So are they or aren’t they? A pop twosome that make lovely music together in more ways than one is the irresistible scenario embedded in more rock, soul, and country partnerships than one can count who doesn’t fall for the notion of torturously entangled C&W soulmates that extends far beyond Walk the Line turf and into the year in and year out of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons territory? Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood’s affections remained unrequited up to the latter’s 2007 death, as did the palpable chemistry between Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
Well, gawkers remain out of luck here, says Matt Ward, a.k.a. M. Ward, the manly half of indie rock’s latest sweetheart duo, She and Him. He and actress-singer-songwriter Zooey Deschanel are just friends, friend. "People are always going to think whatever they’re going to want to think, no matter what they read in interviews or what the facts are," the extremely soft-spoken Ward says from Omaha, Neb., where he’s currently mixing his next LP, with Bright Eyes’ Mike Logan. "I think music is a lightning rod for people’s imaginations and I don’t think that’s a bad thing."
He can hardly expect a listener to stop dreaming while listening to the Deschanel originals. With Ward’s production and arranging input, the tunes take on the luscious feel of gimlet-eyed ’60s-style girl-group protorock ("I Was Made for You"), pedal-steel-sugared, chiming country ("Change Is Hard"), and subtly colored girl-singer pop ("I Thought I Saw Your Face Today"). Leslie Gore, Darlene Love, Julie London, Ronnie Spector, and all of those other dulcet voices of teen agony, ecstasy, and crash-and-burn romantic disaster, move over: Deschanel is the next worthy addition to those ranks a doll-like upstart cross between Sinatra and Carole King thanks to She and Him’s maiden outing, Volume One (Merge).
Director Martin Hynes brought Deschanel and Ward together to cover a Richard and Linda Thompson tune for his as-yet-unreleased film The Go-Getter. Deschanel and Ward discovered they were "mutually fans of each other’s work," the latter says. One song led to another and, he adds, "eventually Zooey mentioned she had some demo songs that she had under her hat. I had no idea she was a songwriter let alone a really incredible songwriter and vocalist. They had really beautiful chord progressions, and as a producer, it makes things easy when you have great songs and amazing vocals." He decided to play Phil Spector to her King.
"We started with a pile of songs that I had written," Deschanel e-mails from her current movie, "and had found their life up to that point completely in the safety of my bedroom. It was amazing to see what such a creative individual as Matt could bring to those songs. He brought a tremendous amount of life to them without killing their original essence. His instincts are dead on."
Deschanel wasn’t above making the bizarre instrumental contribution: the mysterious bazookalike sound on "This Is Not a Test," for instance, "is actually me playing mouth trumpet," she writes. "I said, ‘This song needs a trumpet,’ and then I said, ‘You know, like this’ and I did that bit. Matt liked it. We didn’t have the budget for horns so I just did it."
They took each song as its own "island," as Deschanel puts it. "The compositions tell you where they want to go," adds Ward, who strived for a warm analog production. "We tried keeping it away from computers and digital technology as much as we could. I think that’s the main reason the record sounds good that and the songs are good."
The approach perfectly jibed with Deschanel’s aesthetic. "I have always been attracted to old music. I have always been a fan but I continue to discover ‘new’ old music," writes the vocalist, who says she started writing at age eight, was in bands in high school, and later had a cabaret act called the Pretty Babies. Elf (2003) gave her a chance to sing on film, but otherwise she had limited her music primarily to demos: "Demoing became sort of a hobby that I found relaxing."
She isn’t concerned with trying to please hipsters or cool kids who might view her as a movie-star dilettante simply passing through the trenches of indie pop. "I hope each person responds to [Volume One] naturally without any agenda of mine seeping into the matter," she offers. "Ideally audience and artist should be uncorrupted by each other."
Not a surprise from a singer in love with the passion and craft of country music. "I think," Deschanel opines, "sincerity is hugely underrated."
SHE AND HIM
With Whispertown2000, Adam Stephens, and Emily Jane White
March 2, 8 p.m., sold out
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF