What can be purer than the piercing words of a 14-year-old singer songwriter? Last month, I visited the Black Box theater at ArtQuest High in Santa Rosa to see MJ Ward play the fundraiser for his high school.
Swaying on the venue dark bench seating, teen couples and parents layed heads on shoulders while pressed right up against the stage, a dozen ebullient YAs belting out chorus after chorus along with the giggling artist.
It’s the kind of scene that reminds one why they started making art in the first place.
This weekend, Ward will be playing the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma for the second time, opening for Arizona touring artist Madilyn Mei, darling of the “bedroom pop” scene that has arisen in the wake of a YouTube and Spotify enabled re-indy-fication of music making.
I caught up with Ward recently to talk about songcraft, the show and his brand new single, “Raven.”
Giotis: How long have you been writing your own tunes?
Ward: I’ve been writing music for almost three years. I’m self-taught in like two instruments, guitar and ukulele.
Giotis: Do you play other instruments?
Ward: Yeah, I’ve played piano since I was like six, violin off and on since third grade, and cello for about a year now. I’m just constantly interested in learning new instruments. I tried drums for a little bit, but it didn’t turn out very well. (His eyes twinkle a little behind the KN95 mask.) I also tried bass and gave up on that.
Giotis: That’s so cool. We have drums and various amps in the garage at home, and the kids trade off on them. Me too when they let me play with them.
Ward: Yeah, I really just want to constantly learn how to play different instruments.
Giotis: Is there an instrument you prefer for songwriting?
Ward: I mostly write on guitar, but I used to write like every single song, just on different instruments. I would rotate between them, and sometimes I try … like if I wrote a song on guitar sometimes, I’ll try to play it on piano just to see how that sounds.
Giotis: You have said that you got your start in local open mics. What was a good experience you can share?
Ward: Over the summer, I played a song and afterwards, these two people were telling me how they really liked my lyrics. And that was just really nice to hear, yeah.
Giotis: I love that immediacy of open mics, the way you can get feedback right away. Your new single, “Raven,” just came out. What is different about this song that you haven’t done before?
Ward: Well, it’s a whole like new level of production. With harmonies and just like different background tracks, which I haven’t done before. And I feel like the lyrics are very different from, like my other releases. Just from like, getting better at writing.
Giotis: I remember some animal themes in earlier songs like “Hammerhead Sharks.” Is that a trademark thing for you?
Ward: (laughs) I think so. Yeah.