Detroit’s Mike Ward Brings His Inspirational Folk Songs to AADL April 28


Mike Ward wears a denim shirt and holds an acoustic guitar in his living room.

Detroit folk singer-songwriter Mike Ward. Photo by Danny Ward.

The state of the world weighs heavily on Mike Ward’s mind.

That concern prompted the Detroit singer-songwriter to pen a new folk song called “Why Not,” which sends an encouraging message to help others.

“When I have played it, people get how the song starts out small, gets broader as it goes on, and ends at a point where it’s up to us on a personal level,” said Ward, who’s also a University of Michigan alumnus. 

“One of the things I have to work hard at is trying not to be too preachy, especially when I’m writing about things on a political level. It’s one of the areas where I try to find a balance.”

Backed by hopeful acoustic guitar and cello, he sings, “Why not do some good today with the time that we’ve got / Start with something simple / A lesson learned or to be taught / Plant a seed or lend a hand / A little helps a lot.”

“I’ve also been looking at not only how that affects the world in general, but also how it’s affecting people’s relationships,” Ward said. “It goes as broad as the country, but as narrow as some relationships and the struggles that people are having.”

Why Not” is one of several songs Ward will be performing with Sara Gibson (cello) and Annie Bacon (vocals) at an April 28 show at the Downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library.

Ahead of the show, I spoke with Ward about his current state, his career transition from advertising to music, past albums, his latest songwriting efforts, his setlist for the AADL show, and plans for new material.

Q: How has 2024 been for you and your family so far?
A: This year has been busy for us between working on music and planning for a wedding. Our son is getting married in Brooklyn, New York in June. We’re not doing a ton of the planning, but it does take travel arrangements and figuring out what we’re doing for that. Also, our daughter is the head coach for women’s lacrosse at Central Michigan University, and this is her season. It’s been a tough start, and we’ve been there to help support her.

Q: What’s been inspiring you lately from a songwriting standpoint?
A: I continue to write because I’m part of two songwriting groups—Song Haul and Song Salon. For one of them, we have to do a new song every month, and I just had to name a songwriting prompt on the first of this month. Everything is done in the spirit of the song and how we hear it. I’m already starting a new song in my notes on my phone, and that's where I tend to start a lot of things. I lean on my notes and the recording aspect of my phone.

I’m also inspired by my wife, Angie. She’s been on board with me the whole time, and thank God she has because she’s a great listener and a great supporter, and now she’s become part of the community.

Q: In 2017, you retired after working for 30 years as an advertising executive at Doner in Southfield. Why did you decide to pursue a music career after retiring? How did that career change lead to releasing your debut album, We Wonder, in 2018?
A: Angie and I started hosting an open mic in downtown Detroit, and we started going to open mics and shows and meeting people. I started going to workshops and trying to understand all the things I didn’t know.

Even when I recorded We Wonder, it was all happenstance. I played a house show in Chicago … and a friend knew a talented violinist named Lucy Little. We rehearsed and did this house show in the fall of 2017. My friend Craig Duncan came up afterward and said, “You should record some of these songs.” And I said, “We would love to do that,” and then he responded, “I have a studio right here in Chicago. If you want to come in, I will help you any way I can.” We did five songs live in January 2018 in the studio. We overdubbed one piece of a vocal on We Wonderand that was it.

Then, I came back to Detroit and started writing some songs. My friend Dave Toennies was running a songwriting group at the Corktown Tavern at the time. I shared a few songs there, and they were well-received. I had four or five more songs, and we met Ryan Anderson, who was running MusicTown Detroit above the Hockeytown Café. He said, “If you have a couple of songs and you want to come in and record them, we’ll do it at no cost.” I went in with Bill Sadley playing harmonica, and we did four more songs there.

I also had an older song called “The Stream” that Steve Curran in Lansing had produced for me probably 10 years earlier. It felt like the song still had traction. Every time you think a social conscience song doesn’t have legs anymore, the world changes, and then all of a sudden, that song has relevance. I took all these recordings, and Ryan Anderson mixed the ones that he did, and Mike Regan from Another Country in Chicago mixed the ones that he did. They gave them to me, and I loaded them all into CD Baby, and at that time, that's how green I was. I just uploaded them, got CDs made, and put them on iTunes and Spotify. When I got the CDs back, I thought, “It’s really uneven. The ones from this recording studio were quiet and the ones from here were a bit louder.” Then somebody asked me, “Who mastered it?” And I said, “What’s mastering?”

Q: In 2018, you attended your first Folk Alliance Region Midwest (FARM) conference in Grand Rapids and met several key people there. How did attending that conference help change the trajectory of your music career and lead to releasing your sophomore album, The Darkness and The Light, in 2021?
A: In the first day and a half, I met Annie Capps and Mike Gentry, who ended up producing my album, The Darkness and The Light, and he also introduced me to David Roof and then subsequently all these other people. I also met Kyle Rasche, Josh Rose, and DJs like Phil Maq. It changed the trajectory of what I was doing, and after the conference, Angie said, “I think you’ve found your people.”

On the heels of that, I had been writing a lot and went to John D. Lamb’s Retreat for Songwriters and got two good songs from that. I had other songs that I had been writing. I met with Mike Gentry after FARM, and he said, “I think we should go to Dave Roof’s [studio].” When I talked with Mike Gentry, I knew he was the guy to produce The Darkness and The Light. We spent a day at Dave Roof’s studio [Rooftop Recording], and Dave said, “Why don’t you go in the studio, and we’ll set you up? Let’s just lay down some of the songs that you’re thinking about.”

