It may be a coincidence, but the coincidence is also the foundation for kismet. And kismet is the foundation for the floaty, delightful music produced by the duo of Matt Ward and Zooey Deschanel, aka the Grammy-nominated band She & Him. Yes, both artists were introduced to music early on and both of their introductions included the songs of legendary Southern California songwriter Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.
Now, together, the two are releasing a new album on July 22 celebrating Wilson’s music. That album, Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson, was born of their education as kids and includes the same joy for the song now that sparked some few decades back. It’s also already beloved by Wilson, who called it “mind-blowing” and “beautiful.” Added Wilson, “I love this record.”
“In the car on the way to school,” Deschanel tells American Songwriter, “I remember being really little and my mom had, like, four cassette tapes—The Lovin’ Spoonful, Linda Ronstadt, The Everly Brothers, and The Beach Boys. So, I can hear all those influences in the music that I love and the music that I make.”
“I grew up,” says Ward, “basically listening to the radio in Los Angeles. KROQ and the ’80s British Invasion. I was also listening to oldies radio and one of those being Brian Wilson’s music.”
Ward, 48, remembers getting older, diving into guitar, the Beatles, then moving to Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, Joni Mitchell, and more. While Deschanel, 42, remembers being in more isolated, natural surroundings as a kid and swimming often, but also playing a small Casio keyboard, and learning blues scales. Soon, she began to sing and write little ditties, saying to herself, “Oh my God!” with each discovery. For both, music represents perhaps their biggest joys in life. While Ward is a full-time professional musician known as M. Ward, Deschanel is also a professional actor. But it’s music that often brings the biggest smile to her face. The two met on the set of the 2007 film, The Go-Getter, and have been making songs together ever since.
“I had been writing music and kind of keeping it to myself,” says Deschanel of that time in her life. “But I was very frustrated. I was writing all this stuff but just didn’t have an outlet. I never had the right collaborator until I met Matt. What’s special about Matt is that he knows how to support a song and make it the best version without getting in the way of its soul. I can’t think of anybody I would rather play music with.”
For Ward, working with Deschanel meant exploring her vocal sensibilities and her range.
“From my perspective,” he says, “the thing that makes the She & Him records so interesting is Zooey’s vocals. Zooey is such a great songwriter and vocal arranger that it makes my life producing very easy.”
To date, the duo has six studio LPs (and Melt Away will mark the seventh). They released their debut, Volume One, in 2008 and the holiday-themed Christmas Party in 2016 with a handful in between. But when speaking to them together, one gets the sense that Melt Away was the most satisfying. It marked a return to early musical discovery and joys and was also done during the COVID-19 pandemic, giving both a project to work on to lift their spirits in the otherwise difficult era.
“They just make you feel good,” says Ward, speaking of Wilson’s songs. “For Zooey and I, his music is especially important because we both grew up in Southern California and in my opinion, Brian is the one that invented the sound of Southern California. In a way, hearing his music wherever I am in the world is like hearing a piece of home.”
“I have so much joy playing these songs,” says Deschanel. “I love playing them, I love singing them, I love learning how deceptively complex they are.”
Both Ward and Deschanel tip their proverbial caps when speaking about Wilson’s music. Both note how Wilson wasn’t formally trained, but in a way, that gave him complete license to go in any direction he wanted. Both say how beautiful his songs are and yet how complex. And, moreover, how the complexity is virtually undetectable until you break them down and try to learn them, map them out and perform them. Whereas another great like Bob Dylan may use four or six chords at most in a tune, Wilson may use upwards of 20. But a Wilson song may seem like it includes only four chords.
“I think someone who learns all the rules might write a less interesting song,” Deschanel says. “Maybe there are no rules.”
It took a long time to absorb every bit of musicality for the new album and for the stretches of tour dates the two have. They just finished one string of dates and have another on the books. At their shows, the two are playing a mixture of songs from Melt Away and from their prior releases. But a funny thing happens when one works hard and internalizes great art. It creates a sense of new freedom. And that’s exactly what both Ward and Deschanel say they love about their She & Him project: the ease they feel working together, the joy of doing so, and the freedom from having to think about the business side of things. They work hard, yes. But since the duo is a side project for both, the pressure is off from a business standpoint.
“The thing that I really appreciate about collaborating on She & Him is just that we do what we want to do,” says Deschanel. “We’re not really beholden… Music is probably the most joyous thing in my life and I never wanted it to be corrupted by the business of it.”
“Yup,” Ward adds.
And as the duo looks ahead to their album release, upcoming tour dates, and whatever else their collaborative efforts might bring to the fore, what they appreciate most is the possibility that lies in music, itself. It’s restorative, an escape, and a language altogether. It’s the fabric of their creative fates. And it’s paid off more than they could have asked over the past 15-plus years.
“Wherever you are, whatever you’re going through, it’s like this friend that you have that you can take you wherever you want to go,” says Ward. “Even as a kid, I remember being able to just escape whatever was going on in the car. Put your headphones on and it’s easy as that.”
“The greatest discovery,” says Deschanel, “was being a kid and listening to music and finding joy in listening and finding even more joy in playing music and singing and exploring how to make sounds that I liked. Those things are to me—music is pure joy.”