Mike Ward eloquently strikes a balance between the past and the future.
The Detroit Americana singer-songwriter thoughtfully uncovers the delicate midpoint between two opposing forces in time and emotion on his reflective third album, The Darkness and The Light.
“I think it has a lot to do with my age; I got started in this late. I think it comes from a lot of experience and examination of that. I come from a really big family; we’ve had some losses and struggles over the last 10 years. These songs were all written well before the pandemic, but they tee up the emotions that people have,” Ward said.
“Since my dad passed and my mom died almost 10 years before that, I’ve been on that path of examining life as it is, life as it was and life after I go. I archived about 10,000 slides and photographs from my dad’s collection because he was an amateur photographer, and you can’t do that without diving into the faces, the eyes, the smiles and the tears. All those stories ruminate around, and I think for me as a writer I’ve realized that’s the way things have to happen for me.”
Ward’s initial ruminations unfold into 10 insightful tales about wisdom, gratitude, reality and altruism throughout The Darkness and The Light. As a majestic successor to 2018’s We Wonder, each Darkness and Light track sashays from shadows of struggle to flashes of hope as listeners travel from one experience to the next.
“I’m not trying to sugarcoat anything, and I’m not trying to be Pollyanna. Even when I sing ‘Our Turn to Shine,’ it’s done in a way that suggests taking it upon yourself. When one of us shines, we can all shine, and bringing a little light to the world is a good thing even as messed up as it is. That’s what I hope people will get from it. I’ve been told by a number of people who’ve listened to it that it’s calming and gives them a sense of relaxation,” Ward said.
As Ward’s first single from The Darkness and The Light, “Our Turn to Shine” spotlights the rapid passage of time while illuminating the importance of starting anew. Shuffling, sleek acoustic strums, bouncy upright bass, glistening mandolin and spirited percussion surround the soul as Ward sings, “I’ve been flickering for a little while/I’m on my last mile/Let me illuminate your smile/Before I go out of style.”
The track also radiates with a stellar cast of Michigan collaborators, including engineer and multi-instrumentalist David Roof (upright bass, mandolin and percussion), Jackamo’s Alison and Tessa Wiercioch (harmonies), Border Patrol’s Dave Toennies (backing vocals) and Judy Brown (backing vocals).
“As we’ve recorded the song and people have played on it, it’s gratifying to hear people go, ‘That’s the song you gotta lead with.’ It went through some changes when we came back, but the bulk of the song was already there,” said Ward, who initially wrote the track during a John Lamb songwriting retreat.
Ward further brightens the track with a lumen-filled video directed by son Danny Ward, a Brooklyn, New York filmmaker. Incandescent light bulbs surround Ward while he plays acoustic guitar in a darkened, empty room akin to The Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger” video.
Outside of “Our Turn to Shine,” additional rays of hope beam throughout “In the Light” as thoughtful acoustic strums, pensive electric guitar and calm bass provide a cathartic escape from everyday troubles.
Ward poignantly sings, “We search and search for answers/Even the slightest trace/Something that can help us find our way/Out of this dark place.” In a sense, the track sprinkles glistening bits of optimism needed for lonely, isolated listeners battling the daily monotony of the pandemic.
“I love the message in the song, and I feel like Alison and Tessa Wiercioch’s vocals and Jimmy Showers’ electric guitar took it to a whole new level. It’s one of my favorite tracks to listen to,” Ward said.
Next, Ward ventures into dark territory on “Midnightville” as swirling acoustic strums, somber piano and soft bass accompany him along the way. He calmly sings, “Walking on the cracked concrete/The lights barely flicker above/Wandering the red brick streets/Searching for some kind of love/I ain’t looking for a touch or even a kiss/Maybe just a little push to get me outta this.”
“‘Midnightville’ is a reflection of cities around the country that experienced a decayed and forgotten quality, but I wanted it to live in some hopefulness. It’s a quiet song, but when I started writing it, it was going to be with a big band sound and lots of heavy guitar. When we recorded it, I almost said, ‘We’re just gonna leave this one off the record,’ but I still had heart for it. I went back and simply retooled the pace and tone of it and gave it a quieter, darker feel,” Ward said.
Ward’s journey into darkness unravels on “No Way to Live,” a compelling, heartfelt examination of homelessness in Detroit. Solemn, winding acoustic strums, smooth bass and mournful cello beautifully depict the pain, frustration and hopelessness Ward emits throughout the track.
He thoughtfully sings, “My skin’s turned to leather/My eyes have gone dark/Can you look past it all and see deep in my heart/I used to have goals and I used to make plans/Now I sit here hoping someone gives me a hand.”
“‘No Way to Life’ was a reflection of my wife and I moving to downtown Detroit five years ago. We walk everywhere and bike a lot and see the vast number of homeless in the city and the country. What a tough life, and your heart goes out to them, and you think, ‘There for the grace of God go on,’” said Ward, who encourages listeners to support the homeless through Motor City Mitten Mission.
“That song came out almost fully formed, but it took a little a while to tool everything and get it to the point where I wanted to record it for the finished record. Sara Gibson joined on cello on that track.”
Ward also worked with Danny Ward to record a raw, honest video for “No Way to Live.” Filled with eye-opening, black-and-white video footage as well as stills from the late Detroit photographer Ameen Howrani, the video beautifully captures the daily struggles of the homeless locally and nationally.
“There are probably about 10 to 12 images in the video that were taken by Ameen Howrani, and that would have been done in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And Danny has been doing a lot of editing for so many projects throughout the pandemic; he’s become a specialist in finding material online. We wanted to create something that made you feel for the people there, but not overdramatize it,” Ward said.
The Past and The Future
For Ward, The Darkness and The Light started as a yearlong 18-track journey last January with Dexter producer and singer-songwriter Mike Gentry and David Roof at Grand Blanc’s Rooftop Recordings. Together, the trio whittled the tracks down to 10 and recorded Ward’s vocals and guitar work and Roof’s bass parts before the pandemic struck in March.
After pausing their recording sessions for several months, Ward and Roof returned to Rooftop Recordings and collaborated remotely with Gentry while adding guest vocals from the Wiercioch sisters, Toennies and Brown. They also recorded guitar parts from Showers and Jeff German as well as cello from Gibson.
“Initially, we were going to start bringing in instruments, and then we thought we still wanted to keep it spare because we felt like from where we were on We Wonder, which was guitar, one instrument and my voice, and then to go too big on The Darkness and The Light didn’t seem like the right way to go. Plus, I don’t generally have a band when I play out. I might have one or two players with me, but it’s not a full ensemble,” Ward said.
With The Darkness and The Light now available on all streaming platforms, Ward plans to promote and share the album with U.S. and Canadian radio stations while making podcast and livestream showcase appearances. He’s also planning to record a new video for the introspective, peaceful track, “Why Can’t That Be Enough,” with Danny Ward soon.
“We’re going to solicit family, friends and others to send us vintage or current cabin pictures for the video. Specifically, the older the cabins and the more they are in need of work, the better. We want to reflect that feel of cabin life, and if we can get old videos, then that would be great,” Ward said.
“My dad took a lot of 16-mm footage of us when we were young, and we can always use a little bit of that. The still photographs will make up the rest of it, and we’ll do that as a simpler exploration and with the lyrics.”
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