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Deschanel lands a new part

Special to The Times

Neither member of She & Him has a tremendous amount of time to dedicate to the band: Zooey Deschanel, the singer, is an actress with upcoming roles in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” and the Jim Carrey vehicle “Yes Man,” while M. Ward, the guitarist and producer, makes records under his own name when he’s not busy serving as a sideman for Norah Jones or Bright Eyes.

Nonetheless, Deschanel says that many of the songs on “Volume One,” She & Him’s just-released debut, were born out of having too many hours on her hands.

“As an actor, you have a lot of free time,” Deschanel, 28, explains over lavender tea at a Brentwood cafe. “There’s so much waiting around in hotel rooms and trailers. I was doing a movie a few years ago in a place where I didn’t really know anyone, and I ended up recording these really elaborate demos of all these songs on my computer. Someone would be like, ‘They’re ready for you on set,’ and I was like, ‘I gotta finish these backing vocals!’ ”

The result of Deschanel’s downtime diversion is much more compelling than your typical Hollywood vanity project: On “Volume One,” She & Him, who are scheduled to perform two sold-out shows tonight and Tuesday at the Vista Theatre in Los Feliz, offer a country-tinged collection of lovesick pop songs (including several covers) laced with nostalgia.

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The music is light and strummy yet comes equipped with heavy-duty vocal harmonies that provide just a touch of girl-group sass. “Change Is Hard,” the disc’s most impressive cut, is a tear-in-your-beer ballad, with Deschanel begging an ex to resist the urge to show off his new mate.

Deschanel found her perfect musical counterpart in Ward (who’s known to his friends as Matt) in 2006. Ward, 34, was composing the music for director Martin Hynes’ “The Go-Getter,” an indie film set to open June 6 in which Deschanel plays a woman whose car is stolen by a soul-searching young man.

Hynes knew about his star’s vocal talent; he’d seen her perform on her own and with her pal Samantha Shelton around L.A. and heard her sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in 2003’s family comedy “Elf.” So he asked the two to record the Richard and Linda Thompson song “When I Get to the Border” for the movie’s end titles.

“They hit it off right away,” says Hynes, who recalls sitting around his living room one evening with Deschanel, Ward and one of the film’s producers. “We ordered dinner and eventually ended up taking out a guitar. After they did ‘When I Get to the Border,’ Zooey asked Matt if he could play ‘Mister Sandman.’ He knew the chords by heart.”

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The actress concedes that the connection was immediate. “There’s something so profound about his music,” Deschanel says of Ward. “He has this way of spinning a web in his songs so that you have no idea where or when they were recorded. I feel like he’s covering ground that no one else is covering right now.”

Speaking by phone from his home in Portland, Ward returns the compliment. “The first time I heard her sing, I thought, ‘This is someone with a record,’ ” Ward says. “I was surprised to find out she didn’t have one.”

Demos on the way

The seeds of “Volume One” were sown when Deschanel told Ward about her trove of demos. “I think out of curiosity he kept asking to hear them,” she says. “I was very shy about it, but finally he talked me into sending them over. A couple of weeks went by and then he e-mailed me: ‘Let’s go and record these songs properly.’ ”

She & Him spent two weeks in a pair of studios in Portland in December 2006; Deschanel returned to Portland for 10 more days to complete the album in February 2007.

The singer says Ward kept things low-key in the studio. More than once, he declined to go back and correct an accident, insisting that it was less a mistake than an instance of serendipity.

“What you hear on the record is for the most part first and second takes,” Ward says. “I loved the demos Zooey sent me, and I wanted to create that same environment.”

Deschanel says she’s uninterested in keeping up with new bands, preferring instead the thrill of “discovering something old that might’ve been forgotten. I like the feel of being in a musty record store,” she says with a laugh.

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Her singing has been compared to that of Peggy Lee and Anita O’Day, retro references that suit her just fine.

“Zooey’s material reminds me of so many records I grew up listening to,” says Ward. “The chord progressions and the quality of her vocals -- it sounds so classic.”

Hynes says it’s Deschanel’s talent as an actress -- “her intelligence and the way she listens so well” -- that makes her a compelling songwriter.

Deschanel says each form of creative expression is a different side of the same coin. “They’re both about storytelling, just filtered through different things,” she offers. “With acting you’re being creative within the confines of someone else’s vision. With songwriting you get to choose whatever story you want to tell. That’s refreshing.”

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She & Him

Where: Vista Theatre, 4473 Sunset Drive, Los Angeles

When: 7 p.m. today and Tuesday

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Price: Sold out

Contact: (213) 413-8200


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