M. Ward is a guy who has it all. He has a devoted legion of fans hanging onto every raspy-voiced note he sings and finger-picked rhythm he plays on guitar, the acclaim of a surprising number of taste-making critics and a Midas-like ability to make lively albums in genres (indie-folk singer/songwriter land) that have seemingly been bereft of life for years.
So, when looking for his latest project, why choose a collaboration that is going to be marginalized from the onset?
Because Ward is that good, that’s why.
Ward’s latest project, She & Him, is a collaboration with Zooey Deschanel, an actress whose musical ability is largely unknown outside of her rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” opposite Will Ferrell in the film Elf. Trying to turn a movie star into a credible musician is perhaps the easiest way to get an album dismissed immediately, as many critics are prone to seeing such efforts as little more than sale-boosting gimmicks.
Few good albums by Hollywood-approved actors spring immediately to mind, and fewer still have stood the test of time. Most end up being forgotten by the culture at large, forgiving Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time” and Russell Crowe’s band 30 Odd Foot of Grunts with polite amnesia.
But She & Him’s debut release, Volume One, is different. Far from a vehicle to cash in on existing fame, the album is filled with simply arranged folk-pop, owing as much to Ward’s production savvy as Deschanel’s huge voice. It’s lighthearted, whimsical pop with echoes of folk and country, and it certainly stands on its own.
“I think that people have been listening to the record by and large on its own merits,” Ward says. And, for those in entertainment writing who dismissed the album early on, he seems less angry than disappointed. “I feel pity for the handful of cynics in music journalism who have too many new releases to listen to and not enough time to digest them. They take shortcuts in processing them to save time and meet deadlines.”
Ward says that the collaboration with Deschanel has been “very natural,” beginning with her simple request for help with honing her existing songs. The pair’s collaboration isn’t one-sided, with Ward as a corduroy-clad sage dragging Deschanel kicking and screaming into pop respectability. Instead, he says, he merely polished what was already there.
“Zooey sent me demos which had vocals, keys and some vocal arrangements,” Ward recalls. “I treated her demos the same way I treat my own demos—listen closely to where they want to go and then try your best to keep up as they gain momentum.”
There has been plenty of momentum to the album, with a steadily growing fan base buying it and no shortage of positive reviews to offset those that have irked Ward. There’s already talk of a Volume Two in the band’s future, although, Ward says, “it’s too early to say anything about.”
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: She & Him
what: Quirky pop, with celebrity connections
where: Orange Peel
when: Thursday, July 31. (9 p.m. $20. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)