From growing up in a haunted house that potentially possessed him to pick up a guitar, to being a Grammy-balloted and decades long sonic storyteller, Gordon Thomas Ward is the quintessential modern-day folk troubadour.
Still wading in the euphoria and achievement of his latest album (double album), Eiderdown, Ward’s creative drive just keeps on cruising. Aside from being an avid and long tenured career musician, Ward is also a teacher, author, radio host, and possibly most intriguing, a paranormal investigator.
And you better believe he gets creative with the depths and layers of his music, too. Ward plays a variety of instruments including six, eight, and twelve string guitars, including an eight-string Walkabout dulcimer.
He has played with the likes of Eric Troyer and Mik Kaminski (Electric Light Orchestra) Natalie Merchant, Bill Staines, and many others. His 2018 record, Providence, was Grammy-balloted and well-received globally. He followed that up with his highly anticipated new double album, Eiderdown, which dropped this past May. The album has charted as the #1 folk record, both nationally and in Maine, and as the #3 alternative folk record in the nation.
We had the chance to catch up with Ward, and dive a bit deeper into his past, present, and future.
So in doing our research, I see where you mention “My journey began in a historic, haunted house.” I was hoping you could briefly elaborate on that?
My childhood home was part of the Lloyd Estate in Bernardsville, NJ. The estate was active from the late 1890s-1924. Mr. Lloyd was the first person to breed Scottish Terriers in America, and our home used to be the kennelman’s cottage back in the day. Throughout the 24 years I lived there, everyone in my family, our friends, and our guests experienced unusual noises, the sound of footsteps on the second floor when nobody was up there, objects moving on their own, muffled conversation heard at night coming from the first floor, doors and windows opening and closing on their own with no drafts, and a full-bodied apparition of a man that was seen three times by three different people. Don’t get me going – I could talk about this endlessly. It never felt threatening, and we all just learned to live with it.
And do you still live in or around Winter Harbor, Maine?
My wife and I currently live in Lamoine, ME, but we expect to move into our new home in Winter Harbor this September.
Who or what were some of your primary inspirations growing up that made you want to pursue a career in music?
First of all, my father played sax and clarinet along with the radio while at home in the evening when I was young, so our house was filled with music. Later on, in no particular order, my major inspirations were Dan Fogelberg, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell. I also sang in a church choir, which developed an interest in Bach and classical arrangements.
What is your songwriting process like?
There is no singular process. On rare occasions, a full-blown song will hit me out of the blue. Those are gifts from the universe. Most of the time, it’s a mysterious process of landing on a musical phrase, or hook, while noodling on my guitar.
Are you familiar with automatic writing? It’s the claimed psychic ability allowing a person to produce written words without consciously writing. The words purportedly arise from a subconscious, spiritual, or supernatural source. I suppose the start of my songwriting process is somewhat like that for me. Musical phrases, melodies, and lines of lyrics will present themselves from nowhere without conscious effort. However, I know my unconscious mind is always working. There have been a few occasions where I’ve awakened in the night with almost complete, new songs in my head, and I’ll have to get up and write them out and revisit them the following morning. Anyway, for the majority of the time, after the nucleus and the mood of a song presents itself, the melody and chord structure is developed, and then the lyrics are written. Being also a writer of prose and poetry, lyrics are as important to me as the music.
Do you mostly write alone, or do you take part in co-writes?
I’m now a solo writer. It’s not that I have anything against co-writing. I know it works for others. It’s just that I’m more comfortable with writing alone. Plus, most of my writing is done in the evening, when I go for runs, or when I’m immersed in the solitude around my home. I need to have quiet and no distractions when I write and compose, and I need to be able to take advantage of creative moments when they present themselves. It’s a very exploratory, intimate, and sometimes lengthy process for me, and I enjoy it.
So your new double-record, Eiderdown, was released back in May. Can you talk about the influence and inspiration behind this collection of songs?
Eiderdown was born out of a desire to record another record with my engineer and co-producer Eric Troyer before I moved from New Jersey to Maine. It was a nine-month process. The content is varied; however, my three favorite writing themes are reflected in the record: a nostalgic view of life, history, and reacting to current events. I’m still a big believer in records having songs that fit a particular mood. That’s not to say that Eiderdown is one dimensional – far from it – but all of the songs fit well into a tonality and a genre. Songs such as “Eiderdown,” “The Ballad of Joseph Martin,” “Four Angels,” and “Long, Long Ago” delve into history. “Just for You,” “Dreams,” “Longing,” and “Still Calling” are nostalgic and more sentimental. “Truth,” “Are You Sleeping?,” and “The Ghost of Hugh Thompson” are responses to current events. They’re all different, but they all somehow fit into the concept of this double album.
