On a Tuesday afternoon in the basement studios of Capitol Records, She & Him were recording a volley of live tracks for a few radio station sessions. Singer Zooey Deschanel finished an umpteenth take of the duo’s single “I Could’ve Been Your Girl,” and she felt that something was sounding a little false.
“Do you have any ribbon mikes? We’re just not used to sounding digital,” she told the session engineer. “Maybe an RCA-77?”
That specific taste in microphones showed her technician’s ear — and the craftsmanship that goes into the winsome summery music she makes with longtime collaborator M. Ward.
The band makes its headlining debut at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, and with the release of She & Him’s fourth album, “Volume 3,” even once skeptical audiences are coming around and admitting that they are real artisans of classic pop.
As they prep for Sunday’s show, they’re taking in the fact that Deschanel’s hero Emmylou Harris is opening for them. “We’re so excited, she is absolutely perfect,” said Deschanel. But headlining a night at L.A.'s most iconic music venue is also validation for the work they’ve put into making She & Him an accessible yet deceptively complex project.
She & Him began as a side gig carved out of Deschanel’s and Ward’s respective acting and solo musical careers in 2008, but the act has since become as big a venture as the duo’s day jobs. As might be expected of an actor-fronted band, there was plenty of early groaning (it’s hard to read much about the band without Deschanel’s “New Girl” tagline “Simply Adorkable” popping up somewhere).
But Deschanel’s voice was undeniable — a bright, resonant instrument with a hint of Patsy Cline — and Ward’s pristine, tasteful arrangements conjured the AM of decades gone by.
The robust and immaculately written “Volume 3" should put any last grumbly holdouts on notice. The album is the duo’s most “produced” yet, full of the old Hollywood string arrangements and brass lines and stacked harmonies that make a simple tune take on new shades.
But it’s also home to some of Deschanel’s most acute and acidic songwriting.
The first lyrics on the album, from “I’ve Got Your Number, Son,” are as self-aware a depiction of dysfunction as a songwriter can ask for: “What’s a man without all the attention? Well, he’s just a man … who am I without all your affection? Well, I’m a nobody too.” The jaunty, family-band singalong “Together” quietly implies that, well, love stinks and nobody really understands anybody: “We all go through it together, but we all go at it alone.”
“We’re always talking about that mix of happy-sad, where a dark melody gets an upbeat lyric or vice versa,” Deschanel said. “I love that Beatles song ‘And I Love Her’ for that reason. I find sadness and strife to be so much more interesting with an upbeat melody.”
Of course, it’s hard to hear a song like that or the album’s single “I Could’ve Been Your Girl” without reading subtext from her recent real-life divorce from Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service singer Ben Gibbard (a subject she doesn’t talk about in interviews).
But that very public pain lends some even darker corners to songs that on the surface seem aglow with nostalgia and sweetness.
“People who say, ‘There’s no grit there,’ have no use for someone like Sam Cooke or the Beach Boys,” Ward said. “The productions are rich because her songs are rich.”
To listen to the duo tout the emotional virtues of diminished chords and the deep cuts of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (whose “Baby” gets a cover treatment on the album) is to hear two lifelong students of the best American songwriting at work. Yes, they know their arsenal of hipster-cute endearment is deep — watch Deschanel’s vamping in her self-directed video for “I Could Have Been Your Girl” for proof.
Few are immune: At Tuesday’s session, one radio interviewer took his last seconds with the duo to have Deschanel record a congratulatory message for his daughter’s recent track-team accomplishments.
But She & Him know that clean fun and serious skill aren’t opposed in pop music. They’re both necessary, and committed miserabilists can go jump in a lake.
“I remember having this friend in school who said she didn’t like the Beach Boys,” Deschanel said. “And in that moment I knew we couldn’t be friends anymore.”