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
‘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)