Where ac­tors fear to tread

Ac­tors and mu­sic are usu­ally a volatile com­bi­na­tion, but She & Him, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween ac­tress Zooey Deschanel and mu­si­cian M Ward, are break­ing the mould, writes Jim Car­roll

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

‘SHE” IS Zooey Deschanel. Best known as an ac­tress un­til now, Deschanel starred as an elf called Jovie along­side Will Fer­rell in Elf. The pair did a crack­ing duet of Baby, It’s Cold Out­side in the movie while stand­ing in a shower.

Deschanel also starred as a loopy ex-girl­friend in Weeds, the TV se­ries about a sub­ur­ban mum turned pot-dealer, and you may have spot­ted her in the cred­its for Al­most Fa­mous and The Good Girl. You have cer­tainly never had the op­por­tu­nity to pur­chase one of her records be­fore, even though she has done her fair share of singing and song­writ­ing.

And the “Him”? That’s M Ward. He’s a singer-song­writer based in Port­land, Ore­gon with six al­bums to date of lovely melodies and som­bre songs un­der his ox­ter.

Ward is also a dab hand at the col­lab­o­ra­tive game, hav­ing worked pre­vi­ously on pro­duc­tions with Cat Power, Beth Or­ton, Jenny Lewis and Conor “Bright Eyes” Oberst. (If you’re won­der­ing, the “M” is for Matt.) As far as we know, he has ab­so­lutely no act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence what­so­ever.

The real fun be­gins when th­ese two par­al­lel uni­verses come to­gether and the ac­tress and the singer-song­writer de­cide to make a record to­gether. That’s Vol­ume One, the duo singing and play­ing a whole bunch of Deschanel-penned songs.

While the his­tory of ac­tors and ac­tresses hav­ing a go at the pop game is not a pleas­ant one, there are oc­ca­sions when such trends are bucked. This is one of those times. A trib­ute to the charm and class of old-school pop and coun­try tunes, Vol­ume One sees Deschanel and Ward am­pli­fy­ing each other’s strong­est traits. You’ve got the lovely swing of her voice, the per­fect pitch of his ar­range­ments and the duo’s awe­some way with a mel- ody. They get it right all the way through. When the record comes to an end, you’ll still re­mem­ber with fond­ness the soft-shoe drama of Sen­ti­men­tal Heart, the punchy swag­ger of This Is Not A Test and the sassy saun­ter­ing by way of Judy Gar­land on I Thought I Saw Your Face To­day.

Th­ese songs were hang­ing about for some time, says Deschanel. “I had writ­ten all of th­ese songs over the years, but no one had heard them. I sort of felt like I would ex­plode if I didn’t do some­thing with them soon. And then Matt came along and saved me from com­bus­tion.” They first met when they came to­gether to record a cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s When I Get to the Border for the The Go-Get­ter sound­track.

“I think Matt is a ge­nius,” en­thuses Deschanel. “When we recorded that duet in 2006, we got along so well that I sent him the de­mos of a bunch of songs I had writ­ten. He liked them and then we de­cided to get in the stu­dio and prop­erly record them.”

Ward says he was at­tracted ini­tially by “the songs and the vo­cals”. He was curious about why Deschanel had not put th­ese songs on record be­fore and ini­tially saw it as an­other pro­duc­tion gig in be­tween his own al­bums. “The col­lab­o­ra­tion hap­pened or­gan­i­cally in the stu­dio as the record­ing went on,” he says. “But the heart of the record is the songs – ev­ery­thing stems from them.”

For all her act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, Deschanel was as ner­vous as a bag of kit­tens in the stu­dio. “When you make a movie, you’re an in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tor who is part of a big ma­chine. In the record­ing stu­dio, there are just a few peo­ple around and ev­ery­thing that hap­pens comes from them. It can be fright­en­ing, but it’s also re­ally great to have a creative part­ner­ship, to be to­tally in­volved in some­thing.

“I was re­ally shy about those songs to be­gin with, but I wanted so badly to do some­thing with them. When I met Matt, I re­ally felt like I had found the right per­son to work with on them.” Part of Ward’s job, then, was to coax and re­as­sure Deschanel.

“We went into the process with a lot of trust in each other’s abil­i­ties and in­stincts to do what was best for the songs,” Ward says. “The de­mos I got from Zooey con­sisted of vo­cals and keys and some vo­cal ar­range­ments.”

Ev­ery­thing else you hear was in­vented in the stu­dio in Port­land. “I wanted to bor­row pro­duc­tion ideas from fe­male-led groups, Phil Spec­tor record­ings be­ing an ob­vi­ous jump­ing-off point. I think we both re­ally en­joyed the process of ex­per­i­ment­ing with songs and pro­duc­tion ideas. It’s fairly easy to make an in­ter­est­ing record when you have great songs.”

Deschanel seems thrilled skinny with the plau­dits she is re­ceiv­ing for her songs. “The song­writ­ers I ad­mire are the likes of Ca­role King, Harry Nils­son, Bob­bie Gen­try, Michael Ne­smith, to name a few. Hav­ing in­spi­ra­tion in the form of other song­writ­ers is such an im­por­tant thing. It feels so won­der­ful to be able to lis­ten to a great song which gets un­der your skin in the most thrilling way. I guess that’s what I was look­ing to do.”

She knows that the his­tory of ac­tors and ac­tresses try­ing their hand as singers and mu­si­cians is not a happy one, but hopes peo­ple will see her album for what it is. “I don’t want to live my life be­ing in­flu­enced by an­tic­i­pat­ing other peo­ple’s re­ac­tions to what I do,” she says. “I think each case of an ac­tor or ac­tress re­leas­ing a record is in­di­vid­ual. I don’t put much stock in stereo­types.” Yet there will be peo­ple who will stand there with their arms folded, wait­ing to sneer. “It’s def­i­nitely more chal­leng­ing if they seem ap­a­thetic be­cause it’s so re­ward­ing if you win them over,” Deschanel says. “Luck­ily, I have never re­ally been in­ter­ested in im­press­ing peo­ple, so I am pretty safe from folks who are ex­pect­ing bells and whis­tles.”

Ward is also en­joy­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence. He has a new solo record due in Jan­uary 2009, but didn’t ex­pect the She & Him project to be­come so all-en­com­pass­ing so quickly. “The re­sponse to the record has been in­cred­i­ble and I don’t think ei­ther of us know what is hap­pen­ing right now or what is right around the cor­ner. But we are en­joy­ing the ride.”

She & Him are speak­ing to The Ticket from Toronto at the start of a tour to pro­mote the new album. Ward is a sea­soned pro when it comes to live shows, but it’s a new ex­pe­ri­ence for Deschanel. Yet if she had to choose be­tween act­ing (even an­other turn in The Simp­sons) or tour­ing, there’s no hes­i­ta­tion which it would be.

“Oh, tour­ing, most def­i­nitely. I am singing my own songs and, as much as I like work­ing for other peo­ple, I would rather ex­press my­self. I am so happy to sing and share mu­sic with peo­ple. I am just a girl with a song in my heart.”

Zooey Deschanel with Casey Af­fleck in The As­sas­si­na­tion of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Dy­namic duo: She (Zooey Deschanel) and Him (M Ward)

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