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Mutual Attraction: She & Him Get Together (Again)

By Kyle MacKinnel on April 12, 2010


Mutual Attraction: She & Him Get Together (Again)

Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward insist they are doing their best to keep things organic. Despite the fact that Deschanel famously keeps vegan, diet likely has little to do with what they’re getting at. The kindred spirits that make up She & Him are referring to that thing which makes them more than just two stars promoting an image and parading behind their larger-than-life back-stories. They’re talking about the music.

“It happens when it happens, like a baby that’s ready to be born,” says Deschanel of choosing a time to make She & Him’s second album, Volume Two. “Exactly,” Ward echoes.
When speaking to the two musical partners, it becomes clear that this is a match made in heaven. The conversation takes on a certain vibrato. Both Deschanel and Ward constantly seek out and genuinely value the other’s opinion, which is practically a moot point since they tend to agree on nearly everything. Additionally, the band’s dynamic is well defined and ideally suits each other’s needs. Deschanel writes all of the songs—to be sure, that is the words and the music—while Ward is responsible for the production and arrangement. In terms of making records, theirs is a romance built to last. In a word, complementary.

There is, of course, a certain tango to free up time when you already have a day job. At any moment, Deschanel and Ward can both claim to have a few extenuating obligations. The former is a bona fide movie star, having appeared in such films as Elf, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and last year’s pleasant surprise, (500) Days of Summer (the soundtrack to which She & Him contributed a song). The latter is a highly acclaimed solo artist in his own right, with six albums under his belt, and represents one quarter of the recently formed indie supergroup Monsters of Folk (along with Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Jim James).  “When I see Zooey, we’re playing music,” Ward explains. “And when we’re not doing that, we’re talking to each other about the next time we can get together in the studio. And because of our schedules, sometimes that doesn’t mean tomorrow; sometimes it means in the first part of spring.”

Considering the limitations inherent in She & Him’s existence, it is really remarkable that Volume One’s follow-up has arrived as quickly as it has—a testament to Deschanel’s proclivity to songwriting. With all the distractions of Hollywood circling like sharks, the time Deschanel devotes to working on her music explains quite a lot.  “I write usually on piano—I have two pianos. Sometimes I play guitar,” she explains. “I usually come up with a melody that I like, and then I try to find a theme, so to speak; something that I want to say that can also be said in a concise way.”  Deschanel’s themes on Volume Two, much like its predecessor, frequently exist within the framework of complicated relationships. On many tracks, the lyrics speak in quirky, interesting ways, and it is this type of resonance that Deschanel takes to new heights on She & Him’s latest. But, both artists agree that one track in particular stands out.  “The first song that comes to mind is the first song on the record—it’s called ‘Thieves,’” Ward says. “That song is unlike any other She & Him song because we had the advantage of playing it live on our last tour. That was a very special recording for me.”

“I love that song,” Deschanel continues. “I picked up a guitar and I wrote it really quickly. I feel like there’s something to be said for songs that just write themselves. It felt like it was just meant to be. There was no pulling a piano out of a pond. It felt like it had a velocity immediately.”  There are indeed many things to be said for the opening song. “Thieves” is a reflection in the wake of a love gone awry, told from a perspective both sentimental and optimistic. “I’m not a prophet/Old love is in me/New love just seeps right in and it makes me guilty,” sings Deschanel. There is a push and pull in her words between pre-existing emotion and the impending dawn after the darkness. This tension can also be said to mirror the very fabric of She & Him. Deschanel’s thick, opalescent alto matched with Ward’s lush, vintage production unmistakably recalls golden-era pop balladry while retaining the modern essence of the artists who create it. Ward layers a gorgeous string section over his acoustic arpeggios and the whole thing builds to an Orbisonian climax that is truly justified.

Another track, “Don’t Look Back,” came about in the aftermath of a particular purchase made by Deschanel. “I got this baby grand piano at a thrift store, and it was the first song that I wrote on that piano," she says. "It feels special to me in that way.” Deschanel’s baby grand is at the center of the song, joined by marching percussion, fleeting guitars and Deschanel’s cooing in round formation. Vocal harmonizing has become a penchant of our heroine on Volume Two, an interest she partly attributes to a conversation with one of the greatest of all time.

