Mike Ward knows the nation’s times are a-changin,’ especially with today’s midterm elections.
In response, the Americana singer-songwriter encourages people to raise their voice and chase their freedom on his latest sociopolitical EP, Troubled Times.
“From my standpoint, I’m hoping it will help people look in the mirror and ask themselves some of these questions in terms of raising your own voice and paying attention to what’s truth and what’s not truth,” said Ward, who’s based in Detroit. “That’s basically the theme of ‘Wishing Well,’ and it’s the subtle theme of ‘WWTFS.’”
The contemplative opener, “Wishing Well,” advocates protecting individual rights and free speech alongside determined acoustic guitar and solemn organ.
Ward sings, “Stand alone, stand apart / Take a deep look into your heart / Because these are troubled times / These lives of yours and mine / So seek the proof in the face of the untruth / In the face of all the untruth.”
TSS: You released your latest album, Particles to Pearls, in June. Why did you decide to release your Troubled Times EP just a few months after that?
MW: My wife, Angie Ward, and I decided around Labor Day to do the EP. We already had material, and that was sort of the impetus. As we were driving everywhere, we would listen to the rest of the songs that didn’t make it onto Particles to Pearls.
We also had recorded 18 demos for The Darkness and The Light. Then out of that, we did 11 songs, and ‘Wishing Well’ was a song that when we started looking at the album as a totality, it just didn’t make it. I thought, ‘Well, do you think it will be relevant in a year or two years?’ It’s about raising your voice and seeking the truth. Now, cut to two years later, it’s even more relevant.
At first, we were just going to take ‘Wishing Well,’ and then just add a few bits to it. My part was done, and we were just going to put that song out as a single. But then we started listening to ‘Immigration Nation’ and ‘WWTFS,’ and we thought those fit together.
Looking at the new group of songs that I’m recording right now, those three songs didn’t fit what I want to do for the next record and the other songs that are left from Particles to Pearls. I put Troubled Times out in hopes of getting attention for the election.
TSS: What do you hope listeners take away from Troubled Times? How does it serve as a soundtrack for today’s midterm elections?
MW: We’re fortunate that we are deep culturally in Detroit. If you spend any time in Hamtramck, Dearborn or other areas, you are going to encounter any number of backgrounds, colors, creeds and beliefs. There has to be room for that.
I just always have an issue when people want to blanket and say, ‘OK, that person doesn’t belong.’ ‘Immigration Nation’ started with the middle verse … I was listening to a report and read an article about [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents eating at an Ann Arbor restaurant, and then after they ate a delicious meal, they went into the kitchen and took the cook and deported him. This is a guy who’s just trying to assimilate and make a living.
‘WWTFS’ is more about the divisions in this country. Let’s remember in the end that we’re one country. The choice is yours to decide whatever this country means to you. This song was intended to spark some conversation, and people have told me this is the truest folk music I’ve done.
The title of ‘WWTFS’ also plays off ‘What Would Jesus Say,’ and I didn’t want to flat out call it the flag song or ‘What Would The Flag Say.’ I wanted it to be a code, so people could figure it out on their own. There are enough references in the song to stripes and stars and for people to understand whose voice it’s from. I’ve done a number of songs like that, and I didn’t realize it until somebody pointed it out that I write from the point of view of a lot of different things.
TSS: What was it like to collaborate with producer-engineer David Roof (standup bass, Hammond organ), Aaron Markovitz (archtop guitar, electric baritone guitar), Judy Brown (backing vocals), Dave Keeney (dobro), Bill Sadley (harmonica) and Michael Shimmin (percussion) on Troubled Times?
MW: With Dave Keeney on ‘WWTFS,’ he nailed it, and I wanted sort of that drone feel to it. The real cool part in that one is the drums that Michael Shimmin brings in toward the end. He did a full day for us, and he came in with that idea. We were like, ‘Yeah, that’s really cool.’
Dave Roof is just so good at taking the parts and using just what’s needed. That’s Aaron Markovitz on ‘Immigration Nation,’ and he plays this gorgeous archtop guitar on it. He also pulled out this chunky baritone guitar for the low parts. On that, I did my own harmony because it’s sort of a singular point of view. Judy Brown also sang on ‘WWTFS.’
For ‘Wishing Well,’ we wanted to keep it really spare, so it’s just Dave [Roof] and me. It’s bass, and then we put the Hammond organ in. It swells on that second verse about ‘the steeples of the righteous right.’ We kinda poked at it a little bit there.
For me, it’s one of those things where I question what people can accept, what they can ignore in terms of who they follow ideologically, what their religious beliefs might be, and how they justify believing in a character who’s rife with fraud and false messages and denies that the truth exists.
TSS: What upcoming live shows do you have planned for later this year?
MW: I’m playing the Raven Café in Port Huron on Nov. 18, and I’ll be there again on Dec. 16. I’m doing those two shows with my friend Dave Toennies.
Angie [Ward] and I are also going to host ‘Raise a Glass & Raise Some Spirits: Christmas at the Detroit Gaelic League’ on Dec. 10. I just love the Gaelic League, and they booked me for that night. Angie and I both thought it would be fun to get people to come and just do a song. We’re going to curate and coordinate it, so that we know ahead of time who’s doing what song and what the flow of the evening will be.
TSS: What’s the status of your next album? How will it compare sonically and thematically to Particles to Pearls?
MW: Last week, I had Annie Bacon, Grant Flick and Larry Labeck come in and record some parts for the new album. James Anthony is coming in on Nov. 21. Once we finish James’ tracks, then we should be in mix mode. We’re also going to do some final tweaks on tracks from the last session, and then we’ll start looking at a track order and an album name after the first of the year.
My last album, Particles to Pearls, was a little more introspective and family-driven. I think the next album will be a mix of that since it will have five or six songs that were left over from the Particles to Pearls recording sessions. There’s also one other song that’s going to just live on SoundCloud, so it won’t go on anything else.