Since 2006, She & Him, the duo of Zooey Deschanel and Matt Ward, who record under the name Mr. Ward, have been composing rich and soaring pop songs that nod to different genres (folk, country, jazz ) but are mainly defined by the atmosphere. The She & Him records – there are seven of them so far – feel like they were made to be played on a crackling AM radio, playing through the open window of a bohemian shack while a pair of wooden bead curtains flap in the breeze. So it makes sense that for their latest collaboration, Deschanel and Ward covered the dazzling, complex songs of Brian Wilson, the co-founder of the Beach Boys and the voice of lonely, sunny, multi-track Americana. Wilson, who is eighty, suffered a psychotic breakdown in the mid-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 Beach Boys songs and “Long Promised Road”, the soundtrack of a documentary about his life and his music. When She & Him released “Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson” earlier this month, Wilson chimed in with a stunning statement of support: “The harmonies are beautiful and perfect. I love this record!”
Deschanel and Ward each had successful careers outside of She & Him—Deschanel as an actress, best known for starring on the Fox series “New Girl” across its seven seasons (and for a memorable turn as than Simon & Garfunkel Lovers, spinning records, cool older sister in “Almost Famous” by Cameron Crowe), and Ward as a singer and songwriter, whose compositions and recordings folk rock sometimes recalls the pathos and beauty of Alex Chilton. Deschanel and Ward and I scrapped our plans to meet in person after Deschanel tested positive for covid; instead, we talked on Zoom. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Zooey, how are you feeling?
ZOOEY DESCHANEL: I feel good. I’m on day ten, so basically it’s all done. I felt great from day three, then I was stuck at home for a week, twiddling my thumbs. But, you know, it’s good to be bored sometimes.
Boredom always reminds me of being a little kid squirming around in the back seat of my parents’ sedan. Sometimes out of that boredom things come up that are surprising, weird, and fun.
ZD: Totally. I completely agree. In fact, my most creative time was probably my childhood, before the smartphone. Smartphones are amazing for so many reasons, but I was more creative before there were constant apps to keep me entertained.
I believe the three of us are part of what is probably the last generation to come of age before this technology became ubiquitous.
ZD: A special little micro-gen!
It’s a good time to ask yourself how each of you weathered the strange tumult of the last few years, when live performances essentially stopped and we all turned inward, literally and figured.
MAT WARD: When he and she did a christmas record A few years ago, Zooey and I realized we had something in common – maybe “obsession” is a good word – when it came to the work of Brian Wilson. When covid started, it was the perfect time for me to start my home studio and start learning all those incredibly complex Brian Wilson songs. We knew that whatever we had to do, whatever we could do – we would have to do for ourselves.
ZD: I have two small children. I took some time off when I got them, and just when I was like, “Okay, ready to start working again,” the pandemic hit. So I had a lot of creative energy that needed to be expressed. Brian Wilson’s tracks brought me so much happiness at a difficult time for everyone. Breaking up those harmonies was fun and empowering and sometimes mind-numbing. It was also the first time that Matt and I recorded a record remotely, using a match pattern. Matt would write a bunch of stuff and send it to me, and I would go into the studio here with Pierre de Reeder, who did a lot of our records. I would just sing. It was as if I had no other job on this record than to sing backing vocals for eight hours a day. It was the perfect antidote to otherwise strange times. Matt and I grew up in Southern California. Brian Wilson was my musical hero growing up, even though he was already on alumni radio when I was a kid. Have you listened to K-Earth 101?
MW: I did.
ZD: So there’s this radio station here—
MW: [Sings jingle.] K-Earth 101 . . .
ZD: And they played the Beach Boys, the Beatles, all the good stuff. I didn’t listen to pop, I never listened to modern pop music. The Beach Boys felt like local heroes. Their music went hand in hand with the Southern California summer. Later, in my teens, I discovered the Beach Boys’ more obscure records, like “Surf’s Up” and “Sunflower.”
Matt, I’m curious about your history with the Beach Boys.
MW: Like Zooey, I heard them all the time on the radio – they were the simplest and most beautiful melodies. It wasn’t until I started learning these songs on the guitar that I realized they weren’t simple at all; they are incredibly complex. When you’re younger and you hear something like “In my room“, do you think, how difficult could this song be to learn? The spirit is so simple. The melody seems so simple. But, when you are at your piano or your guitar, you realize…
ZD: Not easy. [Laughs.]
MW: It’s one of the magic things about his writing.
ZD: Many songs change key four times—and you don’t even notice it.
MW: Anyone who plays piano or guitar will understand what I mean when I say it takes many years to try to decode these songs. In a way, it was the perfect project for the pandemic, as Zooey said. There is so much joy in his music. He was a life saver.
You’re both from southern California. For me, as a New Yorker and as someone born and raised on the East Coast, I wanted to talk to you a bit about what that means, in terms of worldviews, aesthetics, whatever. For lack of a better word – or maybe it’s the right word – there’s a vibe. How would each of you describe it?
ZD: I grew up here, and I love it. I have so many memories that it was always sunny. You lie on the grass and look at the sun through your eyelashes, and you do this for hours. It’s this boredom we were talking about earlier, a good boredom. Sitting in the back seat of a car, hearing the Beach Boys on the radio, going to the beach. There was a sort of endless summer vibe. As a child, I lived abroad while my father worked [as a cinematographer and director] Seychelles, Belgrade, London, and I was always homesick for LA. She had even more of a mythical status in my mind because I had her taken away from me. In London, it was dark at 3 a.m. PM in the winter, and I would just think of the Californian Christmas, which is beautiful and sunny. Even though I loved the places I went and have fond memories of them, I was so homesick. When we lived abroad, we listened”Surfing in the United States” just to hear the name of our neighborhood. I grew up in a little part of Los Angeles called Pacific Palisades. They actually say Matt’s hometown too – they say “Pacific Palisades”, then they say “Ventura County Line”. Growing up, I was like, “Pacific Palisades! Palisades of the Pacific! It’s our home ! For me, it’s a bit shrouded in nostalgia and youthful idealism.
To some extent, that sentiment seems ingrained in the Los Angeles landscape. Sometimes on Instagram I see one of those LA Golden Hour pics, and it’s 6 PMit’s January, and it’s pink and it’s orange and it’s warm and soft and bright—
ZD: [Laughs.] And it’s really nice. LA itself is an Instagram filter.
MW: Maybe someone would disagree with me, but I think Brian made that up. Just the idea that music can feel like the sun—
ZD: As summer.
MW: “The warmth of the sun” – I think Brian made that up. It’s something that Zooey and I celebrate on this record. It’s fun to be able to talk about your music to people all over the world because growing up we took it for granted, and we thought that feeling had always been there. But he made it up.
It was obviously important to both of you that these songs sound like reinventions, not rote covers. With a track as iconic as, say, “don’t worry baby“, how to take it apart and sew it back together?