Earlier this July, Marcus Alan Ward performed an album release show at Beachland Ballroom to celebrate the new material on Little Sunshine. The show sold out, and the album, performed in its entirety, is a highlight for the local music scene this summer.
Listen: Ward is a forward-thinking guy in a town that increasingly rewards that sort of work ethic. But the music scene here can sometimes be a bit stodgier. He came up in rock bands and screamo bands when he was younger, so the "progressive pop" tag that he wears on his sleeve with this latest material presents something of a contrast, something less easily digestible. It's even a far cry from more recent electronic music that he released under the moniker Freeze-Tag. But Ward keeps his eyes on the horizon, and he watches out for auspicious signs on his path.
Ward ended up at a show in Detroit a while back, he says, watching a DJ spin funk all night. "I just remember dancing by myself all night -- and I dance by myself all the time, because I like to -- but I remember dancing by myself, people looking at me, and I'm like, 'Wow, this shit is awesome,'" he tells Scene. "There was a moment when a song came on, and it was an old funk song from the 1970s, and the dude was like, 'My name is Marcus! And I'm a Capricorn!' That was in the song. And I'm Marcus and I'm a Capricorn. It was a moment of synergy, and I felt like I needed to be there in that moment in time."
From there, Ward took a deep dive into the funk world and began blending his new influences with older vibes like garage rock (White Stripes) and moodier post-rock stuff (Interpol). This hybridization is a motif in Ward's creative pursuits.
"I'm blessed to have parents who let me do anything I wanted," Ward says. "And especially as an African-American, a lot of times I saw my peers and kids I grew up with be super limited because they felt they had to be a certain way or listen to a certain type of music -- or live up to an image that's been sold to us by someone from outside our culture."
Ward tried on all sorts of creative influences, and he happened to land on the guitar, which came as a Christmas gift when he was 14. (He learned the "Jingle Bells" melody that day.)
And another thing: Ward cites something of an entrepreneurial spirit, even as far back as age 8 and 9 or so. He kept lizards and snakes as pets while he was growing up, and he created fascinating little worlds for them -- creative terrariums -- and found ways to sell them to other prospective pet owners. He really ran with that sense of ambition.
"When I was able to take that guitar and create something out of thin air, that was super attractive to me," Ward says.
Everything has been a building block for this young son of Cleveland, and he's quick to point out that there's something larger at work here -- something he wants to show this city.
"'I've said it before: Whenever I tell somebody that I make music, they just assume and they ask, 'How long have you been rapping?' That's exactly what they ask me every time," he says. "Being a black rock musician is very important to me, because first of all rock is my favorite genre. I think that it holds within its spirit the old world where African-Americans came from -- the vibrations with gospel and blues and soul, that's all present in rock music -- and I think it needs to be preserved. I'm built to do it.
"For Cleveland, it's been hard to break through the mold of the typical black artist that makes rap music. Some publications here still write 'hip-hop alternative artist' or 'hip-hop electronic artist Marcus Alan Ward does this or that...' I see it, and it's just crazy to me."