She & Him - The Stool Pigeon
A warning appears in the inbox: She writes all music and lyrics, Him just produces and arranges, so assuming otherwise is a misconception best avoided. Normally this would suggest a difficult interviewee, but it’s hard to imagine indie’s platonic sweethearts being anything other than easygoing.
You can sense it in their seamless pairing: she’s the cutesy Hollywood starlet who grew up in showbiz, he’s the soft-spoken, intensely private songwriter who forbids photography at shows. Together their wholesome duets channel American’s golden age of pop, replicating its timeless qualities with a saccharine finish.
In a dimly lit Marylebone hotel, M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel are munching on lunch ordered in from Wagamama. Ward resembles a freckled Johnny Depp, with streaks of grey flaming around each ear and his boots looking like they’ve been subjected to prolonged kicks of frustration. He’s well-known for getting interview fatigue before you can press record, treating each question like an invoice to worm out of.
Yet he steps up gamely to the first subject, enthusing about how to make a cover-version sound like an original and how David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ is over-produced. But a chill drifts in from the opposite side of the table. Deschanel does not look impressed: a faux-pas has been committed.
As if on cue, Ward takes off his glasses, pockets them in resignation, and shuts down ...until Deschanel spots something suspicious in the edamame. Ward springs forward as if discovering a bomb under the table. “Serious?” He scrutinises the beans in alarm before sending his manager out to fetch a lemon crêpe, retiring once more.
“I just pulled something strange out of my mange tout,” says Deschanel, happy to take over. “That doesn’t faze me: I will still eat the rest of it.” She proceeds to trot out the banalities with media-trained shrewdness, steering the conversation to underline who does what. “There are boundaries. I write alone. So that’s that.”
Vol. 2, as with its precursor, was a long-distance collaboration where Deschanel wrote songs in the middle of the night during film productions and emailed tracks to Ward for polishing. The uncanny similarities between their songwriting styles, she explains, are due to a shared love for classic acts like the Everly Brothers and the Carter Family. But if that really is that, surely she doesn’t need Ward for interviews and photo shoots: the two things he seems to loathe more than anything.
Pressing for an explanation is difficult. So far Ward has remained curt and vaguely disdainful; always shrugging, yawning or holding his head in exasperation, spewing fragmented sentences (“Because the songs were so good. Next question.”). Songs are not up for discussion either. “Better to show, not tell,” mutters Ward. “We don’t like to give interpretations to people.” Deschanel agrees. “I won’t be doing VH-1 Storytellers.”
With shoes off, hair tied, a baby blue cardigan to match her bulging eyes, Deschanel resembles one of those dolls that plays back a pre-recorded inanity when you pull their string. Anything that veers from staid territory is batted away with: “I don’t know how to answer that question... It makes my mind go blank”. One unquotable stock answer follows another until the most interesting thing at the table is the sight of Ward carving up his crêpe with chopsticks.
When asked if he prefers working in the background, such as with Jenny Lewis or Monsters of Folk, he mumbles in a disinterested monotone: “Yeah, no, um...um.”
“Obviously, Matt, I don’t want to answer this question for you,” Deschanel interjects, “but I feel like it’s all fun.”
“I’m very lucky to have a great... uh... job,” adds Ward. “Um... I love She & Him because I can just focus on guitar and arrangements. I love that perspective.” Is that because you find it more comfortable? “I don’t know... It’s something that takes me back to when I first started playing guitar. I never used to sing. I just played guitar into my 4-track. It was my first instrument... and um... I live a good life. I’m good right now. You know what’s funny about this crêpe, though? It didn’t have any lemon or powdered sugar. I think it was just a plain.”
“Like, it had the subtlest hint of lemon. Could you think of a crêpe that was like that before? Probably with lemon curd or something, right?”
“Okay, it’s lemon juice. There’s lemon juice there but normally, in France anyway, there’s like lemon curd or... preserves... but there wasn’t in there.”
“I think there was lemon juice in it. Anyway... that’s going off the subject.”
The blockade is in force. So what does Ward not want us to know? Matthew Stephen Ward grew up in Ventura County, California to a Mexican mother and American father in a Baptist household where his older brothers and sisters jostled to control the radio. He started recording when he was 16 and, not wanting to wake anyone up, learned to sing quietly. He studied English at Cal Poly, moved to Portland with a handful of college pals and married a writing professor in 2001.
Ward gave a tape to Howe Gelb (whom he was a big fan of) after a show and Gelb released his debut, Duet for Guitars #2. After five well-received albums he met fellow Californian Deschanel in 2006 during the making of The Go-Getter and together they recorded a song for the film’s closing credits. The actress had been writing country pop songs for years and though encouraged by her family, it wasn’t until she “found the right person” in Ward that she felt ready to launch a second career.
But they share another, lesser-known mutual interest: Twin Peaks, the surreal TV series by David Lynch and Mark Frost. Ward has been a long-time Lynch fan, occasionally burying references in his lyrics, while Deschanel’s mother acted in the show.
“My dad directed three episodes too,” she says. “I was kind of obsessed with it, even when I was nine, because it’s so good.”
“Best TV show ever,” grunts Ward. When talk turns to the annual Twin Peaks festival, where hardcore fans flock to the show’s setting in rural Washington State, Ward pipes up, his attention stolen back from checking emails and reclining ever further under the table.
“Well yeah, I went to one of ‘em...” For a moment, the mask slips. Then, realising he’s revealed something, Ward backpedals furiously. “I mean... I just happened to be in the area... I’m not that crazy about it that I’d go out of my way.”
At this point Deschanel sits up on the armrest of her chair, her legs swinging apart, vying for attention. If it wasn’t for those leggings, it’d feel like an outtake from Basic Instinct. Ward, meanwhile, holds a crumpled napkin to his mouth as if trying to knock himself out with Chloroform.
Okay, time to wrap it up. But not before one last attempt at understanding Ward’s reticence. For years, he only played support slots. Even with a strong following and several albums, fans frequently had to go to someone else’s show to see him. Sometimes they still do. But why?
“I don’t know...” There’s a glint in his eye. He thinks about answering. We’re almost there. You can sense it. A wry smile creeps in; a hint of recognition. He opens his mouth, holds his breath...
“I just like working with talented people.” The wall crashes down again, bringing silence with it... until Ward chuckles awkwardly. Showing, maybe, but not telling.