Since 2006, She & Him—the duo of Zooey Deschanel and Matt Ward, who records as M. Ward—have been making rich and woozy pop songs that nod to different genres (folk, country, jazz) but are chiefly defined by atmosphere. She & Him’s records—there are seven to date—feel as though they’ve been engineered for playback on a crackly AM radio, piped out the open window of some bohemian cabana while a pair of wooden-beaded curtains click in the breeze. It makes sense, then, that for their most recent collaboration Deschanel and Ward took on the dazzling, intricate songs of Brian Wilson, the co-founder of the Beach Boys and the ur-voice of lonesome, sun-drenched, multitracked Americana. Wilson, who is eighty, suffered a psychotic break in the mid-nineteen-sixties, which may have been exacerbated by drug use, and which left him increasingly eccentric and reclusive. In recent years, however, he has been prolific: last November, he released “At My Piano,” a collection of instrumental versions of songs by the Beach Boys, and “Long Promised Road,” the soundtrack to a documentary about his life and music. When She & Him débuted “Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson” earlier this month, Wilson chimed in with a giddy statement of support: “The harmonies are beautiful and right on. I love this record!”
Deschanel and Ward have each had fruitful careers outside of She & Him—Deschanel as an actress, best known for starring on the Fox series “New Girl” in the course of its seven-season run (and for a memorable turn as the Simon & Garfunkel-lovinging, record-spinning, cool older sister in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous”), and Ward as a singer and songwriter, whose exquisitely composed and recorded folk rock sometimes recalls the pathos and beauty of Alex Chilton. Deschanel and Ward and I scrapped plans to meet in person after Deschanel tested positive for COVID; instead, we spoke over Zoom. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Zooey, how are you feeling?
ZOOEY DESCHANEL: I feel great. I’m on day ten, so basically it’s all done. I felt fine from day three on, and then I was just stuck at home for a week, twiddling my thumbs. But, you know, it’s good to be bored sometimes.
Being bored always reminds me of being a little kid and squirming in the back seat of my parents’ sedan. Sometimes, from that boredom, things sprout up that are surprising and weird and fun.
Z.D.: Totally. I completely agree. In fact, my most creative time was probably childhood, pre-smartphone. Smartphones are amazing for so many reasons, but I was more creative before there were constant apps to entertain me.
I believe all three of us are part of what’s probably the last generation to come of age before that technology was ubiquitous.
Z.D.: A special little micro-gen!
This feels like a good time to ask how each of you has weathered the strange tumult of the past few years, when live performance essentially stopped, and we all turned inward, in both literal and figurative ways.
MATT WARD: When She & Him did a Christmas record years ago, Zooey and I realized we had something in common—maybe “obsession” is a good word—when it came to Brian Wilson’s work. When COVID started, it was the perfect time for me to get my home studio going and start learning all these incredibly complex Brian Wilson songs. We knew that whatever we had to do—whatever we could do—we’d have to do on our own.
Z.D.: I have two little kids. I took a bit of time off when I had them, and right when I was, like, “All right, ready to start workin’ again,” the pandemic hit. So I had a lot of creative energy that needed to be expressed. Brian Wilson’s tunes brought me so much happiness in a time that was difficult for everybody. Breaking down those harmonies was fun and challenging and sometimes mind-numbing. It was also the first time that Matt and I had recorded a record remotely, using a correspondence model. Matt would lay down a bunch of tracks and send them to me, and I would go in the studio here with Pierre de Reeder, who has engineered a lot of our records. I would just do vocals. It was as if I had no job on this record other than singing backing vocals for eight hours a day. It was the perfect antidote to an otherwise strange time. Both Matt and I grew up in Southern California. Brian Wilson was my musical hero growing up, even though it was already on the oldies radio when I was a kid. Did you listen to K-Earth 101?
M.W.: I did.
Z.D.: So, there’s this radio station here—
M.W.: [Sings jingle.] K-Earth 101 . . .
