*photo courtesy of Chrisopher Ward
For singer-songwriter and former MuchMusic VJ (1985-1989) Christopher Ward, his connections to Saskatchewan run deep. If you've done any type of travelling across this great country of ours you'd discover that many people have experienced the natural beauty of the "Land of Living Skies" or, bare minimum, know someone from here or have a relative from here. It's either "Oh I have an Uncle from there but I've never been. He says it's beautiful. I should go there sometime." or a "Yes! I've been there. It's beautiful!" sort of thing. In the case of Ward, as a youth he travelled to Saskatchewan and spent several adventure filled summers on a ranch near the small town of Beechy. The solitude afforded to Ward whilst on that ranch served as defining moments for him as he grew and developed into the creative entity he would become.
"My dad sent me to Saskatchewan through a business contact of his and I got to work on a ranch near the little town of Beechy," recounted Ward in a recent interview with NSMZ, "The ranch was right down beside the South Saskatchewan River and I learned how to drive a tractor, how to milk a cow, how to ride a horse, how to swear and all the really important things in life. (laughs) It was this wonderful family that invited me into their home. It was an absolutely formative experience in my life. I loved it. The richness of something like that never leaves you. It becomes a part of you."
Of course, through the latter parts of the 70's Ward would involve himself in many creative endeavors. Songwriting was always his first love but, along the way, he would make a few pitstops into the world of television through hosting the popular City Limits show and then in the 80's being one of the first VJ's on MuchMusic.
"MuchMusic was strictly seat of the pants television there's no doubt. We were making it up as we went along. In a way we had no competition because there were no other music channels. If somebody wanted what we had to offer there was only one way to get that," Ward reminisced. As a VJ Ward would meet many of his heroes, including one of his favourite moments as a VJ as he learned impromptu dance steps from members of the legendary Motown group The Temptations. "Dancing with The Temptations was probably my favourite moment in all of my time at Much because when I was a kid I loved that music so much and I always thought they were the emperors of cool with all their moves. I did kind of practice it beforehand. (laughs)"
As an aspiring songwriter, Ward also had instant access to many of the greatest songwriters of the day via his highly lauded day job. It wasn't something that was lost on him as he negotiated his way through life as a VJ on Much.
"As an interviewer, I always felt that I had two responsibilities. The first one was to help the artist build a bridge to their audience, to their fans and give the fans incite into something they were curious about. The other part of it was to ask the questions that I really wanted to know the answers to because if you don't, if you are just kind of asking the next question on your list that shows up the interview looks stale and feels stale and you can tell and the artist can tell and they just tune out, they're done. One way of keeping people engaged is to ask stuff that really matters. I had such good fortune. I learned a lot from the people that I talked with," shared Ward.
Of course, through the wonders of Youtube, much of Ward's work, including that moment dancing with The Temptations can still be viewed to this day. Ward enjoyed his time on Much, but his first love was always writing songs.
"(Being a VJ) was a great gig don't get me wrong. I don't mean to demean it. If you're a musician, if you're writer and player and all that stuff then it's in your blood. It's in your soul. That's who you are. At least that's how it felt to me. I still wake up thinking about writing songs all these years later," said Ward.
During his MuchMusic stint, Ward was still writing songs in the little bit of spare time that he had. Eventually he would meet Alannah Myles who would prove to be a worthy muse for his work. Together with David Tyson, Ward would pen his best known song. Perhaps you've heard of it? The song was the international smash hit "Black Velvet".
"Alannah had the drive. I watched it first hand. She woke up every morning. We were living together. We were a couple for a long time. Every day she would say to me, 'You're going to write me a hit song. I know it'. I was like 'okay. I got my marching orders y'know.' It sounds like a joke when you tell it but she was serious and she meant it and the most important thing is she believed it. She believed in me in the same way that I believed in her so if you're looking for ingredients and elements in a success story there's a common," said Ward.
Fast forward to now and Ward has just released his most recent solo album Same River Twice that includes a paired down more acoustic approach to "Black Velvet". Ward makes use of his understated vocals to pen a very worthy cover of his own song.
"Is it a cover version if you're doing your own song? I don't have an answer for that. Actually you know what? It's Alannah's song and I wrote it for her and no one will ever sing it like she did. Nobody will ever sing it any better than she ever did or reach more people or touch more people the way that she did. She had the power, the passion, all of what she brought. That arsenal of her talent. It's like the performance of a lifetime. so I'm not competing with that in any way. I actually wasn't going to do it on the record. But once I got into the studio with the players, and we got great musicians on this record, they sort of convinced me by the way that they responded to the song and the approach to it which is way more low key and front porch. We did the story teller with the slide guitar and all that. I'm happy with it. I think it stands up okay," Said Ward.
Of course, his personal version of "Black Velvet" is not the only track on Same River Twice. It's chock full new songs in a similar, more understated and organic style as his own version of "Black Velvet". His vision for Same River Twice was to get the most natural response from the musicians supporting him on the record. Songs were taught to the musicians in the studio and they cut the record in a handful of days. What you hear on Same River Twice is a very natural and "in the moment" response from everyone involved.
"The record is mostly new songs. There was probably an element of me just trying to show people that I've still got it. I'll also wanted to show myself maybe that I can still do this, that I can still wake up and write a good song. I had to do this record. I was really compelled to do it. It's funny, I didn't think at all about how I was going to market it or any of that stuff because it would have gotten in the way of thinking about it creatively. I just did exactly what I wanted to do with exactly the right people that I wanted to be with and we had a blast doing it. The studios had reopened from the first phase of Covid19 so it was like coming out of hibernation for the players being able to play together live in a room where they could see and interact with each other. The other thing we did was I taught them the songs on the spot in the studio and then we recorded them so there was a bit of a risk there but it made it more fun," explained Ward.
At the end of the day, Same River Twice is an enjoyable listen from a master songwriter and storyteller. Ward shows great humility in his approach but he's indeed a master at his craft; a very underrated musician and one that still has "it". He's learned a lot of the several decades that he's written songs and it's very capably demonstrated in this most recent outing. His process has evolved.
"I used to take a lot longer to write songs. I didn't collaborate as much at the beginning of my career as a songwriter but I learned a lot by collaborating. Just seeing how other people work. And Learning to trust the person that you're working with. Not to get precious about ideas. Just to kind of let them flow. Just be cool about it. If something doesn't work tomorrow's another day. We'll write another song. So I got sorta easier with the process. You go down fewer dead ends I think when you've been doing it for a while," recounted Ward.
There's more maturity in his work. It's introspective and that's the key thing that makes Same River Twice such a solid listen front to back.
"I think my ambitions in some ways were modest for each song on Same River Twice. I kinda wanted each song to be a miniature. A moment in time. If you listen to the song 'Sway' on this record it's just a moment when the light is at a certain point and for two people it's the end of their day. Maybe they've been working or whatever and it's just how they feel about one another and it's all captured in this one tiny moment. And that to me is an accomplishment for a song to that successfully," said Ward.
*photo courtesy of Christopher Ward