She & Him
SHE & HIM make music for an eternal springtime, when the temperature is warm enough to go riding with the top (or at least the windows) rolled down and the radio turned up. They occupy an alternate universe where the saddest of songs feel as warm as sun showers; the rain may be coming down, but somewhere nearby, everything looks bright. What began as a fascinating, no-strings-attached collaboration on 2008’s Volume One has evolved into a bona fide, touring band, and She & Him are here to stay. Zooey Deschanel and Matt Ward are as comfortable and as complementary a musical pair as Les Paul and Mary Ford; hearing them again on Volume Two feels like getting together with two old friends. This time, the harmonies have grown more angelically layered, the string arrangements more dramatic, the songwriting even sharper and more confident. But, as with Volume One, the prevailing mood is bittersweet, dreamy, and romantic.
The success of She & Him’s Volume One came out of left field, as Deschanel and Ward’s seemingly unlikely pairing—the effervescent actress-songwriter and the sought-after yet self-effacing guitarist—proved to sound absolutely right. When the record, packed full of Deschanel’s wondrous songs, was finished, they didn’t so much announce themselves as simply step up to the mic and start playing. Their choices of band moniker and album titles were deliberate; as Deschanel told the New York Times: “I wanted a name that was very humble, modest and anonymous.” Matt agrees: “We wanted the music to come first, which sort of explains the band name as well as the names of the records. The songs are what we want people to remember.”
They successfully got through their first gigs under the media glare of Noise Pop and South by Southwest, following those performances with a short summer tour and an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. Critics were as smitten as their listeners. Paste named Volume One its Album of the Year. The BBC declared, “All the ups and downs of young romance are faithfully recreated in loving fidelity and a variety of styles to evoke that teary-eyed yesteryear pop ambience.” Spin simply decided, “They both seem to be having a blast.”
“We instinctually landed on this process while making Volume One,” explains Ward, “that Zooey would write the music and the lyrics and I would produce and arrange. It’s been the most natural extension of our interests and abilities. Using the back and forth between voices and guitars is the main force of the music, and we both have a great love for using harmonies. I think the songs lend themselves to production styles that I love and that she loves. There’s no need to change it now, so the process for Volume Two is exactly the same: Zooey writes everything, I produce, and we both bring our ideas to the studio.”
Volume Two was recorded in Los Angeles (where She lives) and Portland, OR (where Him resides). Joining them for these sessions was engineer, bassist and occasional backing vocalist Mike Coykendall. Notes Deschanel, “I do the bulk of the harmonies, then Matt will fill in some sonic space that I just cannot fill because he has that incredibly raspy, soulful voice. We cover different emotional ground. It’s a cool sort of tool to use. I hear Matt’s voice here or my voice there. Together we can sound like a lot of people. And Coykendall is quite a good singer too.”
“I think we both went for it a little bit more, so to speak,” says Deschanel. “I definitely got more ambitious with my backing vocal arrangements. That’s a real passion for me.” The closing song on Volume Two illustrates her point: “Thieves,” for example, builds to a Roy Orbison-like grandeur and “If You Can’t Sleep” floats on clouds of multi-tracked vocals. “I think we were both more comfortable,” she continues. “This time we had a little more opportunity to reflect. Some of the production is extremely complex. ‘Home,’ for example, is a very elaborate piece production-wise; that was the longest Matt has spent on one of our songs. It’s very, very lush.”
Prior to forming She & Him, Deschanel had been writing and secretly stockpiling tunes for years. She agreed to let Ward hear them after the two collaborated on a Richard and Linda Thompson cover for an indie film, The Go-Getter, that she was starring in and Ward was scoring. Like many movie fans, Ward had first heard her sing on screen in the disarmingly affecting Elf and was intrigued. As Deschanel recounts, “I explored the idea of doing my own stuff with other people but hadn’t found anyone who I’d really trusted. Then I met Matt. He was the perfect person, and the only person who shared my taste. We’re almost always coming from the same point of view musically.”
“I had no idea what I was going to hear when I first got her songs,” admits Ward. “I think Volume One surprised a lot of people when they opened up the package and learned that she wrote all these songs. There are a lot of people who write music so that they can take their audience to a dark night of their own soul or to get something really heavy off their chest. I don’t think Zooey looks at music that way, and I think that’s a huge part of where her songwriting is coming from. Certain people write songs to make other people feel good. When I think about some of my favorite singers, like Sam Cooke or people of that generation, I think that they saw their gift as the ability to make people feel better, to feel happy. It’s contagious to be around people like that.”
“I would say all my influences are older, more classic songwriters,” Deschanel elaborates, “from Cole Porter and Gershwin to Carole King and Roy Orbison and Bobbie Gentry. People always expect you to be a fan of what’s happening now, but the things I gravitate toward are older and more worn.”
On Volume Two, their choice of cover songs echoes the themes in Deschanel’s original material. NRBQ’s “Riding in My Car” should have been a hit, and She & Him have been smart enough to revive it. Their other cover, “Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” is a country-pop shuffle made famous by Skeeter Davis. Though better known for the morose ballad “End of the World,” this one is a cool-headed kiss-off—a downbeat subject handled in a lighthearted manner, making for the perfect balance of happy and sad, a trademark of She & Him.
“I’m really interested in trying to find balance in every production,” says Ward. “One of my favorite amusements in the studio is to try and create as much of a contrast between dark and light as I can, to either complement or go against the lyrics in the mix. I guess I believe good production should be like a good photograph, which is a great contrast between dark and light. Fortunately, Zooey has lots of characters and songs that go back and forth quickly between these darker and lighter shades. That’s half of the process in production: making sure that nothing gets too sunny or washed out or that nothing gets too dark or lopsided. Some of the best older songs had very major chord progressions and really sad lyrics. Somehow it all evens out, creating this perfect picture of life. Because life is not always sunny, it’s not always dark—it’s somewhere in between.”