He has secured his role as a champion of modern folk music, has collaborated and been nominated for a Grammy alongside Hollywood heartthrob Zooey Deschanel and is poised to drop a much-blogged-about new album April 10.
The successes of Matthew Stephen Ward — or M. Ward, as fans know him — are old news to many students. One accomplishment students might not be familiar with, however, is his bachelor’s degree in English from Cal Poly, issued in 1996.
During his time at Cal Poly, Ward played in a rock band called Rodriguez. He was also a KCPR DJ, and his poetry was published in the literary annual Byzantium.
Ward’s autobiographical excerpt in Byzantium’s 1996 edition mentions English professor James Cushing as one of his main inspirations.
Cushing said he tried to see every Rodriguez show he could, and ended up hearing them perform 15 to 20 times.
“I do remember hearing Rodriguez perform at these clubs and having one of those moments at a concert where you’re convinced that nobody in the world is hearing better rock music than you at that moment,” Cushing said.
Ward’s English studies helped shape his songwriting, and the styles of famous poets come out in his lyrics, Cushing said.
“I can tell he likes (Pablo) Neruda (and) William Carlos Williams,” Cushing said. “I can tell he likes Allen Ginsberg.”
When he wasn’t performing in a band or studying poetry, Ward worked at Boo Boo Records.
Boo Boo Records owner Mike White said he remembers Ward as talented and humble.
“He was kind of this quiet, unassuming guy,” White said. “You could tell that there was a seriousness to him that he was going to take that craft as far as he could take it. It wasn’t a temporary, get-through-college kind of thing. He was building when he was here.”
After a demo cassette of Ward’s recordings convinced Ow Om Records to release his first bona fide solo album, “Duet for Guitars #2,” Ward’s career was set into motion. He eventually moved to Portland, Ore. — where he currently resides and records — and the success and acclaim have piled up ever since.
White said he is not surprised by the strength of Ward’s music endeavors, but he could not have foreseen the degree of success to which they have risen.
“He was very serious about (his guitar playing),” White said. “He was very good. But to go to those heights, you could never really predict that, because so few really make it that far.”
After “Duet for Guitars #2,” Ward released five more studio albums on Merge Records under his own name. His signature low, scratched-up voice lands somewhere between Tom Waits and a sedated Bruce Springsteen, and his acoustic picking demonstrates a mastery of guitar.
His upcoming seventh release, “A Wasteland Companion,” is upbeat and accessible, with an old-fashioned folk feel.
This is Ward’s first solo album in three years, during which time he pursued high-profile collaborations. In 2009, he teamed up with Jim James, of My Morning Jacket, and Conor Oberst, of Bright Eyes, for an album and international tour as supergroup Monsters of Folk.
But Ward’s rampant mainstream success began when he formed the pop duo She & Him with actress Deschanel, releasing “Volume One” in 2008 and “Volume Two” in 2010. “Volume Two” reached No. 6 on the Billboard 200 list, while securing the top spot in four subcategories.
She & Him has appeared at prominent music festivals, such as South by Southwest, Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Bonnaroo Music Festival and Sasquatch! Music Festival. The duo also recorded the song “So Long” for the “Winnie the Pooh” soundtrack, which earned a Grammy nod for Best Song Written for Visual Media this year.
White said the amount of fame Ward has garnered could inflame a person’s ego, but Ward remains down to earth and true to himself.
“When he comes through town, he pops in,” White said. “That dude has not changed. He’s got this great, wry sense of humor.”
Before Ward started headlining major venues and occupying the festival scene, he performed at smaller, local settings, such as Linnaea’s Café on Garden Street.
Michael Moore, co-founder of Linnaea’s Café, hosted Ward and his band Rodriguez at the café regularly.
“David Welch, who worked at the café for years, was a really good friend of Matt’s, and I think he probably was the one that asked me about having the band there,” Moore said. “I remember Matt, and I remember the guys in the band.”
Moore said he booked approximately 1,000 to 2,000 acts at the café during his time there, but few of them went on to be as successful as Ward.
“Linnaea’s is just a stop on the road,” he said. “These guys were all locals, and they were pretty good. They were very popular, and their friends came.”
Moore has since retired and moved to the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington, but he said he’s still a fan of Ward’s music and would like to see him in concert.
Liberal studies senior Deborah Field said she saw Ward perform at The Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara during her sophomore year.
“It was one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever had,” Field said about the show. “The music just engulfed you. I’ve gone to so many concerts — and they’re good — but the whole audience was just captivated by (Ward’s) music. I felt like I was in a dream.”
After finding out Ward attended the same college she does, Field said not many students know he was part of the San Luis Obispo scene.
“I don’t think a lot of people know (he went to Cal Poly),” she said. “That would be really cool if we could get him to perform here.”