Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward reinvent “old school” on Volume 3
“IT’S NOT a specific kind of sound that we’re creating; it’s something I think we’re still in the process of inventing,” says Zooey Deschanel’s producer, collaborator, and friend M. [Matt] Ward about their musical project, She & Him. “But it’s definitely obvious to most listeners that Zooey and I listen to a lot of older records.”
A sincere, even sentimental, affinity for vintage music is certainly one of the places where Deschanel and Ward meet. But equally meaningful is that newly emerging quality that Ward refers to; their influences aren’t taken straight, like “this song sounds like the Shangri-Las and this one is more Motown.”
Pierre de Reeder “I feel like crossing the guitar sound of Elmore James with a singer like Etta James is an interesting thing to shoot for in the studio,” Ward says. “We always end up coming up with something different.”
She & Him’s latest creation, Volume 3, evokes ’50s doo-wop and Phil Spector girl pop, old soul guitars and Bacharach-esque changes, plus lots of other ideas. A cover of Blondie’s “Sunday Girl,” for example, sounds like it has Buddy Holly’s Crickets beating rhythm until the outro starts to sound a bit Johnny Marr. Old meets old; all is seamlessly and gently fused into something sweet and new.
Original She & Him songs start with Deschanel, the songwriter on this project. “I usually sit down at the piano, or sometimes guitar or ukulele, and play with chord progressions I like, then start humming melodies, then start fitting lyrics into the equation,” she says of the way she begins to set down musical ideas. “A lot of times I will have lyric ideas jotted in notebooks, so I am ready when I start working out my melodies, but they are usually just basic ideas of things I like to write about or phrases I like. I can’t really fully form lyrics until I have an idea of where I’m headed musically.
“Normally it’s good to start asking myself questions about the song structure before I begin,” Deschanel continues. “When do I want the hooks to begin? How do I want the sections to line up? On this record, a song like ‘Snow Queen’ has no repeating sections; it just goes A B C D E and then it ends, so there are no real choruses or verses since nothing repeats; it’s like a song with five bridges.”
Deschanel assembles her musical ideas in GarageBand and then sends them to Ward. “I normally spend quite a long time listening to the demos and trying to figure out where the song might want to go,” he says. “When I get demos, it’s always a process of transferring everything to guitar. That was my first instrument, and it’s what I’m most comfortable operating with. So, I will arrange strings and other instruments just by using the guitar as a reference, figuring out harmonies and different arrangements, either rhythmically or melodically. I’m using GarageBand at this stage, as well, reinterpreting the songs— sometimes with different rhythms, sometimes in a different key—but the heart of the song is her vocals and her song. I’m happy to be the one who puts the frame around it.”
Armed with sketches and frames, She & Him laid down most of the tracks for Volume 3 in Sound Factory’s Studio A (sunsetsound.com) with engineer/musician Pierre de Reeder, a.k.a. the bass player from Rilo Kiley. “We toured together, probably 10 years ago, on a tour where Rilo Kiley was on the bill and they played as my backing band, and I got to know Pierre,” Ward recalls. “He’s a great musician, a great friend, and a great engineer.”
de Reeder, who also recorded She & Him’s recent Christmas album, set up drummer Scott McPherson in the main tracking room, and Ward and Deschanel in a large booth with room for Deschanel’s piano as well as vocal and guitar mics.
“It helps for Zooey and Matt to be next to each other and have that interaction during tracking,” de Reeder says. “It gives everything more of a live feel than if everybody were separated. They could both see Scott, too.”
This layout also allowed de Reeder to devote all that space in the 26 x 16-foot tracking room (20-foot ceilings) to getting great drum sounds. “In my mind, and perhaps obbviously, I always let the music dictate ‘the sound’ that’s going to be recorded,” de Reeder says. “And this album felt to me like a record from the ’60s: something Connie Francis-ish, or like Patsy Cline or Peggy Lee. Not forcedly at all, but in a natural and honest way. So to capture that, for the drums, I would more often lean on the room mics. Though on some there would be more close mics blended in. All very song dependent, of course.”
de Reeder put up Coles ribbons as overheads, and AKG 414 room mics, plus a single Neumann U47 in front of the kit to take in an overall sound. Close mics were pretty standard issue: Shure SM57s, Sennheiser MD421s. “But the main thing was, there’s a lot coming in from the room and overheads,” de Reeder says.
As much a part of the heartbeat of She & Him as the drums are Ward’s guitars. “I’m happily sponsored by Gibson,” says Ward, who mainly plays a Johnny A electric and a 1985-vintage J-45 acoustic.
“A lot of times, when we’re tracking I’ll play just the low notes, the bottom couple of strings of the guitar, to act like the bass guitar on a song like ‘Turn to White.’ The cover of ‘Hold Me Kiss Me Thrill Me’ starts off with just electric guitar and drums and vocals; I like to build from there, and bring in bass guitar later, because the Johnny A has a beautiful low tone that I’m looking for. I also use very thick strings. I’m not looking for an Eric Clapton sort of string shredding sound. I want the first position of the bottom few strings, especially when you’re in Drop D, to sound pure and clean and low.”
