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She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel And M. Ward On Paying Tribute To Brian Wilson

Sometimes an answer is obvious. For She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward (Matt Ward), as lifelong fans of the great Brian Wilson, whose music they always turned to when needing comfort or joy, that meant recording Melt Away: A Tribute To Brian Wilson.

The 14-song collection finds the duo of Ward and Deschanel covering all eras of Wilson’s legendary career, from early hits with the Beach Boys, like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Don’t Worry Baby,” to later solo efforts such as “Melt Away” and “Do It Again.”

I spoke with Deschanel and Ward about where their love affairs with Wilson’s music began, their favorite Wilson stories and much more.

Steve Baltin: Was there one song that started the idea for the album?

Zooey Deschanel: We’ve covered “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” really early on. Years ago, Matt and I would just do it as a duet. And that was like my favorite song growing up, because I used to listen to oldies radio and I was like, “This song is amazing.” It’s hard to say. We’ve covered “God Only Knows” too. “God Only Knows” isn’t on this record that we did. We have covered it live and recorded it and recorded it with Brian. It is hard to say, but I think that was like the first song we ever did. Don’t you think?

Matt Ward: I think so. And then the first like rarity that we did was “Christmas Day” for our Christmas records. And I think that was a taste of how much, how deep we could go into his catalog and what a thrill it is to uncover these songs that really not that many people know about.

Deschanel: It’s funny because you have the Beach Boy songs that are so ubiquitous that everyone knows every word and every nuance. And then you have these Beach Boys songs and Brian songs that are pure, but still such amazing songs. Some of the later Beach Boys records I got into in my early twenties, late teens, I remember going and buying Sunflower on vinyl at Amoeba records when I was like 19. So it was fun to explore some of these lesser known Brian jams.

Ward: For me, I think it’s hearing Pet Sounds and the Beach Boys today on headphones in college sort of took me over the edge as far as my passion for finding all of his records. There’s one song in particular called “Please Let Me Wonder” that we put on the record. If I had to point to one song, maybe that would be it, but there’s so many, there’s so many.

Deschanel: So many good ones. It’s so fun, we just like playing them [laughter].

Baltin: There’s just this sweetness and still innocence to him. And of course that’s in the music. So it’s interesting for you guys talk about the idea of doing this music during this time when literally the apocalypse is nigh.

Deschanel: Yeah, I think at least got me through. I was like cooking at home and taking care of my kids and hanging out with my boyfriend, but I’m a person that always likes to be working in some capacity. And so when Matt and I were talking about something to do, I think like just the idea of making this record and even remotely, it was only thing sad about this record is that we didn’t really get to be in the same room together while making it. And we all love recording together, but there was an element of just what can we do that would be the most fun thing.

Ward: Because we all need it.

Deschanel: Because, yeah, we all need it. Getting to listen to these songs, think about paying homage to the arrangements, to the vocal arrangements, to the harmonies, to the production and then making it our own that was just fun. The pure joy of playing music really comes through when we get to play these songs. It’s just so fun.

Ward: Absolutely, his voice and his lyrics are hard to describe. It’s an innocent and just really beautiful vision of the world. From “Surfer Girl” to “This Whole World” it’s still the same voice and it’s really honest, innocent child-like view of the world that just people need to hear it.

Baltin: For each of you, what’s your favorite Brian story?

Ward: My favorite Brian story is being in the studio with Zooey and Brian for his record that he made a few years ago called No Peer Pressure. Zooey and I played him our version of “Christmas Day” and he had a smile on his face that we’ll probably both never forget.

Deschanel: Oh yeah. He goes, “Who did the harmonies?” And I was like, “I did.” And then he was like, “It was good.” And I was like, “Oh my God. I can retire” [laughter]. That was so much fun. I just enjoy getting to be around Brian. He is like nobody else [laughter]. No one is like Brian.

Baltin: I also love Matt, the story you just told, because there’s such a humility to him as well. Like he genuinely seems like he’s literally in the five greatest songwriters, pop songwriters who ever lived and he acts surprised people like his music still.

Deschanel: He’s a person that just takes joy in the music. Like he just finds joy in when it sounds good. And then if he likes it, you know; if he doesn’t you know. It’s very cut and dry, which is so rare. And I remember when we were in the studio recording with him and he was really excited to order a hamburger. He just has pure joy and he’s not jaded at all.

Ward: He’s not manufactured. It just comes from the heart.

