A faint pot smell lingers inside the windowless, padded walls of XIV Productions.
Like the studio’s aura, the scent was just as likely left by the Agora Theatre & Ballroom office’s previous tenants such as Kid Leo and the early ’70s rock ‘n’ roll bad boys of WMMS as it was by a hip-hop group that recorded days before. But it’s certainly not coming from Marcus Alan Ward, who is assiduously preparing for a performance at Brite Winter, just three days away.
“A good set at Brite Winter can impact the rest of your year in Cleveland,” he says.
Next to head engineer and producer Brad Puette, Ward selects “stems” and “bounces” — slivers of instrumentals and beats on a song — that he’ll manipulate from a loop station and a laptop live on stage. His electro-soul sound features dreamy guitar riffs and droning, harmonious and often mechanically altered vocals over atmospheric electronica music. It is a natural collision of his influences, which range from Motown to ’70s psych rock to modern hip-hop.
“I chose electronic music, because it’s a very fluid type of music, limitless and boundless,” he says. “Soul is in my heart and my emotion. I’m naturally a soulful singer, composer and lyricist.”
He’s cutting what sounds like a synth from “Love Out Loud,” the spaced-out first single from his forthcoming album, Beast, slated for a June release. He points to the soundwave stretched across the computer screen and tells Puette to isolate it. Paring back the rest of the song reveals the sound as a digitally manipulated vocal track. “I’ll sample myself singing a lot,” he says. “On this record, we put sounds from things I would say or conversations recorded on my phone or voicemails so that, whether you know it or not, life is actually on the record.”
After getting a guitar for Christmas at 14, Ward started playing in local rock and screamo bands. By his early 20s, he was spending more time behind the scenes, producing for rappers in projects such as Field Day Recordings with Puette and collaborating with experimental DJ Corey Grand on Long Division Recordings.
But after making a beat called “Eskimo” that was too good to give away, Ward turned out his first solo project under the same name. The 25-minute electronica soundscape featured minimal vocals, but helped the multi-instrumentalist find his musical voice.
Captivated by the mysteries of human consciousness, Ward explored the topic through a quantum physics lens in his debut full-length album, Last Night I Grew Tentacles, in 2014.
Beast delves into consciousness on a personal level through themes of anxiety and relationships. The hidden lyrics carried by his altered vocals represent subconscious memories of a past love while a new, budding adoration in the straightforward vocals simultaneously burns in the forefront. “I’m big on psychedelia, so I always like to leave Easter eggs,” he says. “That underlying element is kind of what psychedelia is all about.”
Ward is an equally meticulous professional. His performances are memorable for his flashy, black-sequined outfits and multimedia elements inspired by a love for surrealist art history. “I’m presenting a full aesthetic,” he says.
Ward thinks like a businessman, too.
His next seven months are an all-out M.A.W. assault. After Brite Winter, one of two Cleveland shows this year, “Love Out Loud” drops with a music video followed by digital streaming a week later.
From there, interviews, videos, remixes and other content surrounding Beast are planned every three weeks. Meanwhile, Ward embarks on a three-month tour, hitting familiar stops such as Cincinnati, Columbus and Detroit plus first-time locations like Atlanta and Los Angeles. Ward has personally built these audiences by working social media, getting national and regional press and killing shows.
Once the songs are released, Ward will gather data to determine where he’s gained traction and use it to plot his second leg of the tour.
“In 2018, there’s no artist development [department], so I’m 100 percent in control of everything,” says Ward. “You have to control how the music is being made, the aesthetic, and control how it’s being presented to the world. Make it airtight.”
It’s said music is a representation of self, and Ward’s tunes are a testament to that. With his splices loaded, Ward runs across town to meet with an album cover artist.
“Life’s duality and the underlying aspects of the human experience are the most interesting things to me,” says Ward. “It’s just weird to know you’re alive, dude.”