Zooey Deschanel is well-known from her acting roles in films like Almost Famous and (500) Days of Summer, and her marriage to Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. But, she's also is a gifted singer-songwriter, working in collaboration with M. Ward as She and Him. Matching Deschanel's clear voice to old-timey orchestrations, the duo have released two albums of sweet, country-ish tunes: 2008's Volume One and 2010's Volume Two.
Interview: 8 March 2010
There’s an old maxim that you have your whole life to write your first novel, and a year to write your second. Is that how this record felt?
"No, because I kinda write fast, and I'm always writing. So, before I even thought of an album, before we'd even finished touring the first record, we had more than enough songs to make a second. I'm not going to say it was easy, but, it kind of was."
So, you totally dodged the mythical 'difficult second album'?
"Totally! That [term] implies this sense of pressure, and I didn't feel any pressure at all. I never felt like I had to do it. This whole thing has only ever been motivated by me obsessively writing music, and Matt coming up with so many incredible ideas for producing that music. It's been driven by just getting in there, and really working very hard, very quickly. I think both of us like to be very efficient, so there’s never anyone waiting on us."
Is efficiency ingrained in your personality?
"I guess it is part of our personalities. Neither of us likes to be in the studio for more than eight hours. If you've been recording all day and you think: 'I’m going to go eat some dinner, then come back and power through the harmonies and finish this song off!'; you’re not going to do that. [laughs] You’re just going to be tired, and not have the energy that you did at the beginning of the day. To me, it's always better to go home and rest, then come back the next day fresh. I feel like most bands would hate that; they'd see it as being too much like a job. People seem to go in and sit for long periods of time, spend whole nights in there; a lot of people write in the studio! That just seems like a colossal waste of time to me. I appreciate studio time so much, I don’t want to waste a second of it."
Did you initially think you were embarking on more of a one-off project?
"It was never a one-off, more a wait-and-see. The first time I went up to Portland to record, Matt and I set about properly recording maybe six of these demos I'd sent him. And it went really well. So, then I went back up and recorded more, and we worked on finishing the production on all of them, and then we had a record. We've continued on from that because it's fun. I feel so privileged to get to work with Matt, because he has endless great ideas; he's a fantastic producer. I think both of us are people who like things to come naturally, so we never really made any plans of any kind."
Setting up this interview, the publicist made sure I knew that you wrote all the songs, because interviewers in the past had apparently not known that. How does it feel to have humans —if only a few— assume that you're an ingénue, and Matt is pulling the strings?
"It's actually happened a lot. And it's weird. It's so weird. Because I spend so much time with the music, I see it from its very first beginnings, and watch it grow until it becomes this finished thing. And naturally, I'm so proud, and there's no part of me that wants to not be associated with it on this really intimate level. I guess I could be flattered that they don't think I write the music, like it's some sort of back-handed compliment. But even that, it's still a slap in the face. The heart of it is: the songs are super-personal, and writing the music is what I love doing the most. The songs are my children! So, it feels so strange when people don't think I'm the mother of these said same song-children. But, it's OK. All kinds of things come with the territory of putting yourself up to the public eye. So, I can't complain."
M.I.A. once told me that, when people assumed Diplo wrote her music just because he's a dude, she felt it was simple misogyny. Doesn't such old-school sexism make you mad, too?
"Well, I try not to get mad. And I'm not a super-angry person in general. Sometimes I feel hurt by it, but I guess I just try to assume that that person wasn't really paying attention, and just made a mistake, rather than assuming greater malicious intent, be it subconscious or not. I just want people to know that I definitely do write all the music and the lyrics."
Is gendered thinking something you deal with a lot in the movie biz?
"You mean the double-standards for men and women? Oh, absolutely. It's definitely more difficult for women than for men in Hollywood. But it's encouraging when, say, Kathryn Bigelow, first woman director to win an Oscar, won last night. It's slow, obviously, but at least there is some progress. It's obviously still so much easier for guys, but, then again, we get to wear pretty dresses and make-up."
How big a part of your childhood was Twin Peaks?
"Because both my parents worked on it, it was always this fascinating thing to me. I was only nine or ten at the time, so my parents only let me watch certain episodes. Which you just can’t do to a person! Like, allow them to watch just some Twin Peaks; it's the most addicting show ever. I most remember being completely terrified by Bob, but also completely fascinated with him. But, still, I was very proud that my parents worked on that show."
Have all those times you've sung on screen in films been a coincidence? Or were you always pushing to be allowed to sing?
"It just keeps happening. I almost always try to discourage it. Because whenever you take singing and put it in an acting realm, all of a sudden you lose that personal thing. You have to be directed to sing, which I don’t really enjoy. When I'm in the studio and I'm recording, Matt will make comments. But, it's different when you have a director basically telling you exactly what to do. And I don't really like people telling me what to do when I'm singing. So, it is sort of a coincidence, but, y'know, people keep asking me to do it. So I end up singing in films all the time."