When director Martin Hynes requested a duet from actress Zooey Deschanel (“Elf,” Showtime’s “Weeds”) and composer (and indie singer/songwriter) M. Ward for the soundtrack of “The Go-Getter,” he set in motion something that went beyond his film. Intrigued by the collaboration, Deschanel and Ward continued working together as She & Him, with She providing layer after layer of girl-group vocals and Him offering studio expertise.
The results can be heard on “Volume One,” a quirky studio project that recalls the Concretes playing Dusty Springfield with a slight country lilt. As she was gearing up to play South By Southwest, Deschanel spoke with Six Questions about finally making time for music, the importance of modesty and being an inspiration to flight attendants.
Marc Hirsh: I saw “Elf,” so I know you can sing. Why did it take you so long to make your first album?
Zooey Deschanel: Because I was so busy. I work almost completely year-round, since I was 18 or 19. It’s nine months a year, and then you’re out of town, (there are) crazy hours and all of the things that go with filmmaking, which is a pretty all-consuming business, although I’m very blessed to be a part of it. So I was writing tons of music in my spare time. I might be on location somewhere, and I’d go home and I’d have my guitar and my little keyboard or something and write music. Or if I was at home, on my piano. I’ve always been a late bloomer with a lot of things, just in general, so I think this was something that needed to come to fruition in this particular way.
Hirsh: Calling the album “Volume One” implies that this isn’t just a one-off project. How long have you been writing songs?
Deschanel: I’ve been writing music since I was about eight. I would write sporadically. I wrote a lot of music in high school. I guess the oldest song on the record (“I Thought I Saw Your Face”) is about eight years old. It’s the old “I had my whole life to write my first album and six months to write the second one.” I did, to some degree, but actually, a lot of the songs that ended up on the record, I wrote really recently. So it varies.
Hirsh: How did you decide to call the project She & Him? It’s descriptive but not particularly evocative.
Deschanel: Yeah, well, we were looking for something sort of anonymous. It suggests what it is, but I like that it’s modest. I feel like that’s an underrated virtue. It’s modest and it’s kind of anonymous, which I liked, because it reminds me of my own ideas about why music should be played, which is not to be a star. That was never my intention.
Hirsh: You’ve been kicking around the fringes of the music industry for years, going at least as far back as when you were in the Offspring’s “She’s Got Issue” video, and you’ve popped up here and there on other people’s records in the meantime. How different has it been working on your own album?
Deschanel: Well, I would say I know nothing about the music business, in a nice sort of way. I totally forgot I was in that music video. That’s so funny. (laughs) After we did the song for the soundtrack, I sent Matt my home demos, which I’d been stockpiling forever, and he thought it would be a good idea to get together and properly record everything. I thought of it like it was just a little present for myself: I love to play music, and this is fun, and let’s record this stuff in a way that we both like. That was exciting enough, so we just recorded it. There was no business in it until the very last minute, really. It was really as much of an extension of me writing the songs in my bedroom as it could possibly be.
Hirsh: How have you approached translating those songs to live performance?
Deschanel: It’s great, because we’ve had some really great people playing with us who really have studied the record and been able to recreate a lot of what was done. But I would need a choir of eight, probably, to do all of the backup vocals. In a sense, I like to think of the live performance as something different than the record, not necessarily looking to exactly recreate the record. Sometimes Matt and I just do duets folk-style. Part of the fun of seeing a live show is having it be different from the way that you hear it in your bedroom or wherever you listen to music.
Hirsh: Do you ever think back to your “Almost Famous” line, “This song explains why I’m leaving home to become a stewardess” and wonder if any of your own songs will one day possess the same power?
Deschanel: (laughs) I hadn’t thought of it, but it would be cool. I mean, the idea that it might help somebody out or help somebody make the decision to become a stewardess or otherwise… No, that’s one of the nice things about making music or making movies, is that art does have the power to affect people. I feel really privileged to be a part of that.