Zooey Deschanel and M.
Ward didn’t set out to make a record.
By A.D. Amorosi
[Editor’s Note: Don’t
miss the companion to this piece, “Almost Zooey: A Capsule Guide To Zooey
Deschanel’s Greatest Hits,” viewable elsewhere at Blurt-online.]
She’s blabby. He’s quiet.
She’s flashy. He’s sedate.
She’s sassy. He’s demure.
Sound’s like we’re talking about a kooky movie tag line – a
beach film from the ‘60s or a Brat Pack flick from the ‘80s, perhaps. And that
would all be really bizarre if it weren’t for the fact that we’re discussing
the luscious, often Spector-esque She
& Him, Volume 1 that happens to be a musical project from calm
collected singer/songwriter M. Ward and siren-like actress/crooner Zooey
Deschanel – a collaboration that started on a film set.
Two kids in different cities sit quietly at their respective
four track recording tables late into the night – she in her bedroom in Los Angeles, he in his Portland, Oregon
They each dream about having someone listen to their musical
pleas and lyrical tease – softly sonic stories about lost friends, wrongheaded
politics and dream lovers. But do they dare?
Dare they do.
Actually they both made good on their dares alone – he
making solo records since 1999’s Duet for
Guitars 2 with everything from country blues jaunts (End of Amnesia), loose-knit conceptual efforts (Transistor Radio) and politicized
laments (Post-War) to follow.
She wrote and sang and recorded her own music onto tape
since she was a kid, saving her singing for the big and little screen rather
than the studio.
Each knew a little bit about the other. She thought M. Ward
records were cool; dug what he did within the confines of playing guitar, singing
and working with Jenny Lewis, Norah Jones, Cat Power, Neko Case and Bright
Eyes; loved his take on Bush’s wrong-headed rhetoric on 2006’s Post-War. He dug what he saw of her
beauty in movies – older films of hers like Almost
Famous and Big Trouble, newer
fare like The Assassination of Jesse
James by the Coward Robert Ford. Ward especially liked Elf. Not just because it had Will Ferrell in tights but featured
Zooey singing a happy sappy wintry song.
He knew that she could put forth a song. He was surprised
when he found no one had done it sooner. But who knew she had songs of her own
to sing at home in her bedroom and that’d one day he’d be the guy to help
translate her jazzy, country-fied, smoky bed-sit paeans to romance and
cigarettes “I Was Made for You” and “Sentimental Heart” to analog tape. Not
Now, months after doing so, the two – already onto separate
new projects, she in post production for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening and Yes Man with Jim Carrey, he with recording his next solo record –
look back just slightly on all that’s passed between them with the same ardor
that brought She to Him and Him to She for She
& Him Vol. 1 in the first place.
Zooey Deschanel sounds a bit watery through the phone she’s
calling on from Los Angeles.
It’s funny as the liquid roll of that bad connection is at one with the fluid
flow of her vocals throughout She &
Him Vol. 1 – a weary quaver reminiscent of elder states-ladies like Billie
Holiday with just a hint of the flatly nasal deadpan film characters
Deschanel’s seems famous for.
“That’s great,” laughs the 28 year old actress, who was born
to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (Passion
of the Christ) and actress Mary Jo Deschanel (Twin Peaks).
“The thing that always shocked me about hearing my singing
voice on tape was that I sounded really old. Even when I was a kid – I had a
really mature sounding voice.” Mention that Billie-trill to Zooey and she
squeaks. “I had this distinct moment when I was a kid where I heard myself and
said ‘Oh my God I sound like an adult!’ out loud.”
Deschanel continues on to discuss her connection with
sounding old and taking things from the past. Like playing bass ukulele since
she was a kid – a perfect fit for her small hands. “It sounds funny to say it
now but I picked up the ukulele because I was buying a lot of sheet music from
the 1920s and it all had ukulele chords on it. I thought it would be
interesting to buy one and try to play it. They sound so pretty and with my hands
I thought maybe it would be a good fit.”
