On a leafy street in Austin sits a tiny cottage, far from the cacophony of the annual South by Southwest music festival. It's an idyllic setting suited to the throwback guitar-and-piano duo of actress Zooey Deschanel, 28, and singer-producer Matt ''M.'' Ward, 35 or, as they're now known, She & Him.
The pair don't need to hide behind ampersanded pronouns their proper names could be writ quite large on a marquee. Ward's last album, Post-War, made critics' best-of lists in 2006, the same year he co-produced Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis' solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat. Meanwhile, Deschanel is a certified indie darling (All the Real Girls, Weeds). ''We wanted people to listen to the music first,'' explains Ward of the moniker. ''We don't have aspirations to become rock stars,'' says Deschanel.
Released March 18, Volume One is a return to the glory days of AM radio, like someone wedged the Brill Building in an RV, circa 1962. Between Deschanel's sweetly unassuming vocals and the fact that she wrote nine of the album's 12 songs herself, it blasts the ''actors attempting music'' stigma to happy smithereens. ''It's a famous stigma,'' nods the actress, who's seated on a sofa munching stir-fry. ''I'd probably ask about that,'' admits Ward, noodling on a beautiful old Alvarez guitar. ''I would too!'' yelps Deschanel.
The pair tend to finish each other's sentences, though their collaboration is relatively new: Like the rest of the country, Ward discovered Deschanel's vocal abilities in 2003's Elf. (Singing in a shower next to a grown man in an elf costume will get people's attention.) ''It just struck me as strange that she didn't have a record,'' he says. In 2005, they cut a cover for the Go-Getter soundtrack. Once Deschanel got over the anxiety of having people listen to her songs (she'd been writing in private for years), the two recorded in Ward's hometown of Portland, Ore., over the winter of 2006-07. ''The first day, I remember being like, Ehhh,'' she shudders, gripping her torso. ''Right. Deep breath,'' Ward says, in his reassuring way.
Given their retro tastes and Ward's talent for four-track recording, Volume One is, naturally, analog. ''If you have a great song and a great singer, it's like cooking with quality ingredients,'' he says. ''Aw, thanks!'' says Deschanel, chucking him on the shoulder, then complimenting his choice to leave ''happy mistakes'' on the album. ''There are a lot of records I love that aren't pitch-perfect, but the magic is there,'' she says. ''If you put a bunch of machines on it, that takes away from the magic. People still like things that sound human.''
Those people can expect Volume Two someday; in fact, the Portland sessions could have filled two discs, ''but Matt pointed out that it's obnoxious to put out a double record for your first one,'' deadpans Deschanel. And she's not done with acting: She'll next appear in M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening (out June 13) and is now shooting Gigantic with Paul Dano. ''It's completely possible to do both,'' she says of her dual careers. ''I think they inform each other.''
But years in front of the camera don't seem to help stage fright: During a South by Southwest performance, Deschanel was shy, glancing over to Ward for encouragement. On the final number, ''Sweet Darlin','' she knelt next to him at the keyboard and banged out a solo on the high notes. Then they stood, bowed, and walked off stage side by side. ''It's like I have a big brother in Matt,'' says Deschanel, earning herself a high five. ''Like finding a friend in the wilderness.'' Before she could finish that sentence, Ward was already chiming in, ''A friend in the world.''
Songs in the Key of...
The golden oldies that inspired Deschanel and Ward's retro sound
In her Brill Building days, the pop star co-wrote ''Will You Love Me Tomorrow'' for the Shirelles, kicking off the girl-group era from which Volume One's doo-wahs descend.
Deschanel urged the lo-fi Ward to revisit the legendary producer's sound. ''I was so excited when I got to Portland and Matt's got Phil Spector pumpin' on the stereo!''
The Beach Boys ''We had so many of the same music influences,'' says Deschanel. ''That was the first good sign.'' They bonded over the Beach Boys, and other oldies. ''Goodies!'' says Ward.
Trained in musical theater, Deschanel starred in the 2005 TV remake of Once Upon a Mattress. But she loves older fare (of course), and her voice is tinged with shades of the Oz star.