The sound at Park City, Utah’s Sundance House is terrible, and a chunk of the crowd is more interested in chattering and munching on hors d’oeuvres than paying attention to the duo on guitar and piano, even if it is the debut performance of what will eventually be known as She & Him—the collaboration between indie-music darling M. Ward and movie star Zooey Deschanel. This 2007 Sundance Festival audience doesn’t get high points for attentiveness—they’ve already pretty much ignored Glen Hansard of The Frames playing alongside Markéta Irglová, his co-star in the buzzing film Once.
Hansard is just another in a long line of musicians who’ve successfully crossed over to the silver screen, following in the footsteps of Tom Waits, Kris Kristofferson, Mos Def and Will Oldham. But the trail going the other way—from acting to music—is littered with punchlines: Russell Crowe, Kevin Bacon, Steven Seagal and Patrick Swayze. So, for the lucky few paying attention, hearing Deschanel croon standards like “Mr. Sandman” and “I Put a Spell on You” in her seductive soprano is a treat. She and Ward are in town to help promote The Go-Getter, a film that closes with the pair singing Richard & Linda Thompson’s “When I Get to the Border” as the credits roll. Anyone with children or a Will Ferrell fixation heard Deschanel’s lovely voice in Elf, so her collaboration with a quirky guitarist who’s also from Southern California isn’t a complete surprise.
Singing has long been more than Deschanel’s hobby. In 2001, she started playing in a cabaret act with fellow actress Samantha Shelton. “I did a lot of music and stuff in high school,” Deschanel says, “but as an adult, I just needed a way to play music, and [the cabaret thing] was a safe way for me to be able to sing and test out the waters. I would transpose all the music for the band, and it’s amazing to see all the core structures that Gershwin and Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart used.”
The big secret, though, were the hundreds of original songs Deschanel had stored on her computer. She’d been writing songs since she was a kid, and by her early 20s she was recording demos, layering vocal harmonies over piano and guitar.
Ward convinced Deschanel to send him some of the demos, and the two decided to record an album. The idea that this might come across as just another Hollywood starlet’s vanity project never struck either of them. “We talked about songs, we talked about records and music and how to record stuff,” Ward says. “And I guess the best way for me and Zooey is to record in some sort of bubble you create for yourself that doesn’t really take into account Bruce Willis.”
They quickly discovered that they shared an affinity for timeless music; they’d even grown up listening to the same oldies station in Los Angeles, K-Earth 101. “When I met Matt,” Deschanel says, “I was like, ‘I don’t want to record with anyone else!’ It was so clear to me: ‘This is the only person who will be able to do this. This is the guy who has to make a record with me.’”
“After I heard all of the songs,” Ward says, “they sounded like they all fit together in a really interesting way that I had never heard before. I just felt like I had been exposed to this great artist that nobody really knew about as far as her songwriting. When people think of Zooey Deschanel, they didn’t used to think ‘songwriter.’ The whole thing was just a complete no-brainer. These were awesome songs that needed to be heard.”
And they are. If you would’ve suggested back when we launched the magazine that Zooey Deschanel would write most of the songs on Paste’s favorite record of 2008, we’d have thought that about as likely as Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming governor of California. But the 13 songs on Volume One are lovely throwbacks to blissful ’60s pop, tastefully arranged and produced by the über-talented Ward. And Deschanel loves her new career so much, plans for Volume Two are already under way.
“I would rather be a songwriter than be an actor,” she says. “I’m grateful I’ve been so fortunate to have success as an actor, but being a songwriter is just creatively so satisfying. I know this is silly because I’m 28 years old, but this is all new to me, to be playing shows—there are people who know the words to the songs and are singing these melodies that were born in my bedroom. It’s amazing to me to give them a life, and they go and live on their own. I feel like that’s sort of some little microcosm of what parents feel like with children.”