Along with loving Twenties sheet music, Deschanel — a young
fan of Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las – had been
writing music and lyrics since she was a kid. Simultaneously in fact; not an
anomaly this fete, but certainly a rarity. She insists she wasn’t any kind of
poet or prodigy on piano – her second instrument. “It took me a long time to
get comfortable writing,” says Deschanel. It took her even more time to get
comfortable making demos in her bedroom of the tunes she was writing along with
songs she loved.
While that process of home-recording started eight years ago at age 20,
audiences wouldn’t get to hear Deschanel’s vocals until she appeared on
television with Carol Burnett, co-starring as “Lady Larken” during Once Upon a Mattress in 2005, Winter Passing in 2004 (for which she
composed some piano music too), and most famously during Elf in 2003.
“I think the same thing’s true for a lot of Zooey fans – Elf really got me,” says Ward of
Deschanel’s singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” during the Christmas film and,
with Leon Redbone on the subsequent soundtrack CD. “She was remarkable and
sweet; very evocative. And I remember thinking when I heard that she must have
a record out.”
She did not.
What Deschanel was busy doing (when she wasn’t playing and singing in bands
like If All the Stars Were Pretty Babies) was studying up on singing and acting
like Janis Joplin for Penelope Spheeris’ The
Gospel According to Janis. Under the aegis of the filmmaker renowned for
1981’s L.A. punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, its
hair-band sequel The Metal Years as
well as commercial fare like Wayne’s
World, Deschanel studied Joplin’s grit for
months throughout 2006 only to have the film pulled before it started
production in Philadelphia.
“It was grueling the Janis process; really consuming as I
did a lot of vocal training to be able to sound like her when I wanted to
without having to ruin my voice,” she says slowly. “That was the hardest thing
– because my voice, obviously, is nothing like that.”
Zooey’s voice is squeaky, small and confident with words and
phrases that go up toward the end of each sentence to make everything sound a
question asked by a Canadian. “A lot of wear and tear went into her voice,” she
(The Joplin project
isn’t dead. It’s resting, according to Deschanel.)
Sometime shortly after Spheeris’ film fell off Zooey’s
radar, The Go Getter came into view;
a movie that director Martin Hynes asked a guy named M. Ward to compose the
soundtrack for. It was Hynes who suggested that his film’s co-star Zooey
Deschanel and its scorer M. Ward get together for a tune, a Richard and Linda
Thompson heart breaker named “When I Get to the Border.”
“I loved Matt’s music but didn’t know how it would or could
work with him,” says Deschanel, in regard to her movie’s duet with Ward. “But
we had such a great moment doing that tune. Great, especially since we only met
one time before hitting that studio to record.”
The session was neatly improvisational, good fun and the pair found a fast
great rapport existed between them. “I didn’t know him that well – not even
that much about him. But I was a fan. And I was curious what he might think
about the music I was writing.” And because she writes music and lyrics at the
same time, she felt that only someone who had an organic sense of the process
(“my lyrics mirror the rhythm”) could get what it was she was trying to do.
Man, this sounds like a movie.
Matt Ward was in Portland on
the day Fidel Castro quit being the leader of Cuba. Ward didn’t know much about
Fidel but knew it was hypocritical of our president to bash the Cuban dictator,
especially since Bush hadn’t been so great to his people.
Ward didn’t know much about Zooey Deschanel either save for Elf. But he knew that the chemistry
between them while recording that fateful Richard and Linda Thompson song was
“It was pretty automatic,” says Ward, quietly. “I like to
think I can sense good chemistry quickly. Part of my job when I produce is to
mine that chemistry.”
That means a lot coming from a composer/guitarist who’s
written, played and sung with Norah Jones and written songs for Cat Power, Jenny Lewis, Beth Orton and Neko Case,
While we joke
about wasting life on misspent chemistry, being patient while producing and
suffering fools not-so-gladly, it occurs to me that for someone whose dramatic
pointed voice as a songwriter and singer – detail oriented, opinionated; like
playwright Arthur Miller in that his weariest characters’ slightest flaws seem
so vividly portrayed and torturously heroic – is so solitarily iconic,
collaboration seems unnatural for him. Who’d want to play well with others when
you had so much to give yourself.
But I’d be wrong.
“I still keep the composition side of my music to myself;
just me and my four track,” Ward explains. “But I think of everything I do — even on my
albums as collaboration. It’s necessary as to how I’m growing and hearing other
But what about Matt alone?
The Oregonian recorded just a bit with the noisy Rodriguez
(co-starring Kyle Field of Little Wings) before going completely solo in 2001
with the trad-country-blues of End of
Amnesia. “I think Rodriguez had more to do with our live gigs rather than
our recorded output than anything. We were really built on the passion of that
SST sound,” laughs Ward, recalling the influence of the Minutemen fireHOSE and
all things Mike Watt.
A love of John Fahey – a bummy strum, a naturalistic
ambience, a nervous pluck – can be heard throughout his catalog of recordings;
aping the late guitarist on Ward’s solo debut, making Fahey a formidable
inspiration throughout the wild Americana of Post-War and beyond.
“Fahey influenced me to stop playing with a pick, to try out
all manner of atmosphere and to play the bass with the treble at the same
time,” says Ward, of a guitar sound that, to crib from Sinatra, lingers like a
haunting refrain. “When you’re making records on four-track with the bass and
the treble up simultaneously, it saves tracks and allows you a better idea of
what the eventual outcome will sound like.”
Though Ward claims to not listen to his own records, he’s
especially un-fan-like toward Amnesia (“I’ve no desire to hear it ever again.”). Still, Ward’s more open to
discussing the caustic political rhetoric of Post-War.
Following on the heels of the 2005s Transistor Radio and its distant vision of a child’s AM/FM listening
life, Ward wanted to create something concrete out of looking backwards and peeking into the fast-forward. “That
was one of the threads that tied the songs together – the past and the future,”
says Ward, describing Post-War’s
pessimistic outlook on America
during-and-after Bush. Ward doesn’t see that the most seminal of his records as
pissy or derogatory. Just that its vision comes from what was going on around
Ward politically and socially as well as the steady reading diet of authors
he’d consume during the album’s year-and-a-half gestation.
Hemingway, Vonnegut, daily bouts of the New York Times; the overlapping ideas between what I was reading
and what was unfolding, presented themselves to me a cycle… of sadness. The stories and
characters in Slaughterhouse 5, too,
seemed very similar to the realities of stories we’d be reading once war is
Ward became interested
in the cycles of social and personal change. That probably holds true for the
newest of records he’s finishing for release later in 2008. Though he dares not
speak of its musical or lyrical content as it might blow away like dust.
to talk about it before it is what is because…”
It won’t be?
Then there’s the
fact that though Ward’s worked with boys — Conor Oberst on Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga, Howie Gelb on Duet for Guitars2 for instance — one
can’t help but notice the catalog of women he’s worked with.
And while this
writer isn’t necessarily trying to turn him into “The Ladies Man” or seem lamely lascivious within that level of girls-club possibility, it’s seems important within Ward’s frame of
reference that the female voice is so prominent with his body of work; that perhaps theirs holds a certain sway of enchantment. Or something like that.
Mention as much and Ward laughs. “It’s the spirit of the
voice and the song I’m serving when I produce or write or collaborate, I don’t
think it matters that it’s female or male dead or alive. I like anything that
keeps me enthralled.”
When I push the issue just a bit and mention his grrrl-heavy
collaborations, he harrumphs just a bit and sounds but a tad annoyed: “I think
that’s an exaggeration. I’ve worked with just as many men as I have women. But
you can see it how you like.”
I will. But how I like it has nothing to do with trying to
separate Ward’s work with Deschanel from the others he’s worked with. Ward
mentions first that Zooey has many talents up her sleeve — the fact that she
can write incredible songs being one of them.
