She & Him

Don’t Look Back:
She & Him Turn Up the Volume

With movies, a sequel always has to be bigger and bolder and splashier. One doesn’t really consider a musical act’s albums quite the same way, but when your first record is titled Volume One and your second Volume Two, with related cover artwork, it does tend to imply that they are mere chapters of a larger whole. Singer, songwriter and actress Zooey Deschanel may not look at it that way, but her second album under the banner She & Him, her collaboration with fellow musician M. (Matt) Ward, is noticeably more confident and ambitious than the first in its arrangements and performances. As with any worthy sequel, if the simplicity and pleasant surprise of She & Him’s 2008 debut is missed, the ongoing charm of the project, the good vibes these guys stir in your innards, not to mention the sincere care and taste put into the material, makes Volume Two a praiseworthy second act, and a reassuring reminder that She & Him is no mere vanity-fueled toss-off. They’re for real. They’ve got stayin’ power.

“I think we were just sorta more comfortable in our roles [this time], more confident,” offers Deschanel during a recent phone chat. “We had more resources as well. We made the first record without a label, and then we brought it to labels after it was finished up. [Now] we have an amazing label [Merge], and so it felt more like, you know, a machine had been running a little bit longer.”

For his part, Ward says he “wanted to take the record in the same direction as Volume One,” but “push it farther and see what would happen. Zooey’s songs on the new record are a little more involved and more emotional.”

Ward says he didn’t know what to expect when he was first paired up with the actress to record a Richard & Linda Thompson song – “When I Get to the Border” – for the closing credits of her 2008 film The Go-Getter (shot in ’07). “I knew she had an unforgettable voice from seeing Elf years ago,” he says, but “I had no idea that she would be a great songwriter until I heard the demos.”

Deschanel, who turned 30 in January, had been making home demos of her songs for years. “I would record them all on my computer,” she says. “I kinda get very deep into [overdubbing] backing vocals. It was a little bit of an obsession, actually. That’s sort of like how it started. I was spending all my time making these recordings… I still like listening to them. It’s actually probably the most lo-fi sounding one, but I did an a cappella version of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ that was one of the first things I sent to Matt, and it’s on the first record.” It’s the brief closing song on that album, missing from the cover’s track-listing, and in case you haven’t heard it, it conveys a bit of the weird spookiness of a vintage 78, minus the pops and crackles. Thinking about it now, it’s no surprise it caught Ward’s ears.

“The chords, the melodies and the voice,” Ward responds when asked what qualities he likes most about Zooey’s songs. “We definitely have a love for older ideas in music. I could talk to you all day about my favorite guitarists and productions from the last century. Zooey could talk to you all day about older girl groups from the last century…”

I’m always curious when young musicians and songwriters are so drawn to inspirations from older times. Most young people aren’t listening to Gershwin, or Rogers and Hart, Stan Getz or Chet Baker, all of whom Deschanel has cited as big influences. So where’d that interest come from? Her parents? Siblings? Why wasn’t she out wasting her time with mall-punk or ‘N Sync like most kids were at that time?

“Well, not that I was only into the ’30s [music], I like a lot of different things,” she tells me. “My parents listened to Bob Dylan and Neil Young and stuff like that. The standards, I got into because I did theater as a kid, and I heard a lot of those songs, I got years of that. There’s an old model of songwriting that I found interesting. In terms of musical education, there’s no one, no group of songwriters, better to study than the Gershwins, the Cole Porters, the Rogers and Harts. The 1920s and ’30s songwriters really laid the groundwork for a lot of what was to come. And then when I did my cabaret act [If All The Stars Were Pretty Babies], we would always have to change the keys of all the music. We had a piano player, but I would transpose all the music, just ’cause it was easier – that way I could pass out the music to everybody, and we’d all be in the right keys. And so I would play through everything on the piano, just while transposing. So that was a really great education in itself, because here are these great chords that you don’t hear in [modern] pop music.”

Some people, of course, have drawn a connection between what She & Him are doing and that whole California pop and singer-songwriter thing in the early and mid ’70s. Zooey confirms that she “definitely” feels a kinship with that period, especially “Carole King, one of my favorite songwriters,” not to mention “Linda Ronstadt vocally, and I mean, I grew up listening to Jackson Browne.” And then there’s the whole west coast sound of the 1960s. “We both love the Beach Boys, and a million other things,” offers Ward.

I find it sort of funny, then, that Ward suggested the NRBQ song She & Him cover on Volume Two, “Ridin’ In My Car,” and Deschanel brought in the Skeeter Davis song for them to do, “Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” yet at the time neither one of them realized that NRBQ and late country music pioneer Davis had recorded an album together (1985’s She Sings, They Play), let alone that Davis was married to NRBQ bassist Joey Spampinato.

“Yeah, well we found out simultaneously!” Deschanel laughs. “I love Skeeter Davis, and he loves NRBQ, and then I ended up loving NRBQ, and he loves Skeeter Davis now. But at the same time, like, literally, I was in a record store, and found that Skeeter Davis/NRBQ record, and Matt, on iTunes, had found it at the same time. Like the same day! It was pretty amazing!”

One vocalist who’s definitely not a huge influence on Zooey is Janis Joplin, yet Deschanel spent considerable time a few years’ back learning to sing in Joplin’s particularly ravaged style – about as far removed from Zooey’s natural voice as could be – for a planned bio-pic (later scrapped) about the troubled rock icon.

“That was really hard!” Deschanel underscores. “I mean, she kind of beat the heck out of her vocal chords! But I have a really amazing voice teacher that I’ve worked with since I was a teenager who was helping me, and we actually kind of got it to a point where I could do that. I had to, like, run on the treadmill and sing every day and stuff, for stamina. And then the movie never got made! It was pretty lame! I’ve kind of separated myself from it [now].”

It sometimes seems like nearly every film Zooey makes has some sort of music connection, directly or indirectly. But she might not be singing in I’m With the Band, a planned HBO adaptation of Pamela Des Barres’ infamous autobiography about her wild days as a rock ‘n’ roll groupie, with Deschanel in the lead role.

“I’m not exactly playing Pamela Des Barres,” she clarifies. “We optioned that book, but I’m not playing Pamela. It’s roughly based on the book, but it’s a different story. It’s not finished yet, it’s still in development, but it’s the spirit and the time period, but it’s not the exact characters or anything.”

So it’s like The Rose was the story of Janis Joplin but not really?

“Not even as close as that.”

Do groupies like that even exist anymore?

“I don’t really know,” Zooey laughs. She has, of course, been involved with a few band types. She dated fellow musician/actor Jason Schwartzman for a while, and they wrote Volume One‘s “Sweet Darlin'” together. Last September she married longtime boyfriend Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and The Postal Service. But situations like that are far removed from the hedonistic backstage groupie heyday of the ’70s, like comparing Nilla wafers to hash brownies. “I mean, we have fans,” Deschanel continues, speaking on behalf of She & Him. “But we generally wouldn’t open ourselves up, necessarily, to people we didn’t know, like hanging out. But we’re not the kind of band that would attract groupies, I don’t think… Maybe we do and I just don’t know it!”