The term Renaissance Man may be bandied about a little too often, but one man it certainly applies to is Mr. Gordon Thomas Ward. The New Jersey Troubadour has, in addition to authoring four published books, written prose and manned the lectern as a History teacher. This passion for the past and how it impacts us spills over into his music. The music Ward creates is brought to life via various instruments in his collection, out of which he coaxes the foundations for his lyrical tales.
Amid a busy schedule of touring, writing, and I would assume, absorbing knowledge Gordon released his latest album Providence in August 2018. He was kind enough to take the time to share some details on how he creates in so many mediums and shares it with the world. There is much to learn and reflect on in this interview for anyone pursuing their creative muse. (Top photo: Ethan Baird)
(Photo: Eric Troyer)
1. You have a very clear vocal style, both in singing/lyrics and production. Is this a conscious approach? The music seems to be as much about information as entertainment.
I’ve been heavily influenced by the singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s, most notably Dan Fogelberg, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell, so I am drawn to write songs that have a clear vocal approach. I’m a word guy. As a writer of both prose and poetry, I spend a great deal of time on my lyrics, and I love songs that tell a story. Vocalizing and production are crucial to me and attaining clarity in the vocals is a very conscious effort while I’m in the studio. I want listeners to get into the head of the song’s character and/or my mind to feel the emotions, embark on a journey, and understand the story. To those ends, I believe the entertainment comes as much from the information as it does the music and tonality. They support and augment each other and are two sides of the same coin.
2. How does a song take shape for you? What is the initial genesis, is it a melody, a guitar chord progression, or a story or lyric?
The short answer is “yes” to all of them. I don’t have a set approach that I use all the time. “How Many More?” is an example of a song that came out of the ether all at once and was written in 20 minutes on the staircase in my home. I also have my cell phone full of snippets of melodies that come to me in the middle of the night or when I’m driving. They aren’t full songs, but when I create something that sounds interesting, I’ll record it thinking I may use it somewhere down the line. I’m currently working on a song based on a story I imagined taking place along the coast of Maine. I’ve developed a mysterious melody and open tuning to complement the story line. However, if I had to pick an approach that takes place for the majority of the time, and I’m talking six out of ten times, it would be starting with musical phrases that appear when I’m noodling around on my guitar. All of a sudden, I may find myself playing a really interesting line, and that often becomes the basis for a song. I can say that I don’t think I have ever had a lyric without some melody framework. The music either develops at the same time as the lyrics or before the lyrics. Plus, I always have a general direction for lyrics, and I sometimes sing nonsense words with the melody to create lyrics. Certain vowels and consonants lend themselves better to particular passages. When this happens, I’ll find similar sounding words to support those sounds. All in all, the inspiration for a song comes from a very mysterious place.
3. You appear to have a nice collection of instruments. Do you tend to write on a “main” guitar, or to you switch around often?
I have a number of stringed instruments that I use for both performance and writing. Each one evokes a different feel and character. There are songs I’ve written on my baritone guitar or dulcimer, for example, that I never would have written on one of my six-strings in standard tuning. The vibes are different, and they lead to different moods, melody lines, chord progressions, and stories. Knowing that, I make a practice of picking up different instruments and playing them as often as I can. I’m never sure when inspiration will strike, but I’m certain that I stand a much greater chance of writing a broader range of material if I’m constantly immersing myself in the tonalities of a variety of instruments.
4. You have a wide array of output. Do you view being an author, teacher, and musician as all part of one creative drive, or separate ventures?
It’s definitely a unified force. I’ve been called a Renaissance man because I am compose music and songs, write books, love photography, etc. Labels are limiting. To me, music, words, and images are all tools of the same artistic force that weaves emotions for certain outcome. Songs, by nature, intertwine melody, harmony, and words in a form that can be extremely evocative and emotional, but the same kind of emotion can be elicited with a finely crafted piece of prose. There are times that a photograph will convey in a single image something that might take paragraphs of words. I’ve just finished a song for a movie, and, I have to say, there’s something special about marrying moving images to music and words. It’s really powerful! However, a well-crafted instrumental passage can move people just as much. If one is an artist, eliciting emotions and conveying messages are the goals. Sometimes, that’s best expressed in a three-minute song or a short poem or story. Other times that message takes a 250-word book. I’ve learned to recognize, after an idea takes root, which vehicle it demands in order to reach its full potential. Not a day goes by that I’m not thankful for the gifts of music, words, and imagery that have been given to me and allow me to express those ideas. Artistic expression can take almost any form, but it all draws from the same place deep in the collective soul.
5. As a guitarist, do you use alternate tunings or capos or do you prefer standard tuning?
I’m a huge fan of capos and alternate tunings for the same reason I like to use different instruments. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with standard tuning. Most of the songs composed by others and me are based upon it. However, there are avenues of expression that suddenly appear and open up to songwriters when alternate tunings are employed. The guitar rings differently, and that leads to melodies that might not have been composed, which, in turn, lead to lyrical phrasing and stories that may have remained undiscovered. There are also chord voicings and fingerings that are only possible when using alternate tunings. Fingers can only stretch so far, and there are notes that one might want to incorporate into a chord that are only available to a composer when working in an alternate tuning. The only concern comes during performance. Tuning a guitar’s strings up and down to different notes can only be done so often, especially on the lighter gauge strings before they break, and nobody wants that to happen during a performance. That’s one of the reasons why you’ll see performers switching between what appears to be similar instruments for different songs. If one can afford it, it’s much more satisfying and dependable to keep instruments in one type of tuning. Using capos is obviously helpful to reach a key that’s comfortable for one’s voice on a particular melody. However, as far as composing is concerned, placing a capo on the fifth fret, for example, creates a very different sounding instrument, and that can expand one’s creative direction.
