Whenever M. Ward needs a dose of sunshine and ocean scenery, the Portland, Ore., singer-songwriter swings through the Central Coast.
“I love that drive,” said Ward, a Cal Poly graduate who’s found considerable success on the indie folk scene. “Ever since I started making records, my life has been jumping back and forth between Portland and California. It’s a great transition.”
Ward returns to his old stomping grounds Tuesday for a concert at the Fremont Theatre in downtown San Luis Obispo. The show will be the first time he’s performed in his former hometown in more than a decade, he said.
The concert coincides with the release of Ward’s new album, “More Rain,” which comes out Friday on Merge Records. It’s a lushly layered, atmospheric effort that reflects his restless quest for sonic exploration.
“It’s always been an experiment for me, ever since I started, because I never really know what I’m doing,” Ward, 42, said wryly. “It’s never a good feeling to feel like you know all the chords or all the voicings of any instrument. … I am happy to say the tip of the iceberg (in terms of) how to play guitar.”
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M. Ward — whose full name is Matthew Stephen Ward — is being modest, of course.
Ward garnered a Grammy Award nomination for his work with “New Girl” star Zooey Deschanel as the duo She & Him. And he earned additional acclaim when he joined forces with Oberst, his Bright Eyes bandmate Mike Mogis and Jim James of My Morning Jacket as the indie supergroup Monsters of Folk.
“Every artist that you work with is coming into making records with their own unique vision of how music can sound and what music can do,” Ward said. “You end up just having these dialogues, having (a sense of) the potential of what you’re doing and the path you’re on.”
Ward’s path began in Newbury Park, an affluent community nestled next to Thousand Oaks.
“Everybody looks back on the place where they grew up with mixed feelings,” Ward said. He’s no exception. His attitude toward his hometown — encapsulated in one of the tracks on “More Rain,” “Girl from Conejo Valley” — comes across as affectionate, yet humorous.
“It’s mainly a love for that part of the world that’s not without its questions,” he said.
Living in Ventura County, Ward said, “I was lucky to be exposed to a lot of different music from as early as an age as I can remember.” His dad introduced him to gospel and country, while his mom exposed him to classical music.
On his own, he discovered a mishmash of musical influences, including Chet Atkins, John Fahey, the Beatles and Sonic Youth.
“Once I started playing guitar, I got more interested in all the different ways you can use guitar for different sounds and ideas,” he said. “I like that feeling of not playing in standard tunings. It keeps the mystery going with the instrument. It just keeps things interesting.”
Ward’s journey continued in college in San Luis Obispo, where he helped form the folk-rock trio Rodriguez.
“(San Luis Obispo) was a big part of how I spent my 20s,” said Ward, who graduated from Cal Poly with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1996. “It was a great place to go to school and live.”
Asked how his time on the Central Coast shaped him as an artist, Ward mentioned the connections he made through Cal Poly’s student-run radio station, KCPR. He never DJed for KCPR, he said, but he had friends who did.
“I remember thinking, ‘What an incredible medium (radio) can be if it’s in the right hands,” he said. “At the time it was in the hands of my friends, so it was especially exciting to see that.”
While working at Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo, Ward encountered more people who shared his passion. “They’re not in it for anything other than the love of the music,” he said.
He launched his solo career in 1999 with the release of his debut album “Duet for Guitars #2.” But it was two albums in the following decade — 2005’s “Transistor Radio” and 2006’s “Post-War” — that put Ward on the map.
His eighth solo effort is “More Rain,” a follow-up to his introspective 2012 album “A Wasteland Companion.”
As Ward explained, his new album’s title is more than a reference to the drizzly city where he’s lived for a decade and a half. “Rain has a little bit of romanticism, but when you talk about more rain, that’s when the romanticism dissolves and you’re left with (the) basics,” he said.
Speaking of basics, “The initial idea was to try and make a record that was just guitars and voice,” Ward said. But the album evolved over the course of four years.
“It grew. It changed in ways I didn’t expect,” he explained, such as the addition of percussion and strings.
“More Rain” ventures into new territory for Ward, but it also draws on influences that predate him by decades. “I’ve studied most of my inspiration from older records by artists who aren’t around anymore,” he said, ranging from Buddy Holly to David Bowie.
For Ward, “Music is a never-ending Pandora’s box of possibilities,” he said. “The potential that music has is always expanding in my mind.”
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Facebook and Twitter.
7 p.m. Tuesday
Fremont Theatre, 1025 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo
$25 to $35