The words She & Him and Brian Wilson and tribute album just make some kind of inevitable sense, like a Pinterest board zapped by a twee-ray into sentient life. Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s indie-pop duo always trafficked in deep-stacked winsome harmonies (hers) and a gentle beach-inflected guitar (his); their three albums of original music all conjured a golden, worn-in AM radio spinning 1960s oldies that never actually existed. Then, for the better part of a decade, the duo turned their throwback knack to compilations, with two Christmas albums (which featured Brian Wilson songs) and one paying grand orchestral tribute to the likes of Burt Bacharach and Carole King. Today, they announced Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson, a dreamy 14-track album of covers, including a track featuring Wilson himself. It’s not without precedent: The duo has covered “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” in concert for years, and they teamed up with the 79-year-old legend on his 2015 track “On the Island.” Along with the album announcement comes the music video for its first single, “Darlin’.” We spoke to Deschanel and Ward about Beach Boys harmonies, recording during COVID, and this album’s “army of Zooeys.”
Hi! Thank you both for taking the time to talk with us about this project. How long has it been in the making?
Zooey Deschanel: We started deep into the pandemic. It was very much a project we started working on as a shutdown project. These were songs we both know very well and love very much, and something we’ve always connected on was loving Brian Wilson. Being from Southern California, I think it’s part of the landscape. But we’d never recorded a record remotely like this one; we were sending stuff back and forth, and it was a fun and interesting process. It’s probably the longest–
M. Ward: Incubation …
Deschanel: … Because we normally record very quickly. Like in six days.
This album has a mix of some very well-known Wilson songs and more obscure cuts. How did you select this mix of tracks?
Ward: We each picked about a dozen of our favorite Brian Wilson songs that we thought we could try reimagining. And that eventually got whittled down to what made it to the record. This album easily could have been two or three volumes. There’s so much of his catalogue to be inspired by.
Your ties to Brian Wilson go way back. Matt, you covered a Pet Sounds song on your 2005 album Transistor Radio. Zooey, you had an Artists on Artists interview with him way back in the day. And She & Him collaborated with him on the song “On the Island” on his 2015 album, No Pier Pressure. How did that working relationship start?
Deschanel: Just generally stalking him, mostly. Not really, but I would go to see him play every chance I could get. I remember seeing him play for the first time in probably ’04 or ’05, going every night and being blown away. I remember when I was 19 or 20 discovering the record Surf’s Up, and I was so taken by its uniqueness and how it was a departure from the Beach Boys. I knew that there was a lot to Brian Wilson that is underexplored. There are so many people who are huge fans, but it was fun to get into the more obscure songs that we knew, like, This is inherently a hit, but people might not know it.
Wilson actually does the vocals on one of these tracks, “Do It Again.” How did that collaboration happen?
Deschanel: We weren’t even in the room with him.
Ward: All through COVID, everyone making records at that time had to figure out, How are we going to do this in separate studios? So Brian was in his studio, and we were in ours.
Deschanel: It’s funny — our plan was always for it to be a tribute to Brian. But I don’t think we thought that we should ask Brian to be on one of the tracks. We thought this will be something that we’ll send him that hopefully he’ll like. But then “Do It Again,” I’ve always loved that song. But I was like, I can’t sing this one very well, and Matt was like, Well I can’t sing this one very well. We were both unsure of our own ability to do that song. It’s got a percussive vocal top-line melody. It’s so Beach Boys that it’s hard to pivot from how the original was done. So we were thinking we’d ask a guest to be on it. And I was like, Why don’t we just ask Brian? We’ve gotten to work with him and interact with him so much, and he has a really cool team around him, too. All the folks that he collaborates with are amazing. Being such a fan for so long, somehow, this passion brought us into his orbit to some degree, which is such a blessing.
Brian Wilson’s compositions are famously layered and complex. When Elvis Costello made his Beach Boys pastiche, he said he used “14 keyboards all playing the same thing” because you have to build that massive sound wall. But you guys are a pretty intimate indie-folk outfit. So how did you achieve the bigness and depth of these recordings?
