Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward on Antiques, the Beatles, and Singing Actresses

Photo: Tony Nelson / Retna

Singer-songwriter M. Ward seems like he’d be a pretty solitary guy — his best songs, sung with a voice at once delicately nuanced and gravel-spiked, sound like the private musings of a guy on his back porch in Oregon (as it turns out, he records in Portland). But as he shows on She + Him, the new album he produced and created with indie ingénue Zooey Deschanel, the right pairing can bring out his best, too. Deschanel and Ward — who met recording a Richard and Linda Thompson song for a film soundtrack — share a love for old recordings that translates seamlessly through a set of immaculately produced songs, making the pure-voiced Deschanel sound like a latter-day Karen Carpenter. They spoke to Vulture about the new album, their shared influences, and how they’ve rubbed off on each other.

The album has a really vintage feel. Is that reflective of your tastes?
Deschanel: I sort of always liked everything antique — it always just felt like a treat, like a little treasure. Compared to old music, new music just felt, by and large, sort of soulless. Though I’m sure there are tons of horrible old records I know nothing about.
Ward: I don’t really hate modern culture or anything, but if we’re talking about music, I just think older music is recorded better. Stuff that allows the listener more room to breathe and dream is more involving for me than the way most records sound on the radio, which is…
Deschanel: Loud.
Ward: Yes. Extremely loud.

You both grew up playing instruments — have you found similar songs you were attached to early on?
Ward: It was especially cool to realize we’d covered a lot of the same songs growing up. There’s that Beatles song that’s on the record, “I Should Have Known Better…”
Deschanel: I had done an a cappella version of that, and you actually already had it recorded, just the pedal notes.
Ward: It was a very pleasant surprise, having Zooey say, “I want to cover this song,” and I’d wanted to produce it for a very long time. It was…
Deschanel: Totally awesome!
Ward: You took the words out of my mouth.

Do you exchange music when you’re apart?
Deschanel: What was that guy’s name you sent me that amazing recording of…
Ward: Washington Phillips?
Deschanel: Yes! That was awesome.
Ward: He sings folk gospel songs with an instrument that nobody can identify. Zooey has reintroduced to me so many artists I love. Darlene Love sticks out.
Deschanel: This is opening up a can of worms that could go on for days. You sent me Roger Miller … and I sent you Jim Ed Brown and the Browns.
Ward: And I had never heard Jim Ed Brown and the Browns.
Deschanel: And I love Roger Miller!
Ward: Zooey’s very much an encyclopedia of great American music.

Have you found a similar work philosophy?
Ward: I could tell immediately Zooey was someone who sings and gets involved with music for the right reasons — not to get obsessed over the minutiae, which is what so many musicians are. With her, it felt very natural and easy.
Deschanel: I think we both agreed that perfection isn’t making something perfectly symmetrical.
Ward: In terms of music, if you can express that, then maybe you can start to convince other people this mistake is sort of interesting. I think that’s how a lot of my favorite jazz artists are able to work.

So what do you now get out of working with each other that you don’t out of your usual day jobs?
Ward: Well, I love being able to sit back and watch Zooey take over the vocal side of things. I love not having to sing lead!
Deschanel: Making movies, you’re like an independent contractor — you come in, you have a specific job, and a lot of what you do is completely manipulated, which is good and bad. It’s really great to have a creative partnership, to be totally involved in something I can take full responsibility for — if somebody doesn’t like it or loves it, I’m to blame either way. It’s empowering.

Projects involving singing actresses aren’t typically well received — were you worried?
Deschanel: Honestly, I don’t want to live my life being influenced by anticipating other people’s reactions to what I do. The moment you sense someone is making something because they think people are gonna buy it or like it, it’s just so phony! The public has a nose for phony like nobody else.
—Rebecca Milzoff