M. Ward arranges an adventurous sound for She & Him
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org June 27, 2013 9:50PM
M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel of She & Him. Photo by Autumn de Wilde
SHE & HIM
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Aragon, 1106 W. Lawrence
Info: (773) 561-9500; etix.com
Updated: July 30, 2013 8:11AM
M. Ward has his hat trick.
She & Him’s “Volume 3” (on Merge Records) is the third and best collaboration between the Portland, Ore.-based singer-songwriter and singer-songwriter-actress Zooey Deschanel. Full of sonic adventures not heard in the more folk- and pop-driven “Volumes 1 and 2,” it features lush string arrangements, nightclub horns, Buddy Holly rhythms and hand clapping that would be right at home on a Carolina beach music 45.
It’s a “New Girl” with a new sound.
She & Him appear Saturday with a six-piece band in an all-ages show at the Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence. Camera Obscura opens. (I promise you’ll leave with a smile on your face.)
“Volume 3” places Ward in the echelon of emotive arrangers like Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach and Jeff Barry (with a cover of the 1965 Barry-Ellie Greenwich-George “Shadow” Morton tune “Baby”).
“All the cues I need for an arrangement are inside the demo,” Ward said in a conversation earlier this week after a tour stop in Salt Lake City, Utah. “I’ll listen to the demo for months and sometimes even years. Eventually ideas start to form. If you hear a demo enough times, layers start to appear, and imagined parts become necessary elements to the production. It’s a matter of studying the demo and finding where the song wants to go and where the emotion should come from.”
For example, Deschanel’s new “Snow Queen” fades out with a surprising and sultry New Orleans trombone-trumpet-saxophone segment. Ward explained, “It’s a snowball effect. It always starts with the guitar and finding a rhythm that will add to the song. Some songs weren’t meant to have a slow rhythm, and others weren’t meant to have a fast rhythm.
“It’s all about how the guitars are matching up with the vocals.”
Ward has a perfect foil in Deschanel’s pure and powerful vocals, which are right out of the historic Brill Building tradition (the Dixie Cups, Darlene Love, and Lesley “America’s Sweetheart” Gore). “Then drums come from that,” he said. “Strings come from guitar parts. Even the horn parts on this record, everything comes from arranging things on the guitar first.
“The biggest inspiration for me for string arrangements are records like ‘Lady in Satin’ by Billie Holiday, the way that Brian Wilson uses strings on ‘Pet Sounds’ [She & Him have covered ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ in concert] and the way Phil Spector uses strings.”
Ward was even more liberated after he began working with Deschanel in 2007.
“It’s great for me because the vocals and to a large extent the background vocals are in Zooey’s hands,” he said. “I love playing off that and what she brings to the productions.”
American songwriter-arranger Jimmy Webb has said one of his greatest difficulties was to set a tone at the beginning of a project. Ward feels the same way. “The first few songs are real important,” Ward said. “That creates the identity. You can use the songs recorded toward the end of the process as layered chapters in the same book that you started weeks or months earlier.”
Though they didn’t record any Webb songs for “Volume 3,” they love covers. Besides “Baby,” “Volume 3” includes Blondie’s “Sunday Girl,” laid down with a playful Buddy Holly rhythm and a minimalist take on the dramatic 1959 Connie Francis hit “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” — not an easy song to sing.
“By covering songs, Zooey learns a lot about chord progressions and discovering new ways to create,” Ward said. “My main university is going to listen to all these older songs that have a lot to teach you. I learned how to play guitar from early Beatles songs. And learning other people’s songs is still my main education for keeping current music fresh to my ears.”
“Volume 2” features a spot-on cover of NRBQ’s “Ridin’ in My Car,” and former Q bassist Joey Spampinato, guests on “Volume 3.” Deschanel suggested “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me.”
“We cover a ton of songs in the studio,” he said. “The ones that have their own identity are the ones that make it on the record.”
There’s a playful touch of Lee Hazlewood (and Nancy Sinatra, for whom Hazlewood wrote songs) in Ward’s ambitious guitar-driven approach.“I’m a huge Lee Hazlewood fan,” Ward said. “His approach was so unique. His vocal style was so unique, and he had such a sense of humor in his songwriting.”
Hazlewood, who died in 2007, was an early overdub fan and hated the development of stereo because “it took all the guts” out of the music, as he once told me.
Ward buys into this sense of minimalism, as well as acts like Calexico and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, who released Hazelwood’s solo albums in the late 1990s. Ward can’t say enough about him: “There is no one like Lee Hazlewood.”