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?