Light Up – Detroit’s Mike Ward Shines on Reflective, Poignant Americana Folk Tales

Mike Ward performs regularly solo and with other artists in metro Detroit. Photo by Scott Kraus

Mike Ward believes in light-bulb moments.

The Detroit Americana folk singer-songwriter discovered a recent songwriting prompt illuminated a bright idea – a new track called “Our Turn to Shine.”

“That song actually began as a song prompt from John Lamb’s songwriting retreat. His songwriters’ retreat, which I did last year and then I just got back from, I can’t say enough about it,” Ward said. “It just sort of jumpstarted me last year, and he does these really long involved prompts, and it was about changing out incandescent bulbs for LED bulbs.”

As one of Ward’s newest tracks, “Our Turn to Shine” features fast acoustic strums intertwined with a nostalgic, hopeful feel – “I’m a dinosaur made of glass and tin/Take a new one out and screw a new one in/But for now, I’ll light the way/Brighten up your everyday/If only for a short time/It’s still my turn to shine.”

“It had all these specifics in it. I’ve kept most of them, and I have reworked it since I got back from the camp to try and make it more of a universal appeal. It basically has become a metaphor for even if you’re old, there are parts of you that are still usable, you can still shine,” he said. “It’s sort of like let’s all celebrate that aspect in ourselves. A lot of the songs I’ve been writing over the last year I think as I look at my experience and my life, it has crept into a lot of songs.”

Ward also shines on his other latest single, “Content,” which he submitted for NPR’s 2019 Tiny Desk Contest. The pensive track includes a beautiful acoustic guitar as its sonic centerpiece – “It’s a simple life in a complex world/ I want what’s mine and you want what’s yours/But when you’re all by yourself and the money is all spent/Are you gonna leave this world completely content?”

“It’s really about what do you regret, what don’t you regret, what will you be content with when you leave this earth, and how do you want to be remembered – that’s sort of the gist of it. I do write some fairly downer songs, but usually when I have a song that I’m trying to make a point with, or it has a serious undertone, I try and find ways to keep levity involved in it. From the influence of John Prine, Steve Earle and Warren Zevon, songwriters like that who always seem to have a way of not taking it too seriously, those are songwriters who I really admire,” Ward said.

Insightful Sonic Tales Behind ‘We Wonder’

Ward’s “We Wonder” album artwork includes a photo of his late brother Paul taken by their father.

Those two exquisite tracks are among some of Ward’s latest new recordings since releasing his poignant “We Wonder” album in 2018. With insightful tales about love, family, growth and aging, Ward weaves a gorgeous Americana orchestration of acoustic guitars, violins, harmonicas and keyboards to provide a timeless, lyric-driven sound akin to Jason Isbell and Dawes.

Ward teamed up with Lucy Little (violin), Robert Tye (guitar), Bill Sadley (harmonica) and Jules Anna Jones (keys) to record “We Wonder’s” 10 touching tracks in Chicago, Detroit and Lansing with engineers Ryan Anderson at MusicTown Detroit, Mike Regan at Another Country and Steve Curran at Harvest Creative.

“I went really spare, I didn’t want to deal with a lot of production, and I didn’t want to do a lot of overdubbing. The only song that we did some additional tracks on was ‘We Wonder,’ where Lucy did some vocals,” said Ward, who’s inspired by Simon & Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

“The engineer and producer, Mike Regan, he was a great young guy who’s now in LA. That sort of set the tone because those (‘We Wonder,’ ‘The Other Side’ and ‘The Stream’) were the first ones that got recorded, and when I came back here to Detroit, I wanted to keep it in that spare vein, and I had Billy Sadley, he and I were starting to do some shows together, so he joined me on the other tracks back here in Detroit. Most of these were all done as a single recording.”

The album’s splendid title track whisks listeners away to a life-changing reverie with delicate acoustic guitars and violin plucks as Ward and Little beautifully harmonize  – “You begin your life before you begin to swim/But remember, the water was there before you/So don’t abuse it, use it in the right way/Games here are here to play tomorrow and today/But remember, not to cheat/For the day goes by, you’re bound to get beat/And you wonder about the wind/Will it ever blow your way again.”

Another standout track includes “The Other Side,” a five-minute reflective ode to growing up in an Irish Catholic family with eight children. Despondent acoustic guitars and weeping harmonica transport listeners to a vivid memory of Ward’s family day-trip to Canada – “They left without me/I was still on the other side/To this day, I can’t recall if I even cried/Got some sympathy out of it, a Coca-Cola and a bag of chips/I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d see them on the other side.”

