“Happy” is hard to find. / Inspiration is hard to find.
When Manon Ward slinks her way through “Never Felt So Me,” she strikes an enviably positive tone with a catchy hook that resonates long after the song is over. Manon conveys the effervescent melody with a worldly cheer, a confidence that’s only transmitted when people fight through their obstacles to discover – and embrace – their purpose on earth.
In a culture full of deceit and disaster, Manon’s upbeat agenda is a breath of fresh air, a reminder that life is what you make it. Manon fully intends to make it with a smile.
“I just want people to feel good,” she says. “There's so many things we could look at and be like, ‘Wow, life really stinks.’ But what is the fun in that? We’re on this planet for such a short time.”
Thus, Manon makes music intended to turn gray days into artful splashes of color. “Unlike Love” offers pulsing positivity, “Do Over” threads quirky rhymes in a twisty aural package and “Honey On Me” uses light blues/rock sounds for a lesson in female assertiveness. Throughout her debut EP, Ward approaches her life and music with a laidback optimism, a dogged determination to shuck bad vibes and move toward the light. And to do it in her own way.
“They're just me as a person,” Ward says of her songs. “It doesn't necessarily have to be the biggest message in the world, but if it makes you feel good as a human being, mission accomplished.”
Manon was practically designed to live her own life. She came into the world in Wyoming, accompanied by a twin sister who was a built-in best friend. But instead of mirroring each other, they took very different roads. Her sister was more analytical and majored in chemical engineering when she headed off to college. By contrast, Manon skipped university after just one semester to pursue music, an unusual choice to make in an isolated state that doesn’t have a lot of role models who’ve blazed the same trail. Particularly unusual because Laramie itself is a college town, the home base for the state’s only university, making it Wyoming’s center for education and business.
“My family lives very outside the regular box of things,” she says. “We trust in what the universe is giving us and how things are supposed to work out.”
Manon’s parents were all about helping people find their unique selves. They owned and operated summer camps during most of her youth, providing significant connection to nature in the scenic Rocky Mountains.
“I'm definitely a Wyoming girl,” Manon says. “We grew up with pet fainting goats, ducks, horses and chickens – lots of laughs with that crew of animals. I was fortunate to enjoy the rural aspect of Wyoming, but I also got the diverse experiences that come with living two blocks from the university.”
Manon’s first musical exposure came through the songs her mom blasted through the house speaker system and the CDs her dad played in his truck. The music reflected their town-and-country lifestyle: Hank Williams, AC/DC, Queen and Shania Twain. Manon became particularly enamored with John Mayer and Jason Mraz, artists with a strong sense of melody and a singular way of using language.
She developed her own, self-taught method of playing guitar, which didn’t always lend itself to playing other people’s music. So Manon started writing on her own, mostly as a method of creating a set of songs that worked with her particular style. Her ninth-grade English teacher let Manon write music to fulfill her assignments. And her classmates gave her incentive to pursue music seriously when she performed publicly for the first time at a talent show.
“The whole crowd of junior-high kids were waving their hands back and forth,” she says. “I just didn't expect that, and I remember the choir teacher was telling everyone to be quiet and put your hands down. They were going crazy, and that was the first taste where I was like, ‘OK, I'm hooked. I've got to do this.’”
Even though she quit college, Manon managed to fake her way onto one of the university’s campus clubs, helping to book and produce concerts. When Boys Like Girls performed in 2012, she played a few songs for lead singer/producer Martin Johnson, who was impressed enough that he became something of a mentor, critiquing her songs and recordings as she continued to progress. She likewise made a connection with Nashville producer/engineer Chad Carlson (Taylor Swift, Cole Swindell), who provided additional encouragement.
Manon made her major-venue debut during Cheyenne Frontier Days in July 2013, playing in front of 19,000 people as the opener for Alan Jackson and Randy Houser, then repeating the role a week later, leading into Toby Keith and Joe Nichols.
But she also recognized that music couldn’t be much more than a sideline in Wyoming. Two years later, Manon relocated to Nashville, networking at club shows and introducing herself to songwriters and executives around town. She played the world-famous Bluebird Café, did a set for attendees when motivational speaker Trent Shelton appeared in Nashville, and performed a few songs at an informal barbecue that yielded much more than free food and sticky fingers. At least one of the party-goers had music-industry friends, and he put in a call to Johnny Garcia, a guitarist/music director with Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.
Garcia produced her debut tracks, enhancing the music’s radiant tone and fitting Manon’s work into its own lane, teetering between country and pop. Manon’s voice is playful and airy, while the songs are forward-looking, confident in their individuality and in their belief in the promise of tomorrow. “Never Felt So Me” captures a self-aware woman in a post-epiphany moment, “Jane Doe” puts the singer in an escapist mode and even the smoky “Mary Jane” – a 4/20 portrait of a romantic rival – hints at a positive future outcome.
“I Don’t Need A Map” stridently embraces Manon’s ethical commitments and her willingness to risk, while name-dropping Oprah Winfrey, Loretta Lynn, Beyonce and Marilyn Monroe, celebrities that had the audacity to follow distinctly unique paths.
“They're all women that have done it their own way,” Manon says. “There's so many ways we can do this. I don't need a map – if all of these different women have made an impact on their own terms, hell yeah, I can do that.”
It’s the biggest take-away that Manon Ward has injected into her music, a layered set of pop-and-country songs with a spry, shiny surface and a deeper value for anyone who cares to dig further. Like other women who followed their inner voice, Manon is pursuing her own path and hinting at the freedom it brings through hooks and catchy melodies.
“Being yourself,” she says, “that's the most free you could ever feel.”