We are in the backseat of a rented car, driving down a congested New York City street, when Zooey Deschanel takes the voice recorder from my hand and speaks into it with the intensity of Burt Lancaster’s commanding journalist in Sweet Smell of Success. “Hello? Hello?” she says, and then aims it squarely at singer-songwriter M. Ward.
But there isn’t much that these two don’t already know about each other. Four years and two albums into their musical collaboration as She & Him—their second folksy offering, Volume Two, is out this month- Deschanel, 30, and Ward, 36, come off like childhood friends. They swap high-fives when one of them enters the room. They finish each other’s sentences.
Deschanel refers to acting as her “day job.” When she isn’t writing, recording and performing with Ward, she has established herself as an indie pinup, bringing to life idiosyncratic women in All the Real Girls, The Good Girl, Elf and (500) Days of Summer.
Next, she’ll tackle two very different roles: a distressed damsel in David Gordon Green’s medieval stoner epic Your Highness, and Pamela Des Barres, a rock journalist, in the HBO series I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. (Coincidence led her here: Deschanel landed her first major film role in Almost Famous, as the main character’s flight attendant sister, after losing the part of “band- aide” Penny Lane, which was inspired by Des Barres, to Kate Hudson.) Meanwhile, Ward continues to record solo material in addition to tracks with Monsters of Folk, a supergroup that also consists of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis.
Our car arrives outside of the Bowery Hotel. There are a handful of paparazzi on the sidewalk. Ward doesn’t notice but Deschanel bolts for the entrance with her head down and coat collar up. Inside, over cups of tea, she says of the photographers, “They’re not here for me, but they’ll take my picture if they see me. I need to remember my big hat the next time I go out. It usually does the trick. They think they’re pretty smart, but I’m smarter.” Deschanel then puts the recorder on the table between she and him, and turns it on.
Teenage angst often results in bad poetry and confessional journal entries. Did you pour all of your angst into songwriting instead? Zooey Deschanel: We traveled a lot when I was really young. I had no friends, but I had a tiny keyboard. M. Ward: Your friend was the keyboard. I learned how to play guitar by going through the Beatles’ anthologies. Once I learned all those chords, I basically had the ammunition to destroy the competition. [Laughs.] Those are the building blocks of every great song. Whether it’s old music or new music, I hear the Beatles. Maybe I’m crazy. ZD: I don’t think you’re crazy! I couldn’t play more than one note at a time, so that was frustrating. I later learned about chords in school, and when I got home, I started teaching myself how to play piano. Before that, I had no way of writing down the music or recording the ideas.
Does either of you recall a moment when you first felt proud enough of your music to share it? ZD: I got a karaoke machine in high school. I used it to experiment, in a very primitive way, with multi-track recording. I remember playing those songs for my parents. MW: You should definitely try to dig those tapes out. ZD: I used to have so many things that have since disappeared. It was about six years ago that I started feeling comfortable enough to play my songs for a friend. I felt super-shy when I first started, but I got comfortable fast. The music is so organic, and such a true representation of myself, that it didn’t take long for me to feel really at ease.
Have your songs been inspired by things outside of music? MW: I was really into David Lynch. Even when I was in elementary school, my favorite movie was The Elephant Man. In my eighth-grade yearbook, all the kids listed their favorite movie as Superman or Star Trek. Mine was The Elephant Man. I was such a weird kid. ZD: Would it be bad—because it’s sort of music—if I said old musicals? I love Gigi, Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music. I love the colors and the way those movies have always made me feel. That’s kind of how I like to make people feel with music. It’s the way the Beach Boys make you feel. They share sweet optimism that makes me excited to be alive.
There’s something over-the-top about most musicals, intimations of which I’ve noticed in your music videos. ZD: I happen to think The Sound of Music is a really good movie—with a lot of singing. I’m not at all into over-the-top theatricality. That’s actually the opposite of how I like to feel. I’m very low-key. Subtle is good. I like things that will make me happy, things that are optimistic and sunny. I’m into sincerity in music and sincerity in art. If it doesn’t feel true, I don’t want to do it. Things that are too dramatic scare me. I think that’s why I don’t always fit into the world of performing arts. MW: Part of the genius of The Sound of Music is its storyline, which takes us from laughter to tears. You can be 5 years old or 95 years old and still be crazy about it. It’s pretty special when someone can figure out how to do that to humans. ZD: Plus, Julie Andrews kills it. She’s the bomb.
Zooey, I found out this morning that you will be starring in HBO’s I’m with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. Have either of you had any experience with overzealous fans? MW: There are overzealous fans… ZD: But we definitely don’t have groupies. MW: No one is like, “Call the cops!” ZD: We’re not exactly a party band. We drink tea. The HBO series is of a totally different time. Pamela [Des Barres, who wrote the 1987 memoir on which the series is based] is extremely innocent. These people were real music enthusiasts during a time when attitudes toward a lot of different things were changing. It’s not about groupies the way we know them today.
If not groupies, what is the biggest perk of being in a successful band? ZD: I always find it fun to plan what I’m going to wear on stage. It’s totally different stuff from what I would wear in real life. I like matching my outfits to the backup singers. MW: I love being able to sleep whenever I want and wake up whenever I want. If I want to spend a few days with family or friends, it’s okay, because I don’t have a 9-to-5 schedule.
How does each of you feel about touring? Zooey has always been so positive about the experience, but Matt… ZD: That one interview! We need to clear the record. MW: I’m glad you brought this up. I did an interview, maybe a year ago, and somebody at Vanity Fair asked me if I like touring. I had just gotten through a four- or five-week tour, which is too long. I was tired. If you’re away from home for too long, you start to forget things that really matter. You’re not able to nurture anything but music when you’re on the road. In my opinion, that’s a pretty one-dimensional state of being. ZD: Three weeks is a nice amount. On any given day, we’re only on stage for an hour and a half. During my day job, I have to stay energized for, like, 16 hours. Now, that’s insane. With music, I have time to sleep and exercise and go to restaurants. MW: And go to museums. ZD: And go to movies. MW: Did we already say food? ZD: Food, we said. We like food.
Can you recall one performance in particular when you felt a real connection with your audience? MW: Oyster Fest comes to mind. ZD: I’m still not quite sure what that was. MW: It was the coldest day in San Francisco’s history. Everyone was out on the lawn, eating oysters. We went on right before an Irish ska band.
Hair: Rolando Beauchamp for Bumble and Bumble Makeup: Christopher Ardoff usIng M.A.C Cosmetics for Art Department Location: SandBox studio, NYC On her: vintage top, stylist’s own, jean shorts by Current/Elliott, tights by Wolford, shoes by Christian Louboutin. On Him: Shirt by Spurr, jeans by William Rast, boots by Fiorentini + Baker, Fashion Assistant Amber Stolec.