Living in the modern world without forsaking a charmingly typecast retro spirit sometimes tied to theatrical familial roots, old-fashioned composing thespian Zooey Deschanel amassed a number of eclectic original tunes ultimately given fuller arrangements by indie rock lynchpin, M. Ward, under the unassuming moniker, She & Him. Inspired in part by stalwart Tin Pan Alley tunesmith Cole Porter and jazzy Broadway icon George Gershwin, Deschanel displays a real flare for anything from nightclub cabaret to Brill Building whimsicality to antediluvian folk.
Deschanel, whose mother, Mary Jo Weir, starred in Twin Peaks, took a variety of acting roles before trying her hand at recording, receiving parts in sitcom, Veronica’s Closet, and a few movies (‘99s Mumford; ‘00s Almost Famous—as a ditzy ‘70s-styled stewardess; ‘06s Failure To Launch). Musically, she evokes the same dramatic propensity her father, celebrated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, brought to the big screen for the 1979 comedy, Being There.
Partnered with fellow west coast studio hound, M. (Matt) Ward, Deschanel’s lithe alto truly resonates, showing equal proclivity towards ‘60s girl group pop, baroque neo-classical orchestrations, and traditional county & western. Meeting during the filming of The Go-Getter, the harmonious twosome initially collaborated on a jubilant cover of Richard & Linda Thompson’s “When I Get To The Border.”
Forming a contagious union of music and words, Ward got his reluctant accomplice to hand over some homemade tapes with songs saved since childhood. On ‘08s wonderful entrée, Volume One, the burgeoning Los Angeles-born starlet proved to be stylistically diversified, never beholden to any one type or era of music, but proficient enough at each to be delightfully eloquent.
Besides replicating some long lost cabaret jazz diva for “Take It Back” as well as carefree western stylist Lucinda Williams on the choral linger climaxing Beatles cover “I Should Have Known Better,” Deschanel makes herself at home inside Ward’s percussive Phil Spector-derived Wall Of Sound during innocent trinket, “Sweet Darlin’.” Tinkled boogie piano anchors strummed acoustic ditty “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” is a smiley-faced happy-sad adolescent anecdote perfectly attuned to The Wizard Of Oz with its windswept lullaby glaze. Simple hymn-like whistled reminiscence “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today” becomes a mesmerizing elegy the Beach Boys could’ve harmonized a cappella. Similarly backdated, “I Was Made For You” dupes ‘60s pop gal pals like the Shangri-La’s and Ronettes.
But the striking debut also ventured into material conspicuously mimicking singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell: pedal-steeled “Change Is Hard” and temperate retreat “This Is Not A Test” (which nearly slips into Mitchell’s sensual “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio”). Proving to have one of the best crystalline pop voices since Aimee Mann went solo in the ‘90s, the multitalented lass (and Death Cab For Cutie front man Ben Gibbard’s sweetheart) really hits it out of the park on clear-voiced near-soprano gusher, “Sentimental Heart.”
If she wanted to, Deschanel could easily do commercial jingles for a living. But that’d lower the expectations she has fulfilled alongside pen pal Ward with She & Him’s superior Volume Two.
Herein, Ward’s fuller arrangements allow more colorful textural flavoring and richer symphonic embellishments to shine through. And Deshanel’s cuddly tender-hearted sentimentality never sounds better than when she challenges Lesley Gore’s sad girl deliverance on the gorgeously summery cello-string devotional “Don’t Look Back.” Then again, hazily misty-eyed ‘70s-related piano-strolled walk-in-the park “In The Sun” couldn’t be any catchier.
Onward, bittersweet tearjerker “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” (a Teresa Brewer original redone by Country headliner, Skeeter Davis, and bubblegum kiddie-core siblings, Patience & Prudence, in the ‘50s) revisits the Cowboy Junkies celestial hushed tonicity with stellar results. Gentle bossanova ukulele and forlorn “O Sole Mio” motifs underline the carefree Jimmy Buffett-attitude swaying tropical trinket “Lingering Still.” And the sedate beauty of enraptured ballads “Thieves” and “Me And You” cannot be denied. Moreover, are there many contemporary vocalists that can top the breezy romantic guilelessness given buoyant twee-pop sop “Over It Over Again” or majestic comforter “Home?”
It’s true. Several actresses have tried their hand at music. But most were unoriginal and less than inspiring, though Juliette Lewis’ Siouxsie Sioux neo-punk styling and Scarlett Johansson’s alluring synth-pop almost lived up to the hype. But it’s doubtful they could match Deschanel’s focus, clarity and compositional skill.
I spoke to She & Him’s feminine half during one hot June afternoon.
I believe in a fair world, ‘Don’t Look Back’ would top the charts. It reminded me of Lesley Gore’s cushion-y pop treatments.
Thanks. I love Lesley Gore. Generally, when I write music, I go for the more classic songwriters like Carole King and Neil Sedaka. Brill Building writers. These people really appeal to me.
Did your Hollywood parents inform your musical tastes?
Definitely the stuff I grew up with influenced my taste. I heard a lot of great stuff on the radio. Radio’s always been a fun way to discover music. I always listen to oldies. Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, records were becoming obsolete. My father had quite an extensive collection I was allowed to explore.
Is there a specific template you use when composing a song?
In a lot of ways, when I write songs I’ll think of a classic singer. I love to think, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to write a song for this or that artist?’ That gets me inspired.
Why’d you choose ‘In The Sun’ as the first single?
These decisions are by committee. I can’t remember exactly why it was chosen. It’s energetic. I really like them all. I try not to get too sensitive about what song is better than another, but I think people will like it as the first single.
Which version of ‘Gonna Get Along Without You Now’ were you most familiar with?
I had the Skeeter Davis version. I’ve always been a fan of hers. Matt and I both liked the song. Usually our covers are what we both like.
How has She & Him moved forward since the debut?
We’re more comfortable in our roles working together. It made the process quicker, and we were able to experiment with the production. Also, Matt got into arranging strings. I love doing and laying down backing vocals. I was able to add more complexities. We had the time and energy to make the second album more lush than the first. Sometimes a song needs very little, but it’s all about preserving the stories within the song. A lot of the songs on Volume One were older. ‘I Thought I Saw Your Face Today’ I wrote as a teenager. But a lot of the songs on Volume Two were new, except one or two that are six years old.
You spoke of multi-tracking backup voices. Multifarious singer Harry Nilsson was great at that. Is he influential?
I love Nilsson. He’s one of my favorite singer-songwriters—a fantastic singer with wonderful orchestral vocal arrangements. I love Harry all-around. Definitely Nilsson, Beach Boys and the Zombies were vocal influences.
Did you ever think of doing TV commercial jingles?
I hadn’t thought about it, but that’s not a bad idea. I love being able to write music and watch a song come alive. It’s a privilege to make a living composing music.
She & Him perform July 4 at Governors Island and July 6 at Manhattan’s Terminal 5.