as they travel into the unknown. And in a deeply personal way, Ward even channeled his own family’s multi-generational story.
Fast forward to today — with internal travel restrictions enacted throughout much of America and borders on every continent shuttered in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19, releasing a record about migration might seem a little unusual.
The irony isn’t lost on Ward, who is performing an album release show from his home in Los Angeles on Wednesday, April 8 at 11 a.m. PT (you can watch the archived video performance above).
But as we found out in a conversation with the songwriter, “Migration Stories” is a complex body of work that can double as a source of comfort in even these strange and uncertain times.
Jerad Walker: When you entered the studio to record this record, the world was obviously a much different place. You came out with 11 songs loosely tied together by stories of human migration. What was the driving force behind that?
M. Ward: For this particular record I’d been reading tons of articles, hearing tons of stories just like everyone else about migration. For me, I’ve been getting equal amounts of information just from traveling to Europe about their crisis and just coming to realize how similar it is to the one that is going on in North America. So a lot of the songs come from articles that I’ve read or friends that I’ve talked to about what we hoped for for these people.
Walker: Did you dig into your own family’s story for any of these songs?
Ward: Definitely. It happened even without my intention. These stories—just especially around my mother’s side of the family which is from Mexico. My grandfather was born in Mexico and immigrated to America through El Paso, Texas, in the 1920s, eventually making it to Southern California, where my mom was born. But hearing those stories is definitely inspiring because there are no journals or photographs from that journey. We have to fill in the blanks. We have stories from family, and for me, I get a little bit from music from that time. I was driving through Los Angeles a couple of years ago, and I heard this song “Along the Santa Fe Trail” that’s about 100 years old. It seemed to make a lot of sense to me to try to cover that song.
Walker: And you also have 10 other original tracks on the album. One of my favorites is the song “Migration of Souls.” It’s almost a spiritual journey. Can you tell me about that song?
Ward: Well, I love the idea that there’s a spiritual element to migration, and it’s not something you read about in the news at all. But it’s something I feel like music can more easily try to encapsulate or illustrate. Migration is going to happen, whether or not anyone chooses to create policies against it. It’s almost like an irrepressible force.
Walker: You had your own migration of sorts in the past few years leaving Oregon, where you’d spent much of your career, and heading back to your home state of California. Was that a catalyst for any of this?
Ward: You know, my whole life for the last 20 years has been jumping back and forth between Portland and Los Angeles. I have family and friends in both cities, and I still spend a lot of my time in Portland. My parents still live out there, but I was inspired by both cities, and I feel really fortunate to be able to be part of both.
Walker: Matt, one song that I think both towns will relate to his “Unreal City.” It’s got this super catchy bop to it, but lyrically, it’s about the fear of living under the shadow of the impending Big One. I guess for Southern California it’s the San Andreas fault line, and for Oregon, it’s the Cascadia. Lyrically, I suppose that song takes on a whole new meaning right now.
Ward: Yeah, when you grow up in California, you’re born with these implanted articles of fear that it can all go up in smoke in one day. And living with these kind of fearful stories is, I think, great food for music, whether it’s the migration crisis or natural disasters or, you know, maybe even a worldwide pandemic. I think the history of American music has been to take bad news and turn it into something that you can stand on to get you going the next day.
Walker: On the record, there’s just beautifully subtle stuff. You’ve always played in that kind of twinkly twilight zone, where you build these sonic tapestries. But you’ve really outdone yourself this time. There are flourishes of saxophone and ethereal keys, but there’s also a lot of smartly used silence. Lyrically and sonically, silence is a recurring theme on the album, and I think it’s one of the hardest things for people to harness. What about silence intrigues you?
Ward: Just that it’s sounds impossible to be able to use silence in music. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, and it’s just one of those fine lines that I wanted to try to achieve in this record. We knew ahead of time that we wanted a lot of space for the songs to breathe. So it’s all about finding a balance. And I’m glad that you’re hearing it.
Walker: A song like “Chamber Music” on the record really uses it to full effect. And that track seems almost prophetic now with people playing small concerts inside of their homes.
Ward: For me, music has been a form of meditation, and I think that song comes from that place.
Walker: And you’ve got a chamber music performance of sorts tomorrow. Can you tell me about the album release show you’re playing?
Ward: I have a tiny, tiny studio, and I will be playing songs—a few songs from the record. Cinematography is going to be all done by me, and I’ve never done any cinematography at all. But we’ve all been forced into these uncomfortable positions, so it’s going to be interesting.
Walker: Listeners can watch that performance live on Wednesday, April 8 at 11 a.m. PT at opbmusic.org. The album is “Migration Stories,” and it’s out now via Anti Records. Matt, thank you so much for your time. Stay safe and healthy and good luck with the show tomorrow.
Ward: I appreciate it. Take care.