The weathered headstone on the back cover of the album has only the name “Providence” carved into it. Standing against a blurred background, without a date, or even, presumably, a last name, it seems to intentionally evoke questions of divine guidance and ultimate destiny. What made you decide on this name for the title of the album, and how are these questions of providence translated into some of the music and lyrics in your songs?
Actually, the whole headstone idea worked in reverse. As soon as I wrote the song “Providence,” I thought it would be a good title for the record because it’s a loose song cycle about the arc of life and our journeys. Most of the songs on the album relate to this theme. The opening “Acadia Lament” brought to mind the timeless quality I experience when I’m on the coast of Maine and how our lives overlay the physicality of this world and come and go like the tides. The connecting song “Names into Stones” uses the same musical phrase in a different tempo and the lyrics illustrate our yearning to elude the ending of the day and life. Through the rest of the songs the theme of providence is addressed with a nod and a wonderment toward the idea that we don’t call the shots, that there is something greater that steers us in directions that we never imagined we’d go. So, with Providence as the record title in mind, I turned my attention to the cover images. The front cover was shot in Christie Hoffman Park by my son Cory. I knew it was something I’d use because I liked the way I’m looking over my shoulder while still traveling up the path. It illustrated a journey - looking back on one’s life while still moving ahead. However, an idea for the rear cover image eluded me. One day, I was working on getting photos for another Black River Journal article I was writing, and my research led me to the Fairmount Presbyterian Church to photograph the headstone of a woman who was the topic of my essay. I was sent a map of the historic cemetery, so I knew I would locate the stone for my essay in the first row. As I rounded the inner angle of the graveyard’s stone wall, I started to look at the names on the stones. The very first stone I saw belonged to Providence. There is not much more that’s legible on her stone, and I realized immediately that I had found my back cover. It was literally providence that led me to that stone.
Your albums tend to mix people and chapters resurrected from our past, often with a fresh and unique perspective, as in your song “The Cruelest Work,” with contemporary themes and events such as gun violence and child abuse. Is there a common or intersecting thread in songs that explore the past and present?
Great question. I’m a pretty nostalgic type of person, and I enjoy history. I see a lot of ghosts - not actually spirits but images in my mind that allow me to imagine scenes from the past. Those images drive many of the songs I write. As an artist, I’m always looking for connections between the past and present and the untold stories, or at least stories told from a fresh perspective. My song “Just One More” is a good example of this past/present connection. The majority of this song looks backwards in time in appreciation of what we had. Then, at the end of the song, the focus switches to the present moment in an effort to get listeners to appreciate what we have in the here and now before it, too, slips into the past.
Many of our readers may know you as a writer first, and so much of your music seems to be an extension of your background as a storyteller, particularly in songs like “The Horseman,” which is a haunting tale of our area’s Revolutionary lore. What comes first in your creative process, the lyrics or the music?
With rare exceptions, the music always come first. You know, many artists speak of the muse. I can honestly say that I don’t know the source of my creativity. It just hits me. It comes from some mystical, unknown, unconscious place. The music evolves out of noodling around on one of my instruments. Usually, very suddenly, I’ll find myself playing a musical phrase, or hook, that catches my ear. Once that happens, the musical development starts. I’ll block out the rudimentary framework of the song. Then I’ll turn my attention to a topic that might fit the music. In the case of “The Horseman,” the drone notes of my walkabout dulcimer and the minor key of the hook suggested a dark, spookiness. Having told the tale of the Headless Hessian so many times in my lectures, I have been asked if I had ever considered writing a song about it. Well, with this new hook in hand, it seemed like a good fit. Writing lyrics is a completely different endeavor for me - more perspiration than inspiration you might say - because I’m looking at rhyme schemes, meter, lyrical content, and the overall storyline. Fitting this into the music often takes time and energy. There are exceptions. “How Many More?” and “The Line” came out of nowhere and each took about 30 minutes to write, not including refining and polishing. In both of these cases, the words came right on the heels of music, almost like someone was whispering them into my ear. All in all, the creative process of songwriting is never exactly the same. It’s a craft.
You produced this album with Eric Troyer, of ELO II and The Orchestra fame, who has worked with rock and pop legends such as John Lennon, James Taylor, Carly Simon, and Lou Reed, just to name a few; and Grammy nominated record engineer and producer Paul Wickliffe, whose discography reads like a who’s who of the jazz world. What was the experience like and what is an example of what each of them brought to the process?
