Zooey Deschanel is at a loss for words. It's not that the singer and actress cannot say anything at all. She bubbles in her Southern California-meets-Midwest drawl quite easily, but, at the moment, she cannot find the right word to describe her second She & Him album with musician and producer M. Ward.
“I'm, well, not so good at articulating this, really,” she says. “I want to give a good answer, but I'm more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants person. I'm intuitive with everything I do creatively, and I'm not really interested in analyzing what I do, I just make it.”
Deschanel might not know exactly how she does it, but she has become a critically and commercially successful crossover artist. That dreadful title “actor-turned-anything” typically creates nothing less than toxic. Jordan Catalano's Frozen Embryos days are more palatable than Jared Leto's 30 Seconds to Mars. Scarlett Johansson collaborated with TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek for a Tom Waits cover album and still managed not to sound decent. And then there's Lindsay Lohan, whose only musical success was dancing to a Melvins song during the strip-club scene of I Know Who Killed Me.
But somehow, Deschanel is different. Her acting career began by chance. She was asked to audition for film roles after a manager saw her perform in a high school musical. The decision to follow the advice of that manager, the same one she uses today, moved Deschanel into the film world.
“At the time, I never realized all that would come of it,” Deschanel says, but I was always into music. In high school, I even had a karaoke machine that I turned into a multitrack recorder.”
Matt Ward was introduced to Deschanel's slow-burning, slightly twangy voice through her acting. “The first time I heard her voice was in the movie Elf, and it sounded to me like somebody who made a living singing,” Ward says over the phone. “She has a very unforgettable, very classic-sounding voice. She kept her songs close to her chest and didn't really feel comfortable sharing them with anyone. It was just a matter of time until people discovered her songwriting.”
Ward and Deschanel began trading demos, creating the creative dialogue that eventually became She & Him. She would provide the lyrics and the song structure, while he would fill out the sound with lush orchestration. They came from similar musical and cultural backgrounds. They were both reared in the Los Angeles area (Ward in Ventura county, Deschanel in West L.A.) and shared overlapping record collections.
Their 2006 debut, Volume 1, evoked the 45 rpm era: “Sentimental Heart” is imbued with June Carter sass, “I Was Made for You” channels the Ronettes, and “Black Hole” is a doo-wop candy shell coating the melancholy of being “alone on a bike built for two.” Volume 2, released earlier this year, revisits She & Him's buttoned-down pop, but is brushed into more contemporary hues, reverberating with Ward's guitar work and indie sensibilities. Still, She & Him's vintage sound is inescapable as Deschanel's humming leads a sing-along over the shuffling snares of “Gonna Get Along Without You Now.”
The albums feel as though they could have been a double album, encapsulating a flow of heartland hits and nuclear-age commercial jingles. The four years between them had little effect on the idea of She & Him. Through movies, side projects and weddings (Deschanel got hitched to Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard in September 2009), they kept energized with creativity.
“After we finished the first tour, we literally jumped back into the studio and started writing, so when we sat down to make Volume 2, it wasn't like, 'Hello there, stranger,'” Deschanel says.
She & Him make music to listen to outside over a decidedly unclassy glass of white wine with ice cubes in it. The smell of barbecue wafts by, scored by the sound of a commercial jet liner taking off from an adjacent airport, that ever-revolving door in and out of suburbia. Forget the cover of Spoon's Transference: She & Him could be a much better sound track to William Eggleston's photographs.
But none of that is precisely what Deschanel had in mind. Her songwriting process, like the sound of her music, is not heady or contrived.
“It's interesting to hear how people interpret these songs,” she says. “They're not about characters really, but more about perspectives. And I never really write with a scene in mind, and I'm not precious about where I write a song. All I need is a guitar or a piano, and a little time.”
She & Him play as part of a bill with Swell Season and the Bird and the Bee (see Music Picks) on Sunday, July 18, at the Hollywood Bowl.