For Mike Ward, a new album chronicles a thoughtful evolution of sound.
The Detroit Americana singer-songwriter carefully transforms a dozen acoustic tracks into an earnest collection of expansive tales on Particles to Pearls.
“I think the first track we added any instruments to was ‘All We Have Are Words.’ David Roof played the electric guitar on it, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s what this can sound like.’ I’d been playing that by myself for two years,” said Ward about his third Psychosongs album.
“Because it’s been two years since I wrote most of those songs, and that’s right about now, every day on Facebook there’s a memory of the song, and I get to hear how I first wrote it.”
During the 2020 pandemic lockdown, Ward penned 31 new tracks as part of a 30 Songs in 30 Days songwriting challenge with New York City folk-rock singer-songwriter Paul Winfield. The poignant tracks opened his creative floodgates and pushed him deeper into the songwriting trenches.
“They’re all moments in time. The album has a number of those songs,” Ward said. “I’m pretty happy with the end results. David Roof plays bass on everything, but he also plays a 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar on ‘Back Again.’ We wanted a Byrds/Roger McGuinn-style sound on it.”
Particles to Pearls
Throughout Particles to Pearls, Ward deeply examines the fleeting passage of time within a hearty, folky landscape. Clocks tick, hourglasses sift and pendulums swing through personal anecdotes of growth, love and loss.
“I think when you’re young, you have this time out in front of you, and it seems vast. You don’t seem to catch up to it, and then suddenly, when you hit a certain age, there’s more time behind you than you have ahead of you,” he said.
“It you look at it logically, that’s always the case, but it would be almost unbearable to live your life that way. I know there are people that say, ‘You should live every moment like it’s your last.’ I think if you did that, you might not last very long.”
Ward eloquently conveys those sentiments on the life-changing opener, “Time,” as wistful acoustic guitar, introspective electric guitar, soft bass, ticking percussion and comforting piano reveal much-needed gratitude and wisdom.
He sings, “Early to bed … early to rise/Forging ahead … falling behind/Can we stop the clock … re-start the ride/Take back the stolen … and keep a little on our side.”
“I think I reflect more on it, and I try and look at that balance. I think on The Darkness and The Light, songs like ‘Content’ and ‘A Little Farther Down the Road,’ started to get to that,” said Ward, who co-wrote the track with Chain of Lakes’ Kyle Rasche.
“‘Time’ has a certain balance of sadness and anticipation to it, but it also looks at the vastness of it. The album title comes from a line in this song, and the line before it, ‘Carbon to diamonds,’ comes from the notion that some things take a long time, and they need to age.”
While some aspects of life need to age, others maintain a timeless sensibility and remain fixed from one epoch to the next. “All We Have Are Words” beautifully captures that concept in a socially distanced, pandemic-filled world as somber electric guitar, pensive acoustic guitar, cozy percussion and strolling bass preserve crucial connections.
Ward sings, “Through windows and doors/In joy and grief/Of mine and yours/It’s testing all we believe.”
“We did it with that thought in mind and wanted some pandemic songs, some songs that came out of my family and some that just had a life of their own,” he said.
Next, Ward celebrates a lifetime of love and companionship on the playful Particles to Pearls marriage anthem, “A Lot of Work.” Glistening mandolin, jubilant acoustic guitar and bouncy bass relish a strong 43-year relationship with wife Angela Malisani Ward.
He sings, “Sometimes I keep you out too late/Some days I don’t communicate/On occasion I hesitate/Yeah, but if I had more/I’d want to give you even more/Good thing nobody’s keeping score/When we met my life was a mess/I’m so glad that you said yes/I am most certainly blessed.”
“I’m the fortunate one, and she has put up with me for all that time and made me a better person. She is the organizational side, but she’s also the support side,” Ward said.
“She has worked her ass off as a mom … and would jump in and out of nursing like it was seamless. She’s always loved music, and that was one of our first common interests, including Dan Fogelberg, Karla Bonoff, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne.”
After counting his marriage blessings, Ward recalls a painful family loss on “Letting Go,” which depicts his mother’s grief over the unexpected death of his brother in 1965. Mournful acoustic guitar, grateful piano, lonesome violin and calm bass provide long-awaited relief and understanding.
He sings, “As I lay my hands on your tired feet/I’m reminded at some point we’re all set free/From this aching pain life accumulates/And the knowledge you have that no one escapes.”
“It was that invisible line in the sand … the demarcation point of life before that moment and life after that moment,” Ward said. “I’ve written about it before, but that song got to the deepest part of how I felt watching my mom and dad go through it … but specifically, my mom as she lived her life and as she aged.”
By the Dozen and Beyond
For Ward, Particles to Pearls started as a 21-track acoustic journey, but was whittled down to a dozen songs with co-producer and multi-instrumentalist David Roof.
The duo worked together closely at Grand Blanc’s Rooftop Recording to hone a spirited Americana sound filled with acoustic and electric guitars, bass, piano, organ, percussion, mandolin and violin.
“The way the process works is I record my tracks, and David gets them timed out and my stuff cleaned up, and then we start adding other instruments,” Ward said.
“Between David’s ability to get you recorded right and get the sound right, the editing process he can do so quickly and so masterfully, and then there’s all of his playing.”
In addition to Roof, Particles to Pearls features a talented cast of Michigan musicians, including Michael Shimmin (percussion), Dave Keeney (lap steel, dobro, backing vocals), Aaron Markovitz (guitar, mandolin), Lucy Little (violin), daughter Emilia Ward (backing vocals), Amy Petty (backing vocals), Jackamo’s Alison Wiercioch and Tessa Wiercioch, Judy Brown (backing vocals) and Kyle Rasche (backing vocals).
“We had the fun part of bringing Aaron Markovitz in. He plays four stringed instruments, mandolin and three different guitars, one of which was David Roof’s, but two were Aaron’s,” Ward said. “Dave Keeney from Hoodang plays the lap steel on ‘Broken’ and ‘It Should Be Me,’ and on other tracks he plays dobro.”
Meanwhile, Ward will celebrate the album’s release Saturday at Livonia’s Trinity House Theatre with special guest Jackamo. He’ll be joined by Roof (guitar, bass, keys), Keeney (lap steel, dobro), Brown (vocals), the Wiercioch sisters (vocals), Emilia Ward (vocals) and Dennis Kingsbury (guitar, mandolin) for his set.
“It’s great to be able to do this show because we didn’t have the ability to do that with The Darkness and The Light. We’re going to perform the album in its entirety, but not in the order that’s on the album,” Ward said.
“I think we may push a couple of the more energetic songs toward the back end. And having Jackamo there is going to be a super cool bonus as well.”
After Saturday’s show, Ward will drop a new video for “Time” directed by son Danny Ward, play a series of live Michigan-Ohio summer dates and focus on recording his next release.
“We’ve got nine additional songs, and I have another three to five songs that we may add to that and do another album next year,” he said. “I’ve been writing while producing this album. I’m actually at that weird point where I’m excited to play these 12 songs, but I’m also excited to play the songs I just wrote.”
Saturday, June 11 | 8 p.m. to 10:15 p.m.
Trinity House Theatre, 38840 W. Six Mile Road in Livonia