Z.D.: And they would play the Beach Boys, Beatles, all the good stuff. I wasn’t listening to pop—I was never listening to modern pop music. The Beach Boys felt like home-town heroes. Their music went hand in hand with the Southern California summer. Later, in my teen years, I discovered the more obscure Beach Boys records, like “Surf’s Up” and “Sunflower.”
Matt, I’m curious about your history with the Beach Boys.
M.W.: Like Zooey, I heard them all the time on the radio—they were the simplest, most beautiful melodies. It wasn’t until I started learning these songs on guitar that I realized they’re not simple at all; they’re incredibly complex. When you’re younger, and you hear something like “In My Room,” you think, How hard could that song be to learn? The spirit of it is so simple. The melody seems so simple. But, when you’re at your piano or your guitar, you realize—
Z.D.: Not simple. [Laughs.]
M.W.: That’s one of the magical things about his songwriting.
Z.D.: A lot of the songs change keys four times—and you don’t even notice it.
M.W.: Anyone who plays piano or guitar will understand what I mean when I say it takes many years to try and decode these songs. In a way, it was the pandemic-perfect project, like Zooey was saying. There’s so much joy in his music. It was a lifesaver.
You’re both from Southern California. For me, as a New Yorker, and as someone who was born and raised on the East Coast, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about what that means, in terms of your respective world views, aesthetics, whatever. For lack of a better word—or maybe this is the exact right word—there’s a vibe. How would each of you describe it?
Z.D.: I grew up here, and I love it. I have so many memories of it always being sunny. You lie on the grass and look through your eyelashes at the sun, and you do that for hours. It’s that boredom we were just talking about—a good boredom. Sitting in the back seat of a car, hearing the Beach Boys on the radio, going to the beach. There was kind of an endless-summer vibe. As a kid, I lived abroad while my dad was working [as a cinematographer and director] in the Seychelles Islands, in Belgrade, in London, and I was always so homesick for L.A. It had even more of a mythical status in my mind because I had it taken away from me. In London, it would get dark at 3 P.M. in the winter, and I’d just think about California Christmas, which is sunny and beautiful. Even though I loved the places I went to, and have fond memories of them, I was so homesick. When we lived abroad, we would listen to “Surfin’ U.S.A.” just to hear the name of our neighborhood. I grew up in a little part of L.A. called Pacific Palisades. They actually say Matt’s home town, too—they say, “Pacific Palisades,” and then they say, “Ventura County Line.” Growing up, I’d be like, “Pacific Palisades! Pacific Palisades! That’s our home!” For me, it’s kind of wrapped up in nostalgia, and in the idealism of youth.
To some degree that feeling seems baked into the landscape in Los Angeles. Sometimes on Instagram I’ll see one of those golden-hour pictures of L.A., and it’s 6 P.M., it’s January, and it’s pink and it’s orange and it’s warm and soft and glowing—
Z.D.: [Laughs.] And it is so nice. L.A. itself is an Instagram filter.
M.W.: Maybe someone would disagree with me, but I think Brian invented that. Just the idea that music can feel like sunshine—
Z.D.: Like summer.
M.W.: “The Warmth of the Sun”—I think Brian invented that. It’s something Zooey and I are celebrating on this record. It’s fun to be able to talk to people from around the world about his music because, growing up, we took it for granted, and we thought that feeling had always existed. But he invented it.
It was obviously important to you both that these songs feel like reimaginings, not rote covers. With a track as iconic as, say, “Don’t Worry Baby,” how do you take it apart and stitch it back together?
M.W.: I think it comes down to starting with the barest bones. For me, it’s always vocals and acoustic guitar in an alternate tuning. For “Don’t Worry Baby,” I knew we wanted to experiment with different rhythms. Neither Zooey nor I is interested at all in copycatting any of Brian’s songs, or anyone else’s, because there’s just no fun in that.
Z.D.: Matt had this nice, easy rhythm-guitar part, and he’s singing most of the lead. The protagonist of the song is saying, “And she says, ‘Don’t worry, baby.’ ” So joining Matt on those choruses allows for a perspective shift; rather than him just talking about her, it’s a female voice coming in. It was fun to play with the narrative there.