Deschanel: I usually record a lot of vocals. Most people listen to a record and they think, when they hear voices, that it’s a bunch of people singing. But on this album, I would record 40 vocal tracks for one song. You’d have three to four doing the same thing, and then you’d have 10 to 15 different parts. And then everything would be doubled, or tripled, or quadrupled for all of the backing parts. It’s a massive amount of singing for me. I would be recording with our engineer Pierre de Reeder, who we have made a lot of records with, and I would just be completely exhausted from singing so much. And then I would send it to Matt and he would put all of these amazing layers, more vocals, guitars, everything that he’s working on up there in Portland, and then he’d send it back, and I’d add more vocals. There is just a massive, massive, massive number of tracks on every single one of these songs.
Ward: Yes, it’s an army of Zooeys making a beautiful wave that listeners can get washed away in, and it gives the record a really unique spin on these Beach Boys songs that everyone is so used to, coming from this place of, what would you say, Zooey, ten male vocalists?
Deschanel: Yeah, usually six or seven guys all singing into the same microphone one at a time, and they’d triple it. And this would be all me, and Matt would come in, too. I’ve always loved doing that, and I’ve always stacked a lot of vocals, but this was new levels of vocal stacking. Sometimes those Beach Boys harmonies are so tight, and they’re so Brian. They’re so jazz-influenced. Sometimes I’ll be listening, and I’ve heard a song a billion times, and I can’t even tell what he’s doing. I can’t always break every single thing down. So I had to come from a place of, What would I do? I’m sure Matt was doing the same thing.
Ward: And neither of us was that interested in trying to copycat any of the production elements of their songs, anyway. It’s the same way we approached all of our Christmas songs from both of our Christmas records: Let’s reinvent these songs. What would happen if these songs came out of us? That was the experiment.
On a track like “This Whole World,” for example, your arrangement brings out the sweetness and the beauty of the songwriting in a way that really elevates the song.
Deschanel: I would say hats off to our mixing engineer, Tom Schick, because this was a beast to mix.
Did this reverse engineering of Brian’s songs, deconstructing them and picking apart those harmonies, make you reflect on or learn anything about your own songwriting process?
Ward: I’m always learning from him, the way that he puts chords together. We’ve been covering his songs for so long, and I’m sure it’s similar with Zooey. Whenever you learn a Brian Wilson song, it’s a lightbulb, like, I didn’t know those chords could go together.
Deschanel: Nobody writes songs like Brian Wilson. It’s freeing because he will change chords three times in a row in a bridge, and you won’t even hear it because it’s so seamless.
Ward: “Melt Away” and “Til I Die” are great examples of that.
Deschanel: Normally if you have a song that changes keys a number of times, it feels clunky, or it feels complicated, or it might be an acquired taste. These have this effortlessness that is so incredible given the complexity of his songs. I’ve been singing along to these songs my entire life, and it was fun to add those extra harmonies. There’s almost always an extra backing vocal that I can put in the mix. I’m sure for Matt too.
Ward: Absolutely. I didn’t have a wall of sound with an orchestra or any of these string arrangements, so I relied on what I could do myself, which is mainly guitars, sometimes walls of guitars and synthesizers. Turning all of these incredible arrangements into arrangements for guitar, drums, and voice was such a great experiment. They’re all experiments, really.
Speaking of getting experimental, you took a very offbeat approach covering “Heads You Win Tails I Lose.”
Deschanel: That’s all Matt.
Is it the first-ever She & Him vocoder moment?
Ward:That’s a great question.
Deschanel: I was surprised at how that came out because I sent in vocals. I thought this is mainly Matt’s song because there are a lot of really cool guitar parts, and I just added some backing vocals. I wasn’t as invested in the final product. And then we got the master, and I was like, Whoa! This is very cool.
Ward: I love how it’s a little bit of a breath between the other songs, the way an intermission might be in a soundtrack. I love instrumentals, and Brian Wilson has so many great instrumentals. Pet Sounds has so many. It was fun reinventing that.
So this album was one of your longer productions, and you’re going to be touring it in the summer. What’s next for She & Him? Have you done any songwriting?
Deschanel: This is the most fruitful, longest collaboration I’ve ever had on anything, ever.
Deschanel: I’m always excited to make a She & Him record. I’m always excited to work with Matt. We’re just doing stuff because it’s fun for us and we like it. It’s not really to pander or try to be cool or try to have our fingers on the pulse or anything. There’s a purity to it that I appreciate and love being a part of.
This interview has been edited and condensed.