“I know that the last thing that most people think is that
an actress can do is write songs… even more-so have them be great songs.”
That wasn’t my question.
“People like Conor Oberst: when I’m working with these guys,
it’s expected they have amazing songs. But if an actress or someone who works
at a grocery store or fixes tractors does, there’s an extra element of
That surprise is what Ward felt when Deschanel introduced a
glut of her songs to him. First her lonely tender all-alone take on the
traditional spiritual, “Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot,” that’s currently included as
their first volume’s secret last track. (“Just me a guitar and my computer,”
laughs Deschanel of the session that yielded the spiritual.) Then came a batch
of beautifully delicate and dolefully charged country Tin Pan pop tunes she’d
written that allude to Gram Parsons (“This is Not a Test”) and Phil Spector
(“Sweet Darlin’”) in their melodic sway and lyrical élan.
“When we got to talking we found that our musical
sensibilities were similar. That we kept referencing the same artists in conversation
– Phil, Gram, Neil Young,” says Deschanel. “There were so many. Ward and I just
meshed. You can’t manufacture that.”
Still, what made him the right choice for her first outing?
It’s like your first kiss.
Zooey insists they didn’t set out to make a record. She sent him the demos
she’d been gathering from bedroom recordings after Ward asked her to — just to
Was she shy about handing over her dreamy songs? Yes.
Will she say exactly what premeditated her lyrics? No.
As expected, she won’t divulge information regarding any of
her lovelorn lyrics. “They’re not biographical, she claims. “Not mine. Like the
songs I love best, I’d rather speculate. My lyrics come from…a more platonic
approach to writing music.” Deschanel chuckles at that last thought.
Was he tender in accepting them and making an entrée toward
Indeed. “It’s an honor for me to make her first record,”
In regard to his overall production philosophy, he stayed
out of her way and the song’s way. “I let the songs go where the songs wanted
to go and Zooey go where she wanted to go,” he says. Which makes sense when you
hear the girl-groupish likes of “Why Do You let Me Stay Here?” and “Sweet
Darlin’” – two of She & Him’s biggest productions.
In Ward’s recollection of the situation, the previous song
came to him as just a “piano and vocals” onto which he crafted a rhythm based
on hers. “There was just something about it that you’d find on an old Who
record or a Pete Townshend demo. I don’t [want] to say ‘delicate’ because
that’s over simplifying. But I wanted to take the delicateness of her voice and
combine it with big strumming guitars.”
As for “Sweet Darlin’,” the most obvious song to lean upon
Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Deschanel mentions that its demo came rife with
lush harmonies and a big drum’s bop-and-bump. “It was cool to see and hear him
get that makeshift Wall of Sound with five people,” she laughs. “Once he put it
onto analog tape (their process throughout), everything immediately sounded old
Tell Ward about her compliment of his production feel and he
giggles to himself. “Well, that song is so incredible, it would’ve been
impossible to mess up.”
And that’s what probably made this first (but not last, insist both) Volume so rich: they formed a bond
because he’s a boldly intuitive producer and she’s a dynamic sympathetic voice
and recording partner that entered and exited She & Him together – stage
For Ward, the magic of working with Deschanel and
collaborating as equals (they both agree: 50/50) comes as much from what the
duo actually did in the studio as from what people will think once they hear
it. “That’s why we named it She & Him,” says Ward. “We didn’t want people
to have these preconceived notions of what an actor and a musician do when they
collaborate. Never underestimate Zooey.”
“There were no expectations — that was the great part,” says
Deschanel. “We just knew that we each wanted to work with each other and that
something would come from that desire. Here’s what I write, here’s someone I
like who thinks kinda like me. We get along. The magic wasn’t just the big
drums or the songs. It’s the trust… and how exciting it was to hear come to
life. Why do you think we’re calling it Vol.
[Photo Credit: Autumn DeWilde]