These days, Mike Ward takes life month by month.
The Detroit Americana folk singer-songwriter marks the passage of time in month-long increments, especially while hunkering down in quarantine.
Last month, Ward tested his creative prowess by writing and recording 31 new acoustic-based tracks at home as part of 30 Songs in 30 Days songwriting challenge with New York City folk rock singer-songwriter Paul Weinfield.
“When Paul set out the challenge, he put it in a post and said, ‘OK, who’s up for this? You have to write at least a verse and a chorus, and you have to record it and post it.’ At the time, I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m up for that.’ The very first one was the most daunting, and it was like, ‘Well, where do I start?’” said Ward, who released his last album, We Wonder, in 2018.
“I keep a lot of notes on my phone that I use to record audio notes and melodies, and I also keep a lot of typed notes of starts of songs. I’ve kept them compiled for years, and this gave me a reason to go back to a lot of those notes. I also began exploring feelings of what’s happening, and the very first thing that was recorded was ‘The New Normal.’”
For Ward, “The New Normal” serves as a prevailing folk anthem for staying optimistic during increasing times of uncertainty and unpredictability. The 4.5-minute poignant track features thoughtful, churning acoustic strums as Ward reflectively sings, “Got my love, got my faith/Only hope it’s enough to get us through these days/No human contract, touch of a hand/Six feet of distance across the land/Open skies and open hearts/As we close our doors, do our part.”
“The New Normal” also opened Ward’s creative floodgates and pushed him deeper into the songwriting trenches. A refreshing series of lyrics, melodies and chords flowed from Ward each day.
“The one thing I was cognizant of, but I didn’t go back day to day and say, ‘Oh, did I use those chords in that song? Does this song sound too much like this one?’” said Ward, who submitted an acoustic video of “The New Normal” for this year’s NPR Tiny Desk Contest.
“I honestly didn’t do that much because I felt like otherwise I wouldn’t finish, and if there was something I liked about one particular song, I could always go back and rework it if I needed to. At the same time, I tried to do some different things from a playing standpoint.”
‘Let Them Be Loved’ on ‘Sunday Morning’
Ward tested himself lyrically and musically on another heartfelt track, “Let Them Be Loved,” a moving, compassionate acoustic ballad about supporting family and friends. Noted as a “Song of Comfort,” it’s also a timeless track ideal for the next James Taylor, Jason Isbell or Dawes project as Ward sings, “Let them be heroes/To see the unseen/Let them help others/To dream their dreams.”
“It’s a different kind of feeling than I normally play, and there are some later that are further away from material that I’ve played. It’s really about the concern we have for our kids, our future, and our friends and family, and to let everybody find love,” he said.
“I started hashtagging this song and others as ‘Songs of Comfort’ because they were doing that through NPR. This one actually got played on their website and was posted up there.”
Ward continues comforting listeners throughout his 30 Songs in 30 Days songwriting challenge, which also pays loving tribute to his late parents on “Sunday Morning” and “Wrestling with Ghosts.” As a Michigan native, Ward grew up in a large Irish Catholic family near Port Huron.
“Sunday Morning” beautifully introduces new and returning fans to Ward’s growing catalog of touching songs. The track weaves glistening acoustic strums with Ward’s nostalgic vocals as he reflects, “Sunday to mass, then home for a treat/Breakfast is special, the service is neat/Clean up and pack, beds made by the clock/Yellow car waiting to drive us to the dock.”
“My mom raised eight kids and had done all these different things and was a teacher. We didn’t know that she had written poems. We knew she cooked, we knew she read, we knew she played music, but after she died, we found this floppy disk that had her recipes on it, and it also had a folder of poems,” Ward said.
“They’re these simple, rhyme-driven poems, and this one, ‘Sunday Morning in Summer,’ was about our Sunday routine – going to church, having breakfast and getting ready for the boat ride. I didn’t change a word. I thought about adding a chorus to it, but then I thought, ‘I’m going to keep it the way it is because it just felt right.’”
‘Wrestling with Ghosts’ in ‘Immigration Nation’
While “Sunday Morning” celebrates the creative spirit of Ward’s mother, “Wrestling with Ghosts” chronicles the vivid dreams and memories of Ward’s father. He fuses powerful acoustic guitar with pounding percussion and sentimental vocals as he sings, “Well at ninety-five, he finally gave in/Went to be with my mom and the rest of his kin/His stories still live in the back of our minds/To quote a song, we’ll see him on the other side.”
“My dad would have these realistic dreams. He was never diagnosed with dementia and never got to that point, but he had waking dreams where he was sure he was in a fight to the point where he cut his hand and scraped it up,” Ward said.
“He also went and got a bowl of water for a dog he swore was in his room, and he called my brother and said, ‘I’ve got rats in my house. How do I get rid of them?’ The ‘Wrestling with Ghosts’ came out of that notion of him getting in a fight in his dreams.”
After focusing on family, Ward shifts his attention to social justice on “Immigration Nation,” a striking tribute to immigrants working and living in the U.S. The track blends reflective, swift acoustic guitar with Ward’s concerned vocals about the nation’s growing intolerance toward immigrants, “Dangerous conditions, 100-mile bus rides/The work still gets done, even done with pride/Laboring in the shadows, keeping their head down/Making $2 a day in this all-American town.”
“At that moment, that’s when Trump was starting to talk about closing off the country and having no immigration. I actually had this notion of ‘immigration built this nation.’ That was the only line I had, and what I couldn’t decide was whether I wanted to make it one story or look at multiple stories. When I started it, I was all about one person’s story, but it just didn’t hold together. By the end of the day, I was really proud of this song,” Ward said.
With a growing collection of profound acoustic songs, Ward may release a stripped-down live album featuring 10 tracks from the 30 Songs in 30 Days songwriting challenge. He wants to transform those raw tracks into full-fledged studio versions soon.
One of those raw tracks, “The New Normal,” also may find a home on Ward’s upcoming third full-length studio album, which will feature collaborations with Judy Brown, Dave Falk and Jackamo. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Ward recorded 11 tracks for his next album with producer Mike Gentry and engineer and multi-instrumentalist David Roof at Rooftop Recording.
“I’m still hoping it’s sometime in the fall. That’s all gonna be predicated by what can happen come June. If we’re at a point where some of the players feel comfortable coming up to the studio and David’s comfortable, then we’ll start doing sessions. We’re probably three sessions from having the material that we need. Once we start mixing and go to the mastering, then I think it will go quickly.”