Matt Ward discovered his new bandmate's musical talent the same way the rest of the world did.
"I knew what to expect after hearing her sing in that shower scene in 'Elf,'" said the acclaimed singer/songwriter better known as M. Ward, whose duo with actress Zooey Deschanel -- She & Him -- will make its Minneapolis debut Thursday.
Deschanel, meanwhile -- who followed her sere- nade of Will Ferrell with another on-screen singing performance in last year's "The Assassination of Jesse James" -- was waiting for someone like Ward to come along.
"I actually was given some offers to record after 'Elf,' but I didn't want to do just any old record," she said. "A lot of people wanted me to make an album of standards, but I didn't want to do that, or do anything that could be construed as a vanity project. I waited till I found somebody I really wanted to work with."
The story of how a rustic, underground indie-rocker and an almost-famous movie actress became musical partners is less unusual than the end results. She & Him's debut album, "Volume One," has generally been well-received by music critics and rock hipsters who usually dismiss any Hollywood star's musical venture faster than you can say Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts (Russell Crowe's old band, in case you forgot).
Deschanel had already proven she has a sweet voice, but the real achievement of "Volume One" is showing that she's also a capable songwriter. Scarlett Johansson relied on Tom Waits songs for her own debut album this year, and she still came up with mixed reviews.
In separate phone interviews last month from their homes in Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles (you can probably guess who lives where), Ward and Deschanel both said they never worried about the album being seen as simply a star vehicle.
"If the songs were not good, if the singer was not good, if the production was bad, any of that would be a great sign this was just a vanity project," said Ward. "None of those qualities were questionable in this case."
Said Deschanel, "I never worried because I knew I was very sincere about this and my intentions were pure. I totally put myself out there with this record. As long as that was the case, I knew it could cut through whatever people's assumptions might be."
How She met Him
The actress, 28, met Ward, 34, when he was hired to do soundtrack work for a small indie film she starred in last year, "The Go-Getter." Director Martin Hynes had the idea to have the pair record a Richard and Linda Thompson song, "When I Get to the Border," for the closing credits.
Deschanel had previous singing experience performing cabaret sets around Los Angeles with another indie actress, Samantha Shelton. She said she started singing and writing songs around the age of 8, but only started recording them a few years ago.
"It's another creative outlet, but it's something more than that," she said. "I just felt like I was going to burst, like I had so many songs in me I needed to get them out."
After their one-song collaboration, Ward encouraged Deschanel to send him some songs she had recorded at home using the computer program Garage Band. "They were really elementary, lo-fi recordings, but they sounded great to me that way, with just vocals and piano in this really raw form," recalled Ward, who wound up producing She & Him as well as acting as bandleader.
"I knew once I heard the songs and the vocals that it would be a great record. Her vocals are very classic-sounding, a vintage quality that you don't hear often. Listening to the demos reminded of some of my favorite Ronettes songs and Brian Wilson productions, I heard things like that in her demos. Her songs lend themselves to the listener's imagination."
It's her 'greatest experience'
A Southern California native whose big break was playing the big sister in Cameron Crowe's rock 'n' roll epic "Almost Famous," Deschanel merits all the comparison to fellow Golden State crooner Linda Ronstadt in such standout songs as the twangy torch song "Change Is Hard" and the "Waterloo Sunset"-styled single "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?" As Ward said, she also faintly echoes gramophone greats such as Sarah Vaughan or Patsy Cline in "Take It Back" and other ballads, plus the Ronettes in the she-boppy "I Was Made for You."
Deschanel emphatically called the making of the album "the greatest creative experience of my life."
"There's nothing else I've ever done that was so pure an expression of myself," she said. "Being an actor can be frustrating because you don't have control over what you put out there. I mean, I love the work, it's fun, but it's always doing someone else's work -- it's the writer's words and the director's vision.
"With this, I got to see it from the very start, writing the songs in my room, to recording and mixing. It was amazing."
"Volume One" was released back in March by Merge Records (home to Arcade Fire and Spoon), but both She and Him have been too busy to tour until now. She has filmed five movies this year, she said, from the big-budget Jim Carrey vehicle "Yes Man" (due Dec. 19) to the just-wrapped puny indie "Gigantic." Her big summer movie role was in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening," which was ravenously panned.
"It definitely can burn you out doing movie after movie, so I'm extra excited about this tour," Deschanel said.
Ward has been working on his own album, due early next year. He also started recording with longtime pals Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and Jim James (My Morning Jacket), an album he predicted "probably won't be out until 2010 or 2011, everyone is so busy."
Both Ward and Deschanel said there will be a "Volume Two" from She & Him in the not-too-distant future.
"She has many more great songs," Ward happily reported. "We worked well together, so I'm sure we'll do it again. She told me the favorite films that she has done were where the director trusted the actors to work from improvisation. To be able to trust the people you work with, inside and outside the studio, that's the best framework for creating something interesting."
Deschanel made it sound like this role has as much a happily-ever-after story line as "Elf" did.
"There hasn't been a single part of this I haven't enjoyed," she said.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658