 “I had a little interview with Brian Wilson maybe a year and a half ago. He inspired me to do certain things—technical things—in terms of layering harmonies,” Deschanel says. “One of the songs I had written on ukulele, but I ended up recording all these vocal harmonies and taking the ukulele out and then it was just a cappella when I sent it to Matt [Ward]. We ended up recording it that way.” Wilson’s technical advice fell on anxious ears, and the track became “If You Can’t Sleep,” a somniferous little hymn that snugly closes the book on Volume Two.

Elsewhere, there is the exceptionally bright first single, “In the Sun,” a reverb-dipped refurbishing of NRBQ’s “Ridin’ in My Car,” and “Me and You,” sporting a wonderful pedal steel and a hazy vibe that uncannily recalls Neil Young’s Harvest, which Deschanel and Ward go on to cite as one of their favorite albums. “It’s so cool that Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor were singing backup on that record,” Deschanel says, excitedly.

When asked about his process after receiving a demo from Deschanel, the tone of Ward’s response takes on a sagaciousness one might expect from a shaman, or perhaps exhibits the Zen of a Buddhist monk. “I listen to my demos over and over again, and I listen to her demos the same way,” he begins. “That’s basically a process of letting your imagination fill in the blanks of what you’re not hearing, which eventually turns into the production of the song. If you listen closely enough to a demo, the demo tells you where it wants to go, and I just try to stay out of the way."   Fortunately, Deschanel’s songs have a tendency to venture to a vacant lot in the current neighborhood of pop music, a place much closer to home beside Linda Ronstadt than Lady Gaga. Deschanel's melodies go there with a strut that finds a way to be utterly refreshing—one that avoids stumbling over the archetype. And, she will be the first to tell you that Ward’s production style is a major factor in the music’s success.

“The cool thing is, Matt’s production makes everything warm in a way that a lot of music is not, and I just feel very lucky to be able to work with him,” Deschanel says. “It’s not about perfection. The aim is more about expression and making something that is authentic and sincere. Sometimes, with modern technology making everything so easy for everyone, I think that some sincerity gets lost.” True to form, Ward is quick to return Deschanel’s praise. “One hope is that when people listen to the record, they get sort of lost in it and maybe they’re not sure when it was recorded,” he says. “I think it’s a testament to Zooey’s songwriting and Zooey’s voice that she can take people to this place where they’re not sure if they’re listening to a song that’s one month old or 40 years old. When I’m watching a movie or seeing a piece of art and it’s not stuck in the decade that it was created in, that always makes me feel good. It makes you feel like doing timeless art is still possible.”

But all art theory aside, She & Him are ready to have some fun. When in Los Angeles preparing to shoot the video for Volume Two’s lead single, “In the Sun,” helmed by Deschanel’s friend, Yes Man director Peyton Reed, Deschanel went “out shopping for clothes for people, to make sure that everyone is happy.” The duo is also looking forward to playing live shows again, which Ward describes as always being a “blast.” When asked about how she compares live shows to shooting a big scene for a film, Deschanel seems to look at music favorably.
“Film acting is a lot of pressure, but you can always do it again,” Deschanel explains. “On stage, there’s electricity with the audience. There’s an exchange where you really get to feel your audience, which you don’t when you’re doing a film. I really always miss that.”  Considering the output She & Him has delivered thus far, it is likely that Deschanel will not be forced to miss out on the culture of playing music for very long again—certainly not if M. Ward has anything to say about it. Their work together has proven to be consistently harmonious, and Volume Two suggests there are many more songs to be sung. However, you can be sure that any future volumes will be made on the terms of She & Him, and She & Him alone.

“We don’t want it to ever become something that feels forced, wouldn’t you say, Matt?” Deschanel poses. “Yeah, we’re not really listening when any sort of label or management says, ‘This is what you need to do,’” Ward returns. He continues, “I think it’s safe to say that Zooey and I just react to our instincts and impulses, and I can tell you that I’m already very excited about Volume Three even though we know absolutely nothing about it.” Deschanel perks up: “Well, I’ve written a couple of songs!” The exchange comes across as utterly natural, and by the sound of things, it’s one that seems destined to sustain. F

This article is from FILTER Issue 39