M.W.: During the recording of “Don’t Worry Baby,” I remember listening to this Fleetwood Mac song called “Over My Head.” I wanted to borrow my favorite parts of Mick Fleetwood’s drums on that song.
Brian Wilson is perhaps one of the greatest examples of a musician who used the studio as a new and dynamic instrument. For each of you, how does production or the idea of production influence your process?
Z.D.: We always embrace an organic process. This is the record that had to be because this was the time we were in. We have a lot of tracks that we’ve recorded all in one room. We’re not people that use a lot of modern tricks. We never use Auto-Tune, and we usually record on tape if we’re together. Splicing a million things together is definitely not our vibe. We usually go for a performance. I think of it as a through line—especially for a vocal melody, we don’t want to splice a million takes. But I know people who will splice word by word so that it’s perfect. We embrace the imperfections because the vocal through line and that story are more important to us than having it be perfect. That’s very much Matt’s sensibility. He really taught me, especially when we were first working together, how to create an authentic sound—never adding so much that the soul is lost.
M.W.: When we made our Christmas record, Zooey and I talked about how there are so many overcooked versions of these songs; we said to ourselves, Why don’t we get together and try to make a version that’s just reliant on human energy instead of studio tricks or a cast of thousands? It was similar for these songs. We’ve all heard versions of these songs where the artist probably spent too much time in the studio. All I know is that Zooey and I love simplicity. And, when we do cover songs, something happens that I can’t explain.
Z.D.: There’s joy. Both Matt and I just enjoy playing through songs that we love. Whenever we’re on tour for long periods of time, we always play stuff backstage, and then we’ll be, like, “Oh, let’s play this tonight!” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” started that way. We worked it out backstage. It was a totally different version—it was just Matt on guitar, and I was playing uke, and we just sang together. It’s just fun.
Every once in a while I meet a musician and I think, Man, I’m not sure you even really like music.
Z.D.: I’ve noticed the same thing. Then why do this?
There’s something very human and very celebratory about these covers: this is a song we love, and here we are, singing it.
M.W.: Covering other people’s songs is how I learned to be a better guitar player. When I was fifteen years old and first started playing, I never had a teacher, but I had all these Beatles chord books. That’s how I learned how to play a diminished chord. If it wasn’t for learning other people’s songs, where would I be? Even at this age, it’s still the way that I learn what the instrument can do. It’s still the way that I learn what songwriting can do. When you study Brian’s catalogue—and Zooey and I have only scratched the surface—you learn about chord progressions, you learn so much about harmony. It’s a master class.
Z.D.: I actually had a similar experience to Matt. I started out doing jazz and cabaret. I would have to transpose all the music for the band because I didn’t want to pay extra to have somebody else do it. I would play through to make sure the transposition was O.K. on the piano, and I’d be, like, “What is this chord?” Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, all the classic songwriters. Playing through songs is an education in songwriting, because everybody does it differently.
You both appeared on “No Pier Pressure,” one of Wilson’s solo records, from 2015. What do you remember about those sessions?
Z.D.: I interviewed him for MySpace Music, probably in 2008. I don’t want to say we’re stalkers, but Matt and I—we like him so much. I once went to see him perform five nights in a row. Eventually, I made friends with his band and his family and his manager. It was really fun, and a unique experience, to get to be with him in the studio.
M.W.: It was an honor to be invited. Zooey and I weren’t sure if Brian would be in the studio when we were there. But he was there, and it was a little bit like stepping into the past, seeing Brian Wilson on the other side of the glass. What a trip.
Z.D.: We’d released our first Christmas record at that point, and, in the studio, we played him “Christmas Day,” which was one of his Christmas songs. And he goes, “Oh, who did the harmony?” Matt was like, “Zooey did!” I was like, “Ahhhh!” And he was like, “I like them.” Whaaaaat?
M.W.: Later, I got this beautiful guitar on my doorstep, and Zooey got a beautiful microphone.
