Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice? It’s hit Christopher Ward multiple times over the course of his eventful life and career. From being one of MuchMusic’s original VJs to penning the Can-rock classic Black Velvet for Alannah Myles (along with hits for Diana Ross, Backstreet Boys, Wynonna Judd and more) and being part of the Austin Powers supergroup Ming Tea with Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet, Ward has been there, done that, and probably written a song about it. His most recent album Same River Twice — his first solo endeavour in decades — came out earlier this summer. Today, the veteran artist takes a ride through my ridiculous questions. If that doesn’t constitute a career misstep, I don’t know what would. Let’s see how he fared:
Introduce yourself: Name, age (feel free to lie), home base and any other details you’d care to share — height / weight / identifying marks / astrology sign / your choice.
Christopher Ward, songwriter, living in Los Angeles and Toronto.
What is your musical origin story?
Transistor under-the-pillow kid who lived for music. At 15, my father bribed me into accepting a move from Toronto to Winnipeg by going to Simpson’s and buying me an F-hole archtop Silvertone six-string guitar. They never saw me again. Soon, my life became about writing songs.
What’s your latest project?
A new album titled Same River Twice, recorded at the Orange Lounge studio in Toronto with a brilliant group of players and singers. It’s mostly new songs but I also did a front porch, songwriter’s take on Black Velvet that goes back to the way I wrote it originally. I also just started a family project tracking my daughter’s speech development from notes I made when she was a child. She works with children on the autism spectrum and plans to specialize in speech therapy and I thought it might help her in some way.
What truly sets you apart from other artists?
Every songwriter has their own unique vision and way of framing life in miniature, one song at a time. Think of Nick Cave, Lucinda Williams or Bill Withers. Mine is a blend of daily impressions, those things that catch my eye and ear and land in my notebook, a rhythmic sensibility born of the music I grew up on, and a through line of emotion that animates the song. The song Sway on my new record is an example of that.
How will my life improve by listening to your music?
You might look again at something you missed and for a moment feel the richness of a sound, an image or a fleeting human connection. That connection is the theme of a lot of the songs on the record and I hope that’s the experience listeners have. You can’t step in the same river twice, according to Heraclitus!
Tell us about the first song you wrote and / or the first gig you played.
I don’t remember the first song, but the first gig was a variety show in the church basement. The minister’s daughter (who I was smitten with) and I sang Ian & Sylvia’s Red Velvet.
What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you have given?
Playing The Byrds’ Mr. Spaceman with my friend Stephen Stohn at The Playboy Club in Ankara, Turkey, billed as Captain Cookies and Major Milk. (If you don’t believe me, read his book Whatever It Takes.)
What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you’ve seen?
We were mixing Alannah Myles’ first album at Atlantic Studios in N.Y.C. and I ran into drummer Steve Ferrone, who had played on my first record with Jack Richardson. He said he was working down the hall with Joe Cocker and would we like to drop in to hear something. Yes. We went in and Joe nodded hello, sitting in the captain’s chair with a Corona in hand. It was tight so we all crowded in and I found myself beside Joe. They started the song One Night With You, an old Elvis song, and it took me a few seconds to realize that this was just a band track and Joe was singing the song live, two feet from me. I don’t think I exhaled.
What living or dead artists would you like to collaborate with?
Taylor Swift and I could do some damage. How about Waxahatchee, Ruth B or Josh Ritter? If Amos Lee or Lana Del Rey are free some Saturday afternoon I’m down.
What artist or style of music do you love that would surprise people?
I just looked at what’s stacked on the table beside me, or in vinyl on the floor, and I have Bill Evans, Stan Getz, The Staple Singers, Beethoven’s late string quartets, The Band’s Stage Fright, Sonny Rollins, Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, Nat King Cole and Bob Dylan’s latest from The Bootleg Series. The songs on my new record come from a musical blender — everything I’ve heard and loved along the way is in there somewhere. Any surprises? I mean, there are no Bulgarian nose whistling compilations.
What words do you hope people use when they describe you?
“He listens.” Simone Weil said: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
What useful (or useless) skills do you have outside of music?
People seem to like my lentil soup.
Who can you do an impression of?
My Johnny Carson’s not bad. In school, aside from impersonating particularly deserving teachers, I used to do all four Beatles, not just the generic Liverpudlian mumble that everyone did. When you can’t play football, you have to use what you’ve got to amuse the girls.
What do you collect?
Stories. The songs on my new album are the musical equivalent.
If money was no object, where would you live?
In the moment.
What would you like to be reincarnated as?
Maybe Leo the Schnauzer. He’s got a pretty good life; of course, don’t try to tell him that at bath time.
What’s your idea of perfect happiness / total misery?
Daydreaming in April / gridlock on the 405.
What are your pet peeves?
Intentional misspellings like ‘Kwik Kleeners’.
What was the worst job you ever had?
When I was 14, my dad sent me to Saskatchewan to work on a cattle ranch. It was a truly life-changing, amazing experience, except for one thing: Every morning it was my job to collect the eggs that had been laid overnight. After dodging the rooster in the yard, I entered the hen house where the ceiling was about four feet high, it was 20 degrees hotter and the stench was otherworldly. Understandably, the chickens did not want to surrender the eggs, and to hammer that point home, each one attacked me in turn, pecking my hands and arms from their little nest, occasionally drawing blood. Was that a victory cluck I heard? For the entire summer I looked like I had measles. A footnote: I’ve been a vegetarian for about half a century, but if you want to eat a chicken, go for it.
What’s the best and / or worst advice you were ever given?
Stephen Stohn was negotiating my publishing deal with Zomba, and told me he thought we should really fight for copyright reversion, a clause that meant that I would get my songs back a certain number of years after the expiration of the agreement. That changed my life.