Deschanel: It was the best thing whenever we’ve gotten to play with him or record with him. When he likes something, you know it’s genuine. He’s never putting you on. He only says if he likes something, if he does. It’s always just a pleasure to be around him.

Baltin: You guys can settle the debate as Beach Boys and Brian Wilson experts. What is the Beach Boys signature song?

Deschanel: I’m gonna say, “God Only Knows.” Even though I know “Good Vibrations” was groundbreaking from a production standpoint. And I think anyone who was around when that song came out was like nothing had ever happened that was like it before. I still think “God Only Knows” like hits an emotional level that is transcendent of other songs, even though there are so many amazing ones. What do you think Matt?

Ward: Oh, man. The first one that comes to mind is “Surfer Girl,” because it was one of his first hit songs and it sounds like the simplest song to make, to write. But when you start writing songs, you realize this is not child’s play. You have to be on a different level to make something so simple have such an impact. And he does it with harmony and really simple direct lyrics. I could take “Good Vibrations” too, because it’s such a genius advancement to music. But yeah, in ways, so does “Surfer Girl” and that’s the one that makes me weep when I hear it live. There has to be a reason for that.

Baltin: Were there deeper songs in particular that you are really excited to be able to introduce to people?

Deschanel: Would you say “Till I Die?”

Ward: “Till I Die,” “Melt Away.”

Deschanel: And “Melt Away.” “Melt Away” is a solo Brian song. But it’s such a great song, that’s from This Whole World. So many of them were the songs I love listening to that people didn’t know. Matt actually introduced me to “Melt Away.” I didn’t know that one before. And funnily enough, a friend of my parents produced the original Brian version Russ Titleman So it was kind of funny.

Ward: Zooey introduced me to “This Whole World.” When I first heard “This Whole World,” I was just kind of dumbfounded. And Zooey said, “We can integrate it I think it started to become a song that sounds like something that would be in a She & Him catalog or should be in the She & Him catalog.”

Deschanel: Yeah, it’s fun to do like our own version of them.

Baltin: Matt, you were talking about “Surfer Girl” and how it seems like a simple song until you start writing it. I am a huge Nick Drake fan. And I got to interview Joe Boyd multiple times. He was saying it feels like there’s a simplicity to Nick’s stuff. And then you try playing that. And literally, no one else can play it. Because Nick had these very unique fingers. So for you, when you started to do these songs, did the nuances change at all?

Deschanel: Yeah. It’s so funny talking about that with Nick Drake. I would think that Matt has a guitar style that is very unique because he’s left handed and he plays a right handed guitar. And even if he’s guesting on someone else’s record, I can be like, “Oh, that’s Matt playing guitar.” So it’s nice to hear Matt adding like his own brand to these like Brian songs that we love. And it was really fun to try to break down the harmonies, a lot of times, it’s hard because they’re so tight. Like it gets very heady or like, “Okay, what is happening here?” And then I would just try to recreate it and then add my own parts. Because songs I sing along to, that I’ve known forever, I always like will have like, “Oh, I hear another part. That should be there. That would be cool to hear that there.” Growing up I would listen to the Everly Brothers a lot. And I’d be like “I’m gonna be the third Everly brother.” [laughter] So I would add like an extra harmony. So I think I think with this we started out just with the Beach Boys version, and then eventually you start recording it, and eventually it just takes on your personality as well.

Ward: Yeah, I think a big part of it is we’re so used to hearing these songs from a male voice with a male choir behind him. And so hearing it from a female perspective and hearing it through Zooey’s voice and these beautiful vocal arrangements that she made, it just brings a new identity to the song. And, to me it’s the most interesting part of the record.

Deschanel: Yeah, it’s the joy of playing music. When you love a song so much you can just play it 1000 times and never get tired of it.

Ward: When a song is good enough, it can be dressed up in a bunch of different styles, a bunch of different tempos. And for me it was different guitar tunings. And I think that we hopefully gave all these songs a new personality.

Baltin: For you guys, how much fun is it to get to share this with him and just shower him with all this love while he’s still around to appreciate it?

Ward: Oh man, it’s so unique. It’s very special being able to make a tribute record send it over to him and to get the nice response that we’ve gotten from him.

Deschanel: We love Brian, so we’re super happy to be able to share it with him

Baltin: What are the things that you hope people get from this record that you love so much about Brian?

Deschanel: I hope that they like the songs so they go back and listen to the originals, and are able to enjoy both versions.

Ward: Yeah, dive into his catalog. And while you’re at it dive into our catalog listen to music, listen to records. But hopefully it’ll inspire people to check out the original versions too.

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