An edgy musician’s musician and a high profile film and television actress: On the surface, the duo She & Him, comprising Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, might seem a somewhat mystifying matchup. Deschanel currently stars on the hit television series New Girl, while producer, guitarist, songwriter and vocalist and solo artist M. Ward has collaborated with everyone from Neko Case and Norah Jones to Conor Oberst, with whom he partnered for the Monsters of Folk collective.
From the duo’s recorded debut, Volume 1, released in 2008, it was clear that She & Him was no vanity project, rather the endearing collaboration between two creative souls blending their talents into an incandescent partnership of deep and satisfying soulfulness.
She & Him’s latest release, Classics, speaks to the depth of this connection and how it has shaped their musical identity. Released on Columbia Records, the project features the duo’s reinterpretations of well-known songs spanning pop gems to selections from the Great American Songbook. From the downbeat, it is clear that the pair was not intent of simply blowing the dust of nostalgia off of some hoary antique songs, but rather was intent on breathing new vitality into enduring lyrics and timeless melodies.
In the following exclusive interview, MC speaks with the “Him” half of the duo, M. Ward, who explains how and why the record was made.
Music Connection: We’re calling you in Portland, OR from Los Angeles. More specifically we are checking in from Eagle Rock where the latest She & Him project was recorded in one of our local studios, King Size Soundlabs. If we were to drive by, it would be difficult to convince anyone that on this industrial street of botanicas, liquor stores and taco trucks that behind an anonymous façade is a major studio.
M. Ward: From the outside it looks like a room where you would never find an orchestra. But we crammed them all in there and got a great sound. We used great engineers, but we had to really map it out to fit a 19-piece orchestra in the studio. This made for a really big sound and a great experience.
MC: Room dimensions were critical, correct?
Ward: Yes. The whole experiment of the record was basically making this lifelong wish come true of recording live vocals with a live orchestra and to see what would happen. Hopefully, when people listen to the record they can feel that they’re in this live organic room instead of feeling like they are a part of some digital editing process, because most records are edited and recorded that way. So that was the experiment––to try everything live.
MC: How do you map out the arrangements to work with an orchestra—including live horns and strings— of that magnitude?
Ward: When I’m writing arrangements for She & Him records we’ll have a quartet come in and we will overdub them several times so it will sound like an orchestra.
MC: Your track list includes a broad variety of well-known songs identified, in most cases, with other artists, from Billie Holiday to Dusty Springfield. Was it intimidating to bring something new to these historic melodies and lyrics?
Ward: It’s never intimidating; it’s more exciting as a challenge to add something to legendary songs. In my opinion songs are identified as great because they can be interpreted in so many different ways. Whether you’re talking about emotional interpretation or sonic interpretation, there’s so much to build off with these songs because the foundation is so strong: words, melodies and chords. So it’s exciting for me to work on songs that I hope will never be forgotten.
MC: How did you avoid imitating what had been done before?
Ward: There are so many great records of standards. We knew we didn’t want to make one that was completely in line with those. There are thousands out there that are great, but we wanted to make something that was different. There’s definitely a lot of eras going on in this record and I think this is what helps free it from being stuck in a typical standard record identify. I love Cole Porter, and a collection of his songs would be a great record, but that’s not something we were interested in doing.
MC: The lead-off single is “Stay Awhile,” a song originally recorded by Dusty Springfield. When did you first become aware of this great British pop and soul singer?
Ward: I started listening to her music probably after high school. Zooey had probably been listening to her music since she was born. She loves Dusty’s music. Zooey has turned me on to her more obscure songs. There is so much to discover. With “Stay Awhile,” I had never heard it until Zooey played it for me. It’s the last song we recorded, and a little different than the orchestral arrangements. It’s more guitars and brass. It’s one of those songs that we could have done with just acoustic guitar and vocals simply because the song is so strong.