“It was a true story, I got left in Canada as a kid when I was really young, and I could see their car driving over the bridge. My sister brought a friend home, and we had eight kids, and my mom just counted the heads, and there were eight, and they took off, and then when they got home, they realized, ‘Oh, somebody’s missing,’” Ward said.

“My brothers tell me, ‘You’ve been milking this for a long time.’ It led me to a place when I started writing it I was simply chronicling the moment that it happened, but where it led me was to another place because we’ve had some tragedy in our family over the years. When you have a big family like that, it’s gonna happen. It sort of just wrote itself from that point on.”

We Wonder’s” album cover includes a stunning photo of Ward’s late brother Paul, who died at age 16 in a car accident the day after Christmas in 1965. As an amateur photographer and cinematographer, Ward’s father took the photo of Paul under the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron during the late ‘50s.

‘I’m 45’

The album’s cover also symbolically represents similar crystal clear moments in Ward’s past, especially the two versions of “I’m 45.” Both versions lament being unemployed and 100 pounds overweight as well as having no hair – “I’m 45, and I ain’t got no mother/I’m 45, and I ain’t got no brother/I sit here with my cousin and my niece/I think how nice it would be to get a piece/I’m 45, and I ain’t got no other.”

The first version includes Sadley on harmonica while the second version spotlights Little’s violin. “I couldn’t honestly decide which one I liked. Ultimately, I just put them both on it. I wrote it when I was 25, and it was pieced together from my years of hitchhiking between Ann Arbor and Port Huron and Adrian and Port Huron, all the people I met and my view of a downtrodden factory worker of years and years. At the time, I thought I could say I’m 25, but all these things couldn’t happen to a 25 year old. I gotta make it older, and to me at 25, 45 seemed ancient,” Ward said.

I’m 45” also doubles as the inspiration behind Ward’s refreshing 2014 debut release, which includes 12 home demos compiled by Ward’s family to celebrate his 60th birthday. Together, Ward’s family found an independent publisher who produced a digital version of “Not 45 Anymore.” Ward’s filmmaker son also included three or four of Ward’s songs in a short film while he was living Sweden.

“He showed me some of the responses that he was getting, and they were as much about the music as they were about the film. It was like, ‘OK, I really need to do this,’ and so my wife and I set out on a plan to start going to open mics, getting my name out, trying to work on new songs and new material, meeting people and networking,” said Ward, who previously worked in advertising.

“When I did retire in 2017, I was able to jump right in with both feet into the songwriting world in the Detroit area, and I’m now I’m expanding into Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Traverse City.”

From Open Mics to the Live Stage

Ward will start recording his third album this winter. Photo courtesy of Mike Ward

Along with his wife Angela, Ward frequents open mics and hosts them at different Detroit venues. He also participates regularly in songwriter rounds at Dixie Moon Salon, The Dovetail, Raven Café, the Gaelic League Irish American Club of Detroit and Otus Supply.

Today, Ward and Angela partner with Chuck and Judy Brown to host open mics during the first or second Sundays of the month at Detroit’s Lexus Velodrome.

“The last time we had 20 acts, and we had to really move them through,” said Ward, who goes by the nickname PsychoWard and writes under the publishing name Psychosongs. “We do like that part of it because it allows us to hear people and encourage people. We try and get to other ones as well to support them and mine for other talent.”

This Saturday, Ward will join singer-songwriters Michelle Held and Dan Minard for “A Winter Songwriter Night” at Detroit’s Eastern Market Brewing Co. He also will perform at Bogart’z Jan. 24 in Detroit and Feb. 1 at Crazy Wisdom in Ann Arbor with Dave Falk.

“I’ve been doing songwriting workshops, and I went to Folk Alliance Region Midwest,” Ward said. “Just through the friendships I’ve developed, the whole community has been really helpful to me, guiding me, and that part of it I can’t be more thankful for.”

Ward also will start working soon on his third album, which will include more collaborations with local musicians and feature a more produced sound. “I’m actually coming off a songwriting workshop, and I wanted some time to write, and I wanted some time to research recording studios. What I’m really looking forward to are all the shows that I’m going to get to see that I usually don’t get to go to because I’m performing,” he said.

Show details:

A Winter Songwriter Night with Mike Ward, Michelle Held and Dan Minard

Doors: 7:30 p.m.| Show: 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. | Saturday

Eastern Market Brewing Co., 2515 Riopelle in Detroit

$7 donation at the door

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