What does Eiderdown mean? It sounds like an old Gaelic term…
It’s interesting that you should mention that eiderdown sounds like a Gaelic term because the feel of the song “Eiderdown” is very Celtic. Eiderdown is actually the breast feathers of Eider ducks, which live along the coast of Maine, and are prized for their insular qualities and softness. The song deals with the story of a woman’s ghost that is heard singing to her lost love on the shore of Schoodic Point in Maine. The ghostly voice is supposed to have very soft and smooth characteristics, so I equated it with eiderdown. The title is one of those gifts from the ether that just popped into my head when I was writing the song.
Where was it recorded and who was involved in its production?
Eiderdown was recorded and co-produced by Eric Troyer in his Charlestown Road Studio in Hampton, NJ. Eric (Google him) is an extraordinarily talented and experienced musician, and we’ve developed a tight bond in the studio. I trust him with my sound, and we seem to have an ability to sense what the other is thinking in terms of direction and production. This level of trust and comfort is the reason I pushed to record Eiderdown in NJ before I moved to Maine. Mastering was done by Eric’s business partner Pail Wickliffe (Google him, too) who has a real ear for that part of the mastering process. All-in-all, it’s a team that I wouldn’t think of changing.
It looks like you dabble in all kinds of endeavors aside from music. What do your other creative routines look like, and do any rival your love of music?
I started writing poetry in junior high school, and that quickly led to songwriting and performing, which consumed me throughout high school and college. When I got married and had children, I made a conscious decision to stop performing in order to stay home with my kids. This was even more important to me after I got divorced and raised my son as a single parent. Through this time, I began to write prose, and I’m now the author of five books. As my son got older, I began to do lectures and presentations based on my books. The writing became my creative release, and it fit my lifestyle and requirements of being a father. As my son became more independent, the music started to kick in again. I never stopped songwriting and playing at home when I was raising my kids, but the performances and recording began in earnest again after they were on their own. Music and songwriting are my passions. That’s not to say that I won’t write another book at some point, but I now feel myself drawn entirely to music.
Do you feel the pandemic has helped or hurt your creative process? (or perhaps neither)
The pandemic has been a negative factor on performing, but it’s actually been a huge boost for my creative process, simply because it’s afforded me more time to write and compose. Even though I now do online shows pretty regularly, it doesn’t involve travel and tours, so the added time at home equates to more time to create.
What’s one of your proudest/most accomplished moments as an artist in your career so far?
I wrote a song called “How Many More?” that’s included on my Providence record. The song literally fell out of nowhere and was written in 20 minutes as a response to the murders of news reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward who were shot during a live television broadcast in 2015. The song was recorded several weeks after it was written, and I enlisted many of my songwriting friends to record their voices on different lines of the song – kind of in a “We Are the World” fashion.
Well, the song got into the hands of Alison’s father Andy Parker who became a huge figure in the fight to end gun violence. One thing led to another, and I was invited to perform the song at the National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence in Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Not only was I performing the song I’d written in front of a national audience of many hundreds of people in the church holding candles of remembrance, I was singing to Alison’s parents who were in the front row and only fifteen feet from me. Toward the end of the song, the entire audience in the church spontaneously felt moved to stand up and raise their candles in the air to honor all of those people who had lost their lives to gun violence.
Later, I was told that during the last chorus, Alison’s photo appeared on the photo montage of victims that was being projected directly above my head. As a songwriter, I don’t think it gets better than this, and I still get chills thinking about it.
Are the wheels in motion for new projects?
Yes, constantly! As I mentioned in your other question about the pandemic, I have a bunch more time to create right now. I have enough songs for another record, but I’ll probably wait a year or so before I start the recording process again. Eiderdown is doing very well, so I don’t want to dilute the waters at this point. When it’s time, I’ll start doing trips to NJ to record a couple songs at a time at Eric’s studio. I’m in no rush, and it’s always good to have more songs in the hopper than one needs for a record. I also have plans to start a podcast once my wife and I move to our new house and I have my home studio in Winter Harbor.