We ended up recording 18 songs, and they didn’t all make it onto the album. Some of them are still in the background doing nothing, but what a great experience. From that point on, I’ve been working with Dave Roof. We recorded my parts for The Darkness and The Light in late 2019, and then in 2020, we had all my parts done, and then the lockdown happened.

We were put on pause in March 2020, but we started back in July 2020. I was still writing and had started doing a “30 Songs in 30 Days” songwriting challenge. When we decided to go back and record the rest of the parts for The Darkness and The Light, I had to relearn everything, but it also gave me a different perspective on the songs after having been away from them for a while. I released two songs with videos at the end of 2020, and then the album in January 2021. To the album’s credit, by March of 2021, it was number 33 on the Folk Alliance International folk charts.

QThe Darkness and The Light’s opening track, “Our Turn to Shine,” spotlights the quick passage of time and emphasizes the importance of starting anew. How does this track continue to resonate with listeners today?
A: The song, “Our Turn to Shine,” and the video put me on the map in a lot of people’s eyes. That’s a song that I still love playing, and it means a lot to me because people read way more into it. We were in the midst of the pandemic, and I think people looked at it and thought, “This is about positivity.” But it was actually an answer to a songwriting prompt about changing out light bulbs. Subconsciously, it does reflect a lot of how I view the world and how I want my songs to be a way to look at the world in a positive light, but I also don’t want people to be afraid to look at the other side.

 Q: Your new song, “Why Not,” focuses on helping people and the world around you. It also stresses the importance of living in the present and making a difference. What prompted you to write such an inspirational song that encourages giving back?
A: That song came out of a one-day workshop that I did at the Detroit House of Music with singer-songwriters Audra Kubat, Emily Rose, and Dede Alder earlier this year. I reworked it a little bit, thanks to my friend Kyle Rasche. I sent it to him, and he had some good notes on it. I’ve been opening my shows with that song because it has a lot of power at this time.  

At the Detroit House of Music, they started with meditative, inward-looking exercises, and I thought, “I’m going to keep writing, but I just don’t know what I’m doing here. I feel completely out of my element doing this exercise.” Later, I got up, walked around, went outside, and took a break, and was sitting on the porch out front. The first verse just came, and then I shaped it from there. I didn’t think anything was sinking in, and it turns out quite a bit was sinking in.

Q: You also submitted a video of “Why Not” being performed at Livonia’s Trinity House Theatre for NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest this year. What was it like to film a live performance of that song in February?
A: Sara Gibson (cello), Judy Brown (vocal harmony), and I did a split show with singer-songwriter Linden Thoburn. That was the opening of the show, and Robert Smalley filmed the video. When he recorded it for us at Trinity House, I got a direct line from the audio board, and then I did a mix, put it through Adobe Premiere, and created the video for Tiny Desk. There’s a little bench in the back that you could call a desk, but just in case, I found a funny little drawing of a desk and put that in the video instead. It qualified because I had watched some of the other Tiny Desk videos and saw people holding up a little drawing of a tiny desk and then that was it. NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest is very forgiving in terms of what your definition of a desk is.

Q: It’s been a year since you released your last album, Love Never Rests. What’s it like to go back and hear those 11 songs now? How have they evolved while playing them on stage?
A: I still have a lot of heart for this album. “The Currency of Forgiveness” was the song that we all felt had a lot of traction, and I think the song that we’ve been pleasantly surprised that has gotten a lot of traction is “All We’re Hoping For.” I was glad because I worked a lot on that song, and I’m proud of it. Songs like “Compact Life” and “Sunday Morning” have been well-received—my late mother wrote the lyrics for “Sunday Morning.”

We’re also rebooting one of the songs, “Something Anything,” that we haven’t played much. It’s another song that’s about the search for what to believe in, what truth is, and what positivity is. It’s now a song that’s ready to be put out there. From a production standpoint, it has the biggest sound of anything I’ve ever done. Michael Shimmin plays an amazing level of percussion on it, and Amy Petty came in and did all these layers of vocals on it. I’m really happy that we’re going to get that out. It’s a good way to re-energize the album, take a song that we haven’t focused on, and give it a little highlight.

Q: What do you have planned for your April 28 show at AADL? What will Sara Gibson (cello) and Annie Bacon (vocals) help bring to it?
A: It’s a mix. I have four other new songs that will be part of the set. When I’ve been playing in markets that haven’t been introduced to me personally, I’ve been playing “The Other Side” quite a bit. It’s a nice way to introduce myself and my family story. It allows me to use those family connections and stories when I talk about my mom giving my dad this amazing old guitar in 1947 or people I knew growing up in Port Huron that I worked into a song. Those are some of the new subjects in addition to songs like “Time” and “Let Them Be Loved” that will be part of the set.

Sara adds so much depth to the cello. We’ve done several shows and rehearsals together, and she’s a pro at helping me fill the space with a beautiful, low, and warm cello presence. It lets my guitar sit on top of that. Annie sang on “The Currency of Forgiveness” and “All We’re Hoping For” on Love Never Rests, and they have great harmony pieces. Along with Sara, Annie did some songs with me when we were at Nor-East’r last summer and what we heard from many people was, “Wow, the sound that the three of you had was pretty magical.”

Q: What’s on the horizon for you later this year? Do you plan to release any new material?
A: I’m working on three or four new songs that I’ll record sometime this summer for a new record. I think we’re going to have fewer parts with this next recording, which will be done with Dave Roof. I think it’s more likely that it will be next year before we release anything.

Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of

Mike Ward performs with Sara Gibson and Annie Bacon on Sunday, April 28 at Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. in Ann Arbor. The event starts at 3 pm and is free.