Beach Boys music brought us together, say Zooey Deschanel and Matt Ward
SHE (Zooey Deschanel) and Him (Matt Ward) both love the music of undisputed songwriting genius Brian Wilson.
The West Coast duo worship the Beach Boys the same way we The Beatles do.
They recorded a sublime covers album, Melt Away, which delves deep into Wilson’s catalog, drawing inspiration from tracks from across his career.
“Matt and I are both huge Brian Wilson fans,” Zooey enthused.
“Once, when I was working in London, he was playing at the Royal Festival Hall five nights in a row. . . and I went to every show!
“His lyrics are soft and direct. There’s an innocence to them, but musically there’s so much complexity.
The big man returned the compliment, saying of Melt Away, “Zooey and Matt did such mind-blowing versions of our songs. The harmonies are beautiful and perfect.
At this point, you need a little background on the contrasting She & Him characters who have been making retro-style pop records together for 15 years.
Let’s talk about She, currently in a relationship with Jonathan Scott of the Canadian reality show Property Brothers.
As a teenager, Zooey knew she wanted to be a performer, whether as an actress or a singer.
“I loved musical theater and had high school bands,” the twice-divorced mother of two tells me via Zoom from her home in Los Angeles, her beaming face filling my computer screen.
But the bright lights of Hollywood lured her in, and Zooey made her big-screen debut before she turned 20.
A string of high-profile roles followed, alongside Kate Hudson and Jennifer Aniston, and she quickly became known for her wonderfully deadpan roles in comedies.
She’s probably best known as Will Ferrell’s love interest in Christmas Elf, which hit theaters when she was just 23, and more recently as the star of the hit sitcom New Girl.
“With acting, I had success early on,” says Zooey, now 42. “I was making money and I loved being part of a movie or TV show.”
Yet music was always never far from his thoughts. “Before I met Matt, I was an extremely frustrated songwriter,” she admits.
“I had written all these songs and made demos at home, but I just left them there.
“I had friends who were in bands and I was jealous that they could play music.
“And I didn’t just want to be a singer. I love collaborating on music, I love singing harmonies, I love writing backup parts.
Zooey’s breakthrough to secure a singing career in tandem with her established acting role came when she met Matt while making the road movie The Go-Getter.
She says: “I was 26 when I met him, which seemed very old to me at the time, but now I’m like, ‘This is crazy!’
“Matt was exactly the right person to be my producer. Now I think it would be hard to give my songs to someone else. I was looking for Matt!
So what about Him? He is a highly respected guitarist, singer and producer who makes solo records under the name M.Ward and is very well connected in American independent circles.
Her debut album, Duets For Guitars #2, was released in 1999 and her most recent effort was Billie Holiday’s 2020 tribute, Think Of Spring.
Matt’s work is known for his exquisite guitar playing, soulful vocals and warm analog sound. Meeting Zooey in 2006 for a movie soundtrack led to this new and rewarding diversion they called She & Him.
“Working with pleasure”
Joining our Zoom chat, the soft-spoken, 48-year-old from Portland, Oregon, says he was already aware of her considerable talent as a musician back then.
“I remember hearing Zooey’s (singing) voice for the first time, like a lot of other people, in Elf,” Matt says.
“I thought to myself, ‘She must be an established singer who probably has several records under her belt.’
“It was incredible to collaborate with her in the studio for this film and to discover that she had never recorded a solo disc.
“Once you hear Zooey’s voice, you remember it. It’s so unique, so expressive and it’s the perfect instrument to work with.
“And that’s not even talking about his ability to write vocal arrangements, which is all over the new album and all of our previous ones. I find that so inspiring to work with, a real thrill.
So far She & Him have released three volumes of mostly Zooey originals, two Christmas albums (suitable only for the Elf star) and an orchestrated collection of standards.
Matt strives to identify their musical alchemy: “His main passion is singing and harmonies and I’m happy to be on the other side of the coin.
“I love the guitar and the production, so it’s a great division of labor.”
Zooey chimes in, “We have similar musical tastes, so I’m always excited to hear what Matt is going to bring to our records.
“He has such a unique way of playing guitar. Even when it’s on someone else’s song, I know it’s Matt.
“His philosophy is to support the music and not make it too slick. I’ve never worked with another producer who has the same dedication to the soul of the music.
‘Pure and Unique Soul’
“It’s so perfect for Brian Wilson’s songs, because they have such a pure, unique soul.”
This brings us neatly to their latest project, done during Covid when their lives, like the rest of us, were put on hold.
“When the pandemic hit, we were stuck at home,” says Zooey. “Matt was supposed to be on tour and I was supposed to be working.
“We had never done a record remotely, but we needed a creative outlet.”
Their shared love for the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson in particular was the catalyst for creating leads.
“We talked about our favorite Brian songs, some very well known, some more obscure, and came up with a really long list,” Zooey continues.
“Then Matt would go to his studio in Portland, start a song, and send me a little gift to my inbox.
“I would do a bunch of harmonies and send them back. It was a very modern experience!” They raided the Beach Boys’ seminal 1966 album Pet Sounds for Wouldn’t It Be Nice and Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder).
They went deeper into the surfer song Heads You Win, Tails I Lose and the sweet Don’t Worry Baby.
They immersed themselves in excellent but less commercially successful albums – Sunflower (1970) for Deirdre and Surf’s Up (1971) for Till I Die.
Here it should be noted that She & Him had previously bonded with Brian joining him on their 2015 track On The Island.
Now their album features a cameo from the big man on Do It Again.
Reflecting on such an honor, Zooey said, “No one can sing this song like Brian, so we thought it would be great to have him sing it with us.”
“He gave me a microphone when we worked with him before and I used it on everything for this record.”
So why are Brian’s songs so special? “They’re seamless,” she replies.
“His lyrics often have a phrase worth a thousand words and his melodic choices have a lot of classical influences. This combination makes it very special.
Matt adds, “Growing up, songs like 409 and Be True To Your School get stuck in your head, but you don’t realize how complex they are until you try to write like that.
“Surfer Girl or Barbara Ann sounds incredibly simple, but give someone a guitar and ask them to write the next Surfer Girl and it won’t happen. Brian had some kind of magic.
Again Zooey: “Don’t Talk was very difficult for me to sing, which I didn’t really realize until we were ready to record it. It’s like playing a violin part with your voice!
I can’t help but draw their attention to the fact that Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney were born two days apart and both turned 80 last month.
“I didn’t realize their birthdays were so close,” Zooey says.
“They came in a good month and a good year and I’ve always loved them both.
“When I was a kid, I used to listen to old-timer radio and laugh at it.
“The Beach Boys and the Beatles blew my mind. I remember my dad showing me (the movies) A Hard Day’s Night and Help!
As for Matt, he says, “I put the Beach Boys a bit higher than the Beatles because wherever I am in the world, there’s a piece of me when I hear them.”
And Zooey reveals: “Both of our hometowns are mentioned in Surfin’ USA. Matt is from Ventura County and I’m from Pacific Palisades (a neighborhood in Los Angeles).
“The Beach Boys have always made me very nostalgic.”
Talking to these two, it’s clear that they work in perfect harmony and he and she will go on for quite a while yet.
A short East Coast tour is planned for September and the two think a volume 4 of original songs is a good idea for the near future.
“I can honestly say that I’m never mad at Matt,” She says. “We always get along.
“The feeling is mutual,” he says. “Now I can’t wait to play those Beach Boys songs live.”
The final words are with Elle again: “I hope we go on forever.”