Ward’s electric was double-amped through a Fender Deluxe and a Silvertone that De Reeder miked with SM57s, the idea being that the two amp sounds could be selected, blended or panned at will. Ward’s acoustic went to a Neumann KM84.
Also cut during the basics: de Reeder came out from the behind the glass to play bass on a couple of songs; other bass parts were covered by Tyler Tornfelt, Mike Watt, or Joey Spampinato. And many of Deschanel and Ward’s vocals were cut during band tracking as well.
“We both like to work quickly and capture, if not the first take, the feel of the first take, so you’re not laboring over something,” Ward says. “The vocal is the most important part of the song. You want the vocal to sound like the singer is discovering the song. Sometimes [first-take vocals] make the cut and sometimes they don’t, but I really believe in what kinds of ideas happen on the first couple takes, especially the first take.”
Deschanel usually sings into a Neumann U47. “I have done a number of mic shoot-outs to see what we liked best,” she says. “But we don’t always universally stick to [the U47]; I love an RCA 77, too.”
On this project, de Reeder placed U47s for Deschanel and Ward; both also went to Neve 1073 mic pre’s, and Deschanel’s vocal took a small amount of 1176 compression. “Nothing’s heavily compressed,” de Reeder points out. “It’s just barely rocking the needle and making sure everything’s in control.”
All of the other inputs went through preamps in Sound Factory’s custom API console, then straight to a Studer A827 24-track tape machine.
“I like to record to analog tape as much as possible, so every song I’ve ever produced begins on analog 2-inch tape,” Ward says. “After we have live drums with guitar and vocals, we’ll start to build from there.”
Embellishments include Deschanel’s lush vocal harmonies, which she develops to suit each track individually. “She comes in, more often than not, with her own idea for specific harmonies in mind, and depending on the complexity, we’ll either fill out the tracks on tape or, with some of the more complex ones with many parts—and it’s all her, those harmonies—we will create as many as 10 or 15 tracks in Pro Tools to make a big sound.
“There’s also a lot of plate reverb on the tracks,” de Reeder continues. “Sound Factory has three EMT 140s, and we used two, and analog delay, with just a touch of slap.”
Strings and keys were also overdubbed, including some of Deschanel’s piano work and some Moog parts. “We set up a bunch of keyboards from all different eras and said, ‘Let’s try this,’” says de Reeder. “It was pure experimentation, and it was fun to try different things.”
“We experimented more with the Moog more than we had before,” Ward says. “It became about adding flavor to the record, and adding more surprises.”
“Also, they had these original congas that were from when Sunset Sound, Sound Factory’s sister studio, was Disney’s studio; they are the congas that were used on Jungle Book,” de Reeder says. “The piano they have is the one Warren Zevon played on ‘Werewolves of London.’ I’m not sure if the congas made it onto the final mix, but we definitely played with those things.”
“We also tried triangle on this record, tympani, things like that,” Ward says. “Zooey and I cover a lot of the instruments ourselves, and that’s part of the fun.”
Ward recorded some additional pieces at Jackpot! studio in Portland, OR, and at Sonic Trout in Cape Cod, MA, before taking the tracks to mix with engineer Tom Schick at The Magic Shop in New York City (magicshopny.com). Additional overdubs were done in New York, too, including a horn section (Art Baron, trombone; C.J. Camerieri, trumpet; and Doug Wieselman, saxophone).
“It was my first time arranging for horns,” Ward says. “It went great because we found great horn players. I think horn sections can be really annoying, at times, but if they’re subtle and not trying to take too much attention from the vocals, it can add a beautiful element, and so I love how it turned out.”
It takes a sensitive producer to use brass as a subtle element, but Ward definitely has the right touch.
“I love working with Matt,” Deschanel says. “He really recognizes when something is working, and if it’s not he knows how to fix it. If I send a demo to Matt and he thinks the basic arrangement is working, we will stick pretty close to my demo and make a more polished version. But if something doesn’t quite gel but he likes the song, he comes up with ways to bring the song out in production.
“A good example of this is ‘Never Wanted Your Love.’” he explains. “I wrote that song before our first record as a very slow piano ballad. We actually recorded it for Volume One, but it wasn’t working, so we didn’t put it on the record. The first day of recording Volume 3, we revisited the song, and Matt played me his idea, changing the main instrument from piano to guitar and taking the tempo from ballad to a mid-tempo swing time. It made the song come alive in a way I never pictured when I wrote it. That’s a great producer—someone who changes what needs to be changed but doesn’t gild the lily.”
Barbara Schultz is a contributing editor at Electronic Musician.