6. When you are writing one of your books, does that give you song ideas (or vice versa)?
I’ve never written a book from a song, but I have composed songs from my books. “Hardscrabble Life” was written after my book A Bit of Earth. Both tell the story of the history and the sense of place in an historic area in NJ, but the song is restricted to a much more limited scope of that history and the characters involved. Additionally, my song “The Tale of Phyllis Parker” was written after writing my book Ghosts of Central Jersey, in which one of the chapters discusses the ghost of the young Phyllis Parker that is said to haunt an old tavern in my area. That being said, I have a friend whose song became the inspiration and basis for an entire, full-length film, so it can happen in reverse. I’ve just, as yet, not had the pleasure of that inspiration. Never say never!
7. Who were some of the artists who inspired you when you were younger? What specific qualities?
I mentioned in an earlier question that Dan Fogelberg, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell were artists that inspired me and my songwriting style. It’s not that I sound like them or pattern my songs after theirs, but their approach to the craft of songwriting resonates with me. Dan had a way with words that was so poetic, and his music employed many different styles. He was also the first person that I heard that made me realize that one’s performance on a recording does not have to be limited to one or two tracks. He played many of the instruments on his records and often sang all of the harmonies. That was a revelation to me when I first heard it. Jackson has a way with turning songs in unexpected directions with his chord changes and voicings. Where one might expect to hear a major chord, he’ll toss in a relative minor chord and introduce dissonance every now and then. I love the often dark feel that many of his songs embody. Neil taught me to do what feels right and not to worry about shifting styles. If you want to write a country song, go for it. Later, if you’re feeling loud and aggressive with your music, that’s fine. It might keep people guessing, but remaining true to who you are as an artist is the most important thing to keep in mind. Joni has a way with words that I’m still discovering. It’s often what she doesn’t say and the metaphors she employs that catch my ear. Her way of weaving lyric with melody is amazing. All that being said, I also find inspiration in other genres of music. During high school, I playeed Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath. That turned on a dime when country rock emerged. Suddenly, bands like Poco and The Outlaws were on my turntable. That morphed into the singer-songwriters I mentioned in the beginning of this answer. When I got to college, I got into listening to Baroque and other classical music. Bach, Mahler, Vivaldi, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and others worked their way into my subconscious. There’s quite a conglomeration of music in my head that forms the inspirational soup from which I compose today.
8. You write a lot about historical topics. Which is a more compelling point of view for you, the grand scale story or the minutiae of a personal experience?
I used to teach history, and I always stressed that dates were not as important as the cause and effect relationships. Knowing why something happened is more important, in my opinion, than knowing if it was, for example 1804 or 1805. When I started to write my books Life on the Shoulder about my retracing of the Lewis and Clark Trail and my book A Bit of Earth about the area in NJ where I spent the first twenty-two years of my life, I found that there were incredible, hidden stories and facts that nobody seemed to know. That made me a huge fan of the minutiae and personal experience, to the point where I am now actually a bit bored by the big story. I found that every single location on the face of this earth has a fascinating story to tell. Plus, each of the people in those locations have their own perspective on the events that happened there and their own stories to tell. Our world is full of a limitless wealth of experiences and stories. All of these lay right under our noses. It just takes a little bit of questioning and investigation to uncover them.
9. One a song like The Cruelest Work, you break up the opening chords with arpeggios. Was that part of the initial songwriting or did that evolve after working out the chords changes as an accent?
“The Cruelest Work” was written in DADGAD tuning. I knew what I wanted to hear. The trick was getting it out of my 12-string guitar and layering other instruments over that. The song is written from the point of view of a former Confederate Soldier whose memoir I was reading. Having taught about the horrors of the Civil War, I was struck by his admission that the worst he ever saw was during his role in the Trail of Tears, well before the Civil War. Those emotions needed to be expressed, and I was searching for a way to do that. Something I’ve learned about myself is that my mind works on things at a subconscious level. All of a sudden, a musical solution to something will spring out at me. That’s what happened on “The Cruelest Work.” I got those opening chord changes for the entire introduction, chords and arpeggios, all at once. I had to sing it into a recorder because I was afraid of forgetting it. The rest of the song was based on that introduction.
10. What is the next project on your horizon?
I have been talking to my co-producer and engineer Eric Troyer about this. My new record Providence incorporates a good deal of multitracking and production. I’m actually wanting to record my next record of new songs with a sound that’s more like a live performance. I’m envisioning a sound like what someone would hear if they came to hear me sing and play my songs as a solo performer in a church with wonderful, natural acoustics. I don’t want a lot of extras on the next record, although I will probably add something else to each song to increase the diversity of the sound. Perhaps I’ll bring in one other instrumentalist per song or add percussion to a few of them, but I’d limit each song to four tracks. It’ll be a more stripped down, personal sound. It’s a departure from Providence and might keep people guessing, but, as I learned from Neil, remaining true to who I am as an artist is the most important thing to keep in mind.
To learn more about Gordon Thomas Ward’s albums and books, please visit: http://www.gordonthomasward.com/