Zooey Deschanel takes control in her musicHer long dark hair, framing a pair of piercing blue eyes, has inspired the hipster-chic look of countless aspiring, awkwardly cute ingenues the world over. Her starring role in (500) Days of Summer can only be described — in part, at least — as a love letter to her innate adorableness. She’s married to indie-rocker Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, and her parents named her after a J.D. Salinger character. She’s even the face of a U.S. ad campaign for cotton, for Christ’s sake. There need be no more evidence that Zooey Deschanel personifies “indie darling.”
And yet, there is. Deschanel — best known as an acclaimed actress with roles in Almost Famous, Elf, and Yes Man — is also one half of She & Him, the Americana-pop-folk duo she formed with singer-songwriter and guitarist M. Ward. The pair released their debut, Volume One, in 2008, garnering positive reviews and a sizeable audience for its mostly ’60s-inspired ditties about love and life. They’re now on tour supporting Volume Two, which was released in March of this year. And even though it’s two albums and almost three years later, Deschanel is still forced to correct people’s assumptions that Ward — who, in addition to recording under his own name, has been a part of indie-rock supergroup Monsters of Folk — writes She & Him’s songs. He doesn’t. This is Deschanel’s baby.
“People are confused because I don’t play on every song... but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t write them!” Deschanel laughs over the phone from her L.A. home. It’s a frustrated laugh, and she brings up the topic herself — evidence, perhaps, that this is a method of self-preservation.
“I guess I just have to take it as one of those weird things where I guess I’m flattered?” Deschanel jokes. “They think, ‘Wow, she couldn’t possibly have done this!’ I’ve talked to female friends of mine who are singers. A lot of times people will just assume the guys write the songs and the girls sing them — which, you know, Matt [Ward] produces the stuff and that’s a really important part of the process, and we’re all doing important things within the process, but I’m not just showing up and being a puppet. I am writing the music.
“And a lot of times people think I just write lyrics. I wouldn’t ever want to just write lyrics... I’m no Bob Dylan, you know what I mean? It’s not like [my] lyrics are amazing. It’s a whole package.”
Thanks to her lengthy acting career, Deschanel has built up a tough exterior that makes her capable of withstanding the cheap shots she’s required to take.
She claims she was nervous the first time she sent her music to Ward, but that she wasn’t really worried. “I thought the worst that could happen is that he doesn’t like them, and that’s not so terrible,” she says, matter-of-factly. When it’s suggested that plenty of other people might become wilting flowers when putting themselves and their music out into the world, Deschanel is firm in her conviction.
“If you’re going to be a creative person, you have to put yourself up for rejection a lot... You have to accept you’re not everybody’s cup of tea. And I think the more you work and the more output you give to the world and the more successful you are, the more people will hate you and the more people will love you. It’s very polarizing. Just being creative in general — people have strong opinions about you, and you can’t let that affect your view of yourself. You have to have confidence that’s unshakable at the core... but, you know, [you can’t be] so open that you just let it completely destroy you. It’s good to be a little tough.”
It’s that toughness, ultimately, that gives She & Him’s shiny, sincere sound enough substance to resonate with modern audiences. Deschanel’s lyrics have a hint of girl-power-style affirmation about them, a coy sense of humour that’s defiantly at odds with the innocence the songs’ melodies evoke.
The She & Him sound was largely influenced by Deschanel’s lifelong love of the Beach Boys. But her relationship to the classic American pop band goes beyond an affection for surfboards and brilliant harmonies — they were a lifeline to her native California throughout a childhood riddled with lengthy sojourns around the world, thanks to her father’s work as a cinematographer and director.
It’s telling that, though her music could have plenty of international influences, she ardently favours vintage Americana. “We’d listen to ‘Surfin’ USA’ just to hear — ’cause I’m from Pacific Palisades and it’s mentioned in the song. I was so homesick and we were so far away,” she recalls. “We didn’t have the Internet; it was the ’80s. There just wasn’t a lot of connection. We were in Yugoslavia and on this tropical island, and just places where there wasn’t even a hint... of the world we were from, just completely culturally the opposite. So, it was really important to me to just listen to this tape and hear the name of my hometown. I think to me, yeah, definitely travelling — more than it exposed me to other cultures, [it] made me realize how much I love where I’m from and how much I am distinctly Californian.”
Deschanel laughingly admits that she’s romanticized her home state to the point where nowhere else will do. But with one foot in Hollywood and one foot in the music world, there’s not much need for her to leave California. With the ongoing success of She & Him, and the self-chosen infrequency of her acting gigs, the inevitable question arises: Will the day come when music eclipses movies as top priority in her life?
“I’ve always been sort of a doer, you know? I just wanna do things. I don’t wanna sit around, I just want to do creative things,” Deschanel says. She talks for a few minutes about her love of movies — going to them and starring in them — but counters this by acknowledging that She & Him is a more satisfying creative experience. She likes the control she’s able to exert in the band, and working with a few trusted collaborators. She articulates her ambitions and restlessness, eventually winding her way to an answer that satisfies her. For now, at least.
“Doing movies, you’re compromising a lot,” she says. “Ultimately, an actor is meant to trust their director. Your job is to go on set and bring a perspective, but ultimately, the director’s the boss, and you have to be a real serious team player, which I can do, but it’s not my nature. If I had to choose, I’d probably choose writing music and performing music, because I’m doing all of it at once.”
She & Him play Sunday, Oct. 24 at the Orpheum Theatre (Seymour & Smithe), 6pm. Tickets $35 from Ticketmaster, Zulu, Red Cat, and Highlife.