Private Playlist: M. Ward is listening to music by his influences’ influencers

M. Ward. Photo credit: M. Ward.

Private Playlist is a listening session with Southern California’s most notable musical figures in their private creative environments. A prolific writer, producer, and performer, M. Ward is one of those characters for whom it's hard to choose a career highlight. For some, he's best known as one-half of She & Him with Zooey Deschanel. For others, it's his participation in the Monsters of Folk supergroup with Conor Oberst, Jim James, and Mike Mogis. Those who don't know him by name may have heard him on the road or in the studio with Mavis Staples, Jenny Lewis, Norah Jones, Cat Power, Neko Case, Lucinda Williams, Peter Buck, and countless others. And all the while, there's his extensive solo discography, the most recent of which is this year's "Migration Stories" album.

I've been hunkering down and consuming more music than probably I ever have. It's allowed me to dig into my influences' influencers. With the help of the internet, it's pretty easy to find out, say, who Bob Marley's favorite singer was — and it's Dennis Brown.


You really can't go wrong with any of Dennis Brown's recordings. Something about them just hits you. It's hard to pinpoint exactly where this music is coming from; you feel like you're instantly entering a place out of space and time. And that's a good feeling.


Whenever I read about Curtis Mayfield, it seems like it narrows in on this one part of his catalog from the later '70s. But I've always loved his voice, and I especially love the productions that bring out his voice in a more naked way. And if you dig back into these early '60s records with The Impressions, there's a lot to discover. 


I first heard of guitarist Manuel Galbán, as most people did, through Ry Cooder's work with so many incredible Cuban musicians. For me, "Alma de Roca" is the soul of Cuban rock, especially from the '60s and '70s. It's just beautiful: less is more, a little bit of grit, a little bit of distortion in the guitar. And in my opinion, when you combine this dirt with these beautiful chords and melodies, something interesting happens. It draws you in, and you're not sure exactly where you are and or what to feel. And, as a guitar player, it's an inspiring sound.


There's a John Coltrane Quartet record called "Ballads" that I put on when I'm stressed, and it's better than any therapy. It works with whatever emotion you're feeling. 

The more you learn about that record, the easier it is to dig deeper. Like the fact that none of the guys in the Quartet had played these songs before they recorded it. There was no pre-production. They were just following these simple chord charts and letting it grow from there. And you feel like you're part of the discovery when you hear this record. That feeling of being a fly on the wall when geniuses like McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane are creating is a never-ending and inspiring place to go.


The last one I wanted to play for you is by a friend of mine, Scott McCaughey, a great guitar player and songwriter. He got his start in Seattle’s Young Fresh Fellows, and after that, he joined R.E.M. for a long time. He's been a part of so many other records. His latest project — one that he's had going for a couple decades now — is called The Minus 5. Scott recently had a stroke, and a few of his friends were asked to come up to Portland and play one of his songs. "Hold Down the Fort" is probably my favorite Scott McCaughey song, and it's a good message for staying home and keeping the hope.

Check out KCRW’s other Private Playlists:

Inara George shares tips for raising music-literate kids during quarantine
Chris Cohen shares Algerian synth funk, avant jazz, and more far-out sounds
Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy offers an earthy soundtrack for the homebound
Mia Doi Todd recommends space-age sounds and Brazilian tunes
Neon Indian shares music for your inner monologue
Thundercat on the importance of albums as a journey
Dorian Wood is walking a tightrope and trying not to look down
Jeff Parker is busy studying music in hibernation mode
TOKiMONSTA is rediscovering her love for the guitar
Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad on finding solace in Gil Scott-Heron
Aimee Mann looks past the snark to appreciate Steely Dan’s craft
Madame Gandhi on Fela, feminism, and the bravery of Brian Eno and Jon Hassell
Alice Bag is doing the live music withdrawal dance