Z.D.: I still use the microphone. I use it on everything now; I take it with me to any session I do. I used it on this whole record. I did the movie “Trolls” and I used that mike. Everyone was, like, “Oooh, Zooey with her fancy mike!” I was the only person to bring a mike. I think it’s good for vocalists to understand what sounds good on their voice. Brian picked this microphone for me. I had requested another microphone, and I got to the studio and they said, “We think you’d be better with this mike.” And then they gave it to me. It was pretty special.
How did Wilson himself come to guest on “Melt Away”?
Z.D.: I didn’t want to sing the vocals [on “Do It Again”] because it just wasn’t in my wheelhouse. I thought Matt was going to sing it, and he was, like, “Nah, that’s not really in my wheelhouse, either. Maybe let’s ask an artist that we love to sing on it.” We talked about a couple people, and then I was, like, “Wait, what about Brian?”
M.W.: And he said yes. We’re still freaking out about that.
Wilson’s music can be dark and infused with longing, but there’s also often a tenderness and a nearly childlike innocence to his lyrics and melodies—was it hard to tap into that sweetness during such a strange and tumultuous time?
Z.D.: That’s a really interesting question. I think my personal voice as a songwriter is idealistic and not jaded, so I related to that point of view. I tend toward musical sincerity. I’m not super into being jaded. I find it kind of sophomoric. I really appreciated that quality about the songs.
M.W.: I think that’s one of Zooey’s strengths as a vocalist—that she’s able to tap into that in a way that’s genuine. Brian Wilson’s songs have sentimentality built in; it seemed like a perfect marriage between Zooey’s instincts and these songs. That’s where I think the heart of the record is—it’s that communication.
Z.D.: I feel like the Beach Boys gave the sweetest songs to Carl [Wilson]. Carl had the sweetest voice of all. Brian’s voice is also sweet, but I would say it has more of an edge, which is why it cuts through. But it’s a hallmark of all the Wilsons and the extended family; there is an optimism if not an innocence to their vocals. The Beach Boys would triple the backing vocals, but they’d record around one mike. It’s why the sound is so tight, and why it’s so hard to break those vocals down—because they’re all singing together.
M.W.: A lot of the songwriting is dark, but, when you combine sadness with heartbreaking beauty, it makes people cry. He’s got so many songs that are tear-inducing. It’s so powerful.
Z.D.: When I interviewed him back in the day, there was a rumor that he would quadruple harmony parts. So I was just selfishly, like, “Do you quadruple your vocals?” He said, “No.” He would answer every question with just a one-word or one-sentence answer. He said, “No. I triple them. Triples sound like angels’ choirs.” So, forevermore, I always do that. That’s why there are like, forty-five vocal tracks on every She & Him song. I will stack and stack and stack vocals, and I triple every harmony part, pretty much. On the first record, I think I doubled—we were also trying to do everything on tape with zero digital interference. Then, on the second record, I started tripling everything, and he’s right. There’s something about a triple . . . angels’ choirs.
M.W.: Even if you’re singing lyrics like “It kills my soul” on “’Til I Die.” When you have happy lyrics combined with major-seventh chords or a bright chord progression, it can sometimes be too sticky. Or, if you have minor chords, and you’re singing really dark lyrics—it’s hard to relate to those songs, too. So I think when you combine happy lyrics with minor chords—or, on the flip side, when you combine sad lyrics with happy chords—it creates depth. With Brian’s songs, I’m not going to pretend that I know the formula, because there is no formula. But there are so many examples of Brian combining just heartbreaking beauty with a mixture of happy and sad sentiments. For that reason, I’m glad we chose his songs during the pandemic—because they kept us buoyant. I love Joy Division, but I’m glad we didn’t spend two years learning Ian Curtis songs.
Z.D.: I have to agree. It is so much more interesting to listen to music that has the complexity to hold two opposing emotions. They often say irony is very important for good songwriting, and, in a way, juxtaposing, say, a sad lyrical direction with a major-chord progression, or happy lyrics with a minor-chord progression—that’s a way of creating that complexity.
M.W.: It’s so much easier to be jaded and write songs. You never get that on any of Brian Wilson’s songs—that’s what keeps them enduring.
