An ungrammatical but harmonious tandem
Zooey Deschanel thought that she might explode. "I've been writing music since I was a little girl," says the 28-year-old indie-movie ingenue who makes up half of She & Him. The duo will play the Trocadero tomorrow in support of their fetching folk-rock debut, Volume One.
Zooey Deschanel thought that she might explode.
"I've been writing music since I was a little girl," says the 28-year-old indie-movie ingenue who makes up half of She & Him. The duo will play the Trocadero tomorrow in support of their fetching folk-rock debut, Volume One.
"I started writing more prolifically when I was 19 or 20, and as soon as it became easy to record on your laptop, I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't wait to be able to do this,' " says the actress, whose musical talents were showcased in Elf, in which her shower-sung "Baby, It's Cold Outside" sends Will Ferrell into a state of sexual confusion.
Though Deschanel was stockpiling songs, she was wary of letting them loose until she found the right collaborator. "Sometimes it's worth it to be frustrated a little bit," she says by phone, from her home in Los Angeles. "It's part of the creative process. I really felt like I was expressing myself, but I had no outlet for it. And at that point I was building up and building up, until you feel like you're going to explode."
Luckily for Deschanel, she met Matt Ward, who would become Him to her She. That was on the set of The Go-Getter, the road movie directed by Martin Hynes in 2006. (The well-reviewed flick opened in New York this summer, but has no scheduled Philadelphia release date.)
Ward is the guitarist and songwriter known as M. Ward, whose albums such as Transfiguration of Vincent (2003) and Post-War (2006) display a warm genre-hopping affection for vernacular American music styles.
His songs were being used on The Go-Getter sound track. When Hynes suggested the pair record a duet of Richard and Linda Thompson's "When I Get to the Border," Deschanel, a big fan of Ward's, and Ward, who knew Deschanel could sing from Elf, thought it an excellent idea.
Soon, the two were hitting it off over a shared affinity for Darlene Love, Tammy Wynette and Roger Miller, and marveling that they had each recorded unreleased cover versions of the Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better." (Their combined effort is on Volume One, along with covers of Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold On Me" and the gospel standard "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," plus nine Deschanel originals.)
"We had good chemistry," says Ward, from his home in Portland, Ore., in a separate call. "And in the back of her mind, she was looking for a way to put her music into the world."
Sensing that she had found the kindred spirit she was looking for, Deschanel - a daughter of Philadelphia-born cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (Being There, The Passion of the Christ), and the younger sister of Emily Deschanel, who stars in the Fox drama Bones alongside David Boreanaz - started e-mailing her demos to Ward.
"I wasn't expecting them to be great," he says. "And they were great. The vocal melodies, the lyrics, and the sound of her vocals. It was pretty classic and pretty vintage. It's what I've been trying to do with music since I started, which is just to create a sound that's going to last. And she has lasting power."
Deschanel, whose indie-centric movie resume includes Mumford and All the Real Girls (and who costarred with Mark Wahlberg in M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening this summer), says she was "a little bit shy" about sending Ward her music. Even though she's regularly sung in public with actress Samantha Shelton in a cabaret act called "If All The Stars Were Pretty Babies."
Ward, though, found her to be "more or less fearless in the studio" in Portland, where Volume One's retro AM-radio vibe was captured. "She's very confident. I didn't sense any trepidation on her part."
Deschanel, who says she's "no Bill Evans" on piano, decided to call the group She & Him, inspired by the anonymity of the band name The Band. Ward came up with the hopeful title Volume One.
"The idea," he says, "is for the audience to have a clear path into the songs, without having any preconceived ideas about what they're about to listen to. That's my favorite way to see a film, the ones that I know little about, and don't know what to expect from."
For Deschanel, making music beat making movies in part because it offers her a great degree of control. "Being an actor, so much of what you do is messed with," says the actress, who favors antique dresses to go with her love of vintage sounds. "I didn't want that to be another experience where you can't necessarily stand by the product that is put out, and the decisions don't reflect your taste or who you are as a person."
Volume One has been greeted with positive notices that have expressed surprise that an actor was capable of making good music. As well as reviews that took the opportunity to trash Scarlett Johansson's Tom Waits cover album in comparison.
"People bring it up as if you're a leper or a bad person," Deschanel says.
She chose to view that as a challenge. "I wanted to make it as humble and anonymous as possible. Have it be under a separate name, and not publicize it too much. Because it comes from a pure place. There's nothing vain about this project, at least not from my perspective."
The duo plan to work on a sequel, though Ward has other projects on his plate, including a solo album due early next year, and an album with Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes.
For the proposed Volume Two, Ward says he would like to keep the setup as it is, giving him "the freedom to stay focused on guitar and the arrangements of the songs, and leaving the vocals to a great singer. It's a new perspective for me, and I like it."
Deschanel, for her part, says, "We have enough songs for a new record now. I write music all the time. I record it and send it to Matt. And I think he likes exercising a slightly different muscle. I would be honored to sing any of Matt's songs. But I think this project has been working pretty well this way."