In probably the most memorable scene in last year's 500 Days of Summer, a luminous Summer (Zooey Deschanel) steps into an elevator with Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), nonchalantly compliments his iPod selection (The Smiths), and in so doing, wraps him around her finger for the duration of the film. Had director Marc Webb wanted an equally effective but slightly more metaphysical take on this sequence, he could have simply swapped out The Smiths for She & Him — the folk-pop band in which the real-life Deschanel helps to mend the same hearts that women like Summer are always breaking.
"Actually, I think Summer was pretty upfront with Tom," says Deschanel, speaking via phone from her native L.A. "That movie was very much from Tom's point of view, and because of that, you never really get to know the real Summer. I mean, I can certainly understand sympathizing with Tom. He's adorable. It's just that you can't make someone fall in love with you."
It sort of makes sense that the "she" of She & Him would see eye-to-eye with a character like Summer Finn. The latter's philosophy on dating — "I don't feel comfortable being anyone's anything" — is strikingly similar to the former's view on her foray into music: "I would feel remiss if I were always working in the expectation of what some other people are going to think."
Two years ago, when Deschanel first joined forces with the indie-credentialed M. Ward, their seemingly oddball retro-pop partnership as She & Him was met with predictable skepticism. At the time, Ward was a respected but relatively anonymous singer-songwriter plugging away on Merge Records, while Deschanel was sort of his Bizarro Hollywood equivalent — an underutilized young actress noted more for her laser blue eyes and perpetually deadpan delivery than for any specific performance. But when the duo's debut Volume One arrived, the doubters quickly turned to devotees. Beneath Deschanel's deadpan, it turned out, was a charming warble fit for a vintage jukebox. And within the liner notes, another surprise: It was the actress, not the musician, who had penned most of the songs.
"I mean, we were just interested in making the best record we could and having fun making it," Deschanel says. "I think we both approached the first record in terms of trying to appeal to our own sensibilities. And it was the exact same thing with Volume Two. We mostly just try to entertain ourselves and make a record we like, and then worry about the rest later."
The aforementioned Volume Two, which hit shelves earlier this year, officially freed She & Him from any lingering novelty status. The 13-track affair — another lush, breezy '60s rewind written primarily by Deschanel and produced by Ward — peaked at No. 6 on the U.S. charts.
Ward himself has compared Deschanel's songwriting to Sam Cooke's, for its almost inherent ability to lift the spirits of the listener, and the effect is similar for the songwriter herself.
"Finishing a song gives me a sense of completion that I just don't get anywhere else," Deschanel says, "and it's very satisfying. It almost feels miraculous to me that you can start out in a room alone with an instrument and at the end of that, come out with a song. ... But at the same time, while you might like your song in its little box, I think it's up to the producer to take it out of that box. And that's what Matt [Ward] does — he can always add something special."
That said, Ward is hardly navigating without a compass. During the songwriting process, Deschanel will often hear a song's eventual bells and whistles (and strings) in her mind — a side effect of her lifelong passion for the big pop productions of the '60s, namely Motown, The Beach Boys and Phil Spector.
"Backing vocals are, like, my thing," she says with a laugh. "So I always record a ton of them on my home demos, usually in the bathroom so they sound super echo-y and cool."
When the process moves to the studio, she and Ward remain champions of analog recording, and Auto-Tuning is strictly forbidden — as Deschanel puts it, "I'm kind of tired of hearing robots sing, personally."
As for the future, some have wondered whether the success of She & Him, and Deschanel's recent marriage to Death Cab For Cutie singer Ben Gibbard, mean she's headed for a Summer-and-Tom-style breakup with the movies.
"I would say I feel more connected to music than acting," she says, "but I still enjoy both."
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