Funerals can suck. But for singer and songwriter Matt Ward, the memorial service for John Fahey was a formative artistic experience.
"It opened some doors, I feel, for me," says the 29-year-old resident of Portland, Oregon, who performs as M. Ward. "It provided ways for thinking about what music can achieve if you want it to, and that when you lose someone, it's a pretty human thing."
In Ward's case, he lost a hero. Fahey, who spent his final years a few towns over from Ward in Salem, Oregon, and died there two years ago, is a cult legend of sorts, an artist who veered in and out of poverty but made influential music for four decades. Fahey used a unique finger-picking style to play his guitar, and from it came the ability to put jazz and pop spins on blues and folk. For enthusiasts of modern folk, Fahey's 1959 album The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death is a jewel, a mixture of rural ambiance and passionate, dark songwriting.
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"I discovered him at this really pivotal moment when I was learning to play guitar," explains Ward, who also finger-picks his guitars. "When you hear someone like him come along at that stage, it might mean more to you than he would to others."
That's why Ward felt compelled to attend Fahey's memorial service. The service, he says, was filled with music, songs about Fahey and songs that attempted succinctly to capture the man's spirit and internal struggles.
The experience gave Ward the inspiration to make Transfiguration of Vincent, his third album. It's a quasi-tribute to Fahey that explores loneliness, heartbreak, confusion, love and valor, embodied in first-person narratives and third-person character studies. Ward, in old homebody, folkie style, recorded the album in a friend's attic in Portland, playing most of the instruments himself and capturing all the related sounds -- floorboards creaking, crickets chirping, echoes resounding. He also fancies himself as a conduit for a myriad of styles, combining country, Tin Pan Alley, Roy Orbison's troubadour melodies, folk and Elvis Costello pop.
"I had never heard live music in that setting before, where the song's intent is to encapsulate a person's whole life in three minutes," Ward says of the Fahey service. "It made me ask certain questions of myself. What would I do if I had three minutes to encapsulate another person's soul?"
The most direct exercise comes in the form of "Vincent O'Brien," which follows the quirky, Western instrumental "Transfiguration #1" that opens the album. Vincent, Ward says, is based on a real person, a friend miserably running in place, working ever so slowly to make progress in conquering his depression. Ward, in his gruff but expressive voice (Tom Waits is an obvious comparison), sings, "He only sings when he's sad/And he's sad all the time/So he sings the whole night through/Yeah he sings in the daytime, too." In the chorus, Ward switches to first person: "I hope you get yourself together soon." The words have a natural, uncanny rhythm to them, and they fly by encased in a lovely two and a half minutes that may otherwise be mistaken for a love song.
It's a technique Ward uses often on Vincent. On the up-tempo "Outta My Head," Ward uses his richest vocal harmonies and celebratory keyboards to perform what amounts to a breakup song: "Am I outta my head/Or is this goodbye?"
"It's a way of figuring out how to swallow loss in a way that's maybe healthy for you," Ward says of the tension. "I think for myself with that song, it was me looking at the situation with some levity and with some humor."
For Ward, the wonders of obscuring the song's meaning cuts in other ways, too. Near album's end, Vincent offers a cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance." The original version, the title track to a 1983 album, was a sign of the times, with booming electronic effects and a Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar solo so studio clean, it was the sonic equivalent of Armor All® on tires. Ward, though, cuts through the noise and, playing only acoustic guitar and harmonica, distills the song down to its chords and its lyric, which can either be interpreted as sweetly romantic or desperately psychotic. Over the course of five minutes, Ward makes that ambiguity palpable.
"I love how it's open to interpretation," he says. "I like stuff like that. I feel like it tells a truer story. A lot of songs from the 1950s did that, too. They were really sad songs, but they had really happy melodies."
He pauses, and then allows a moment for self-deprecation: "Maybe it's just balance that I'm interested in, being a Libra and everything."
With his artistic longings, verbose thought process and unassuming nature so apparent, perhaps it comes as no real surprise that Ward counts Howe Gelb, the mastermind behind Tucson's similarly earthy Giant Sand, among his main backers. Gelb, who these days lives in Denmark, released Duet for Guitars #2 on his Ow Om label in 2000.
"He approached me at a solo show I did in Seattle [in 1995] and handed me a CD," says Gelb, known for his unpredictable onstage improvisation, via e-mail from his home. "And I got a good enough vibe from him that I remembered the CD days after the fact. I played it and got a similar feeling that I got when Jason Lytle [of indie favorites Grandaddy] did the same thing a few years before . . . he is such an inspirational player."
And he's doing his part to chip in. Gelb co-wrote the song "Poor Boy, Minor Key" with Ward for Vincent. The song is the strangest, most old-timey track on the record, beginning with jazz piano and a light sway that sounds lifted from silent movies and eventually adding a dusty electric guitar. It's the kind of Americana experiment Giant Sand has indulged in for more than 20 years, and also the kind of thing that makes Ward admire Gelb so closely.
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"His ability to play with music, to try going out on a limb for the sake of yourself, is completely inspiring," Ward says.
Ultimately, Gelb may carry weight, but Fahey will always be Ward's key musical compass. For him, transfiguration is an ideal concept -- metamorphosis, redemption, rising from the mountain after suffering. It happened to Blind Joe Death, it could happen to Vincent O'Brien down the road, and it definitely seems to be happening to Ward as an artist.
"To me, it was a perfect-sounding word on that level," Ward says. "The music that I witnessed at the service changed the way I looked at that word.
"I love the idea."