She & Him have recorded a lot of music from different eras, and, intentionally or not, there seems to be a kind of nostalgia inherent to your music together. How does nostalgia function in each of your lives?
M.W.: I think the past is the future. What do you think, Zooey?
Z.D.: I would agree with you. But I also really like the studio sensibility of a bygone era. And the songwriting. I’ll see the credits on a modern pop song, and there are fifteen writers. How do you even write with fifteen people? I think the way that people did things in the past makes a bit more sense to me. No judgment at all, because obviously people are doing lots of good stuff now. I think maybe we just relate to a different sensibility.
M.W.: Zooey and I both get so much inspiration from so many different decades of music. Whether something is seen as nostalgic or not nostalgic doesn’t really enter into our minds too much. I think all music is connected to the past. If someone comes out with a record tomorrow and they claim that it’s totally new music, then they just don’t know any history. New ideas come from combining old ideas together, and the circle keeps going around and around.
And that’s what you mean by “the past is the future”?
M.W.: Yes. I was being oblique when I said that. I think, no matter what industry you’re talking about, we’re constantly taking from the past.
You’ve been making music together since 2006. How has your collaborative spirit evolved in that time? What have you learned about each other?
M.W.: Zooey has taught me so much about recording and so much about vocal harmonies. She’s a bit of an encyclopedia about girl groups.
Z.D.: I had been writing all these songs, and I didn’t know who to trust them with. When I met Matt, I knew he was the person—“That is the person who gets me.” Each project is its own thing, and it never feels stale. I wrote a song for “Volume 3” called “Never Wanted Your Love.” I’d written it on piano, really slow, almost like a dirge. We recorded it for “Volume One,” but it didn’t make the cut. We put it back on our list for “Volume 3,” and I remember walking in the studio and Matt was playing the song on guitar. He’d sped it way up and had this new strumming pattern. It just gave the song new life. That’s what a producer ideally should be doing—providing perspective, figuring out a way to make the song sound its best.
M.W.: We’re never stepping on each other’s toes in the studio. The things that Zooey is most passionate about go perfectly with the things I’m most passionate about.
Z.D.: Especially on this one, he’d be, like, “O.K., I tracked drums, guitar, bass,” and then he’d send it to me, and I’d be like, “Oh, this is fun, it’s like a little present.” I’m always just so excited to hear what Matt’s point of view is, musically.
Do either of you have any oddball influences? Things your listeners might not expect from you?
M.W.: So many—so many. Are you talking about guilty pleasures, Amanda?
Not necessarily guilty—for example, I think I would be surprised if you told me you were really into Anthrax. Or if Zooey were really into, say, Drake.
Z.D.: I do have an appreciation for Drake!
M.W.: My upbringing was just devouring guitar players—I shouldn’t say devouring guitar players. I should say devouring guitars . . . is that a Debbie Harry lyric?
Z.D.: Oh, in “Rapture”? “Now he only eats guitars!” [Laughs.]
M.W.: I was devouring guitar players who used alternate tunings. When I was in high school, I got exposed to John Fahey, to Joni Mitchell, and to Sonic Youth. Something about Sonic Youth’s guitars stuck with me. None of our records sound remotely like Sonic Youth, or any of the music that they invented, but it’s still a big part of how I see the guitar—how I see deconstructing the guitar. Another one is Sade. She’s a huge influence. I devoured all of her records, all of her songs. Those are just the first two names that come to mind.
Z.D.: I love disco. I have always loved disco, since I was a kid. I don’t know why. I guess it feels like fun, and nothing but fun. I love the Bee Gees’ production, and how they use guitars as percussion. I’m not a crazy percussive singer, so, when I listen to a Bee Gees song, I appreciate their ability to infuse the rhythm into the vocal melodies. I remember, in high school, I loved disco and it wasn’t cool. This was the nineties. That was not a cool time to like disco. But I loved it, and I remember there was some kid who kind of challenged me on it—
M.W.: Disco bullied!
Z.D.: We had a whole discourse about it. ♦