I got to know Eric in 2011 through a friend of mine. Knowing I was looking for a studio to record my first record Welcome to the Past, she suggested I give Eric a call. We hit it off right away due to a shared passion for history and, of course, music. I didn’t know the full scope of Eric’s musical pedigree at first. It sort of seeped out in conversation over the course of our recording sessions. His recounting of memories about singing backing vocals on John Lennon’s “Woman” and how Todd Rundgren enjoyed experimenting with recording vocal tracks while lying on his back definitely added to our experience, and Eric liked hearing about my travels along the Lewis and Clark Trail and my knowledge of local history. Paul’s background was more well-known to me. I got some of it from Eric, and the rest I found online. Since Paul mastered both of my records, I didn’t have as much face time with Paul as I did with Eric. Here’s the thing. I prefer not to record with anyone else except these guys. It’s like a marriage of sorts. We trust each other, and we know each other’s intended outcomes. When I started recording Welcome to the Past, I totally relied on Eric’s instinct. With that record under my belt, when it came to begin recording the songs for Providence, Eric and I were totally on the same page. I remember recording “How Many More?” and listening to the vocal and guitar tracks. It sounded good, but it needed bottom end. Without saying a word, Eric and I turned to each other and said “cello.” Eric’s knowledge and instincts with music recording, arranging, and producing are off the charts. He’s as much a force on my records as I am. That could be true with other top notch producers, I suppose. They are like good literary editors; they make the author’s writing better. The resulting experience of working with Eric has become more of a collaborative process over time that is magical. Paul brought an exceptionally trained ear to the table. He has an impeccable sense of how to mix and master a record so that all of the songs sound like a complete unit on the record. To a random listener, the finesse Paul brings to the table is not as flashy or obvious as a screaming guitar lead, but it’s much more important to the overall feel of the record. Combined, it’s a great team, for sure, and I’m fortunate and thankful to have both Eric and Paul involved in my projects.
Some other very talented musicians, including Electric Light Orchestra violinist, Mik Kaminski, joined you on the album, and in addition to your lead vocals and multi-strings, you added soprano back-up vocals, a cello, pedal steel guitar, Native American flute, and even some electric to the mix. How challenging was it to orchestrate such a diverse array of musicians for each particular song and how did it enhance your musical creativity?
Well, in the case of Mik, it was as easy as asking Eric. Mik lives in England but was going to be staying at Eric’s house in New Jersey before The Orchestra embarked on some stateside gigs. I knew I wanted violin on “Acadia Lament,” Eric played Mik the track, and Mik agreed to play on it. Actually, he became excited about the piece and was incredibly generous with his time and creativity. You know, if someone from the future were to have come up to me in high school in 1977 and say that Mik Kaminski from the Electric Light Orchestra would be playing on my record in 2018, I would have told them they were crazy. It’s wonderful where life’s paths lead, and it’s even more wonderful when the people you look up to, who can have sort of a mythic quality to them, become demystified, real people, and friends of yours. As for orchestration, it’s actually pretty easy for me. I don’t mean that to sound flippant, but it’s something that just comes naturally to me. I let each song dictate what it needs to me. I never start out wanting to write a song with strings, pedal steel, Native American flute, electric guitars, or soprano voices. As I’m composing each song, I hear everything develop inside my head – drums, strings, vocals, everything. The trick is translating that on the recording – getting it out of my head and onto the track. The electric guitar on Providence was fun for me and a return to my roots. I played mostly electric when I was in bands in high school and college, but for the past 25 years I’ve been playing acoustic instruments as a solo performer. In the case of guest instrumentalists, I now have a pretty diverse group of musicians that I can turn to for accompaniment. In the case of something out of the norm, I rely on Eric to find a sampled sound that fits the bill. In the case of solo players and guest musicians, I tend to give them the framework of the song and a basic idea of what I’m hearing in my head. Then I turn them loose. I find that the more freedom, spontaneity, and creativity I give to these musicians, the more interesting the finished product will be. We’ll record four or five takes and use the best of each take to compose a finished track. This approach keeps me on my toes, too, because I know these musicians are bringing their A game, so I need to do the same.
If you could only choose one song from the album to be remembered for, which would it be and why?
(Laughing) Jeez, Chris, that’s like asking me to choose which of my children I love more. I suppose, for the songs, it depends on the mood I’m in at any given moment. My favorite song definitely changes over time. Right now I’d say the title song “Providence,” but tomorrow my answer might be different. All of these songs on the record evoke a different memory and feeling. However, “Providence” stands out at the moment because it offers hope, because it has a great message, and because it take the dark topic of child abuse and takes listeners on a journey from darkness to light. The song starts out in a very dark place reflected in the stark music and lyrics, but by the end of the song it’s transformed itself into an uplifting message of hope. If abuse was part of a person’s past, it doesn’t have to define them forever. It may take work, but one can break free of the self-doubt and baggage. I like to think that my music brings insight and evokes an emotional response in listeners, and “Providence” does just that. As a line from the song states, “Dare to think that what you do will always change the world.”
An Interview with Singer/Song Writer
Gordon Thomas Ward
By C.G. Wolfe
Photos Courtesy of
Gordon Thomas ward
Storyteller, Gordon Thomas Ward, has returned from the studio with another gorgeously produced album, Providence, once again showcasing his multi-stringed artistry and poetic, folk lyricism. In the true vein of the Celtic bards, high lonesome Appalachian pickers, and American balladeers, Ward weaves a tapestry of emotions and poignant visualizations.