She & Him’s “Volume Two” was released only four months ago, but for a relatively new album, it feels steeped in nostalgia. The light orchestrations bring a genial, upbeat touch to even the most heartbreaking lyrics, and over the course of two albums, California natives M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel have gradually brought a sunny, decidedly West Coast feel to delicately symphonic retro-pop tunes.
“Volume Two” comes with its own love letter to California, “Home,” a piano stroll accentuated with handclaps, swooning background vocals, crisp guitar notes and keyboard lushness. It arrives near the end of an album that’s full of sweetly nuanced arrangements built around Deschanel’s conversationally cheery vocals. A take on NRBQ’s forgotten “Ridin’ in My Car” is built for a windows-down cruise, and “In the Sun” is a three-minute call-and-response keyboard frolic that wouldn’t sound of out place on Disneyland’s Main Street.
“My earliest music memories were driving around and being in the back seat of my parents’ car and listening to music,” Deschanel said. “I feel like I associate music with California and the sun and a particular sort of feeling. It’s something that’s important to me to express when I write music. When we record, California is definitely on our minds.”
The duo play the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, and to mark the occasion, Deschanel and Ward spoke with the Los Angeles Times about some of their favorite California songs. Deschanel went with a theme, choosing only songs with California in the title, whereas Ward opted for songs that evoked a certain time and place.
Dick Dale, ‘Misirlou’
Ward had the surf-rock staple at the top of his list. “I picked songs that reminded me of California,” he said. “It’s a very personal, subjective thing to pick songs that remind you of where you came from.”
Dale’s arrangement of the Greek pop standard became the artist’s signature song. “That Dick Dale song takes me to the beach near where I grew up, near Point Mugu,” Ward said. “I don’t know what year that was, but it’s such an incredible song by an incredible guitar player. I hope people still feel like Dick Dale is the heart of surf music. People now are making surf music more modern, and I really hope he’s not forgotten.”
Mark Eric, ‘California Home’
Deschanel stumped Ward with this pick. “I’ve never heard of him,” he said of the little-known L.A. native who recorded a light, Beach Boys-influenced pop album in the late ‘60s. “He’s got a lot of great harmonies,” Deschanel said.
“California Home” tracks a homesick cross-country flight back to Los Angeles. “It’s kind of about being away from home, and thinking about California when you’re not in California,” Deschanel said. “That’s sort of the theme of my picks.”
Ward was quick to cite the legendary San Pedro punk trio as one of the primary reasons he’s a musician, crediting bassist Mike Watt, who went on to play in fIREHOSE after Minutemen singer D. Boon was killed in a van accident, as the reason he picked up an instrument. “That song reminds me of being in high school in California,” said Ward. “It takes me right back to that. Also, my brother lived out in San Pedro, and I’m just a huge fan of Mike Watt.
“His band fIREHOSE had a direct influence on why I decided to buy an electric guitar. I couldn’t say enough about Mike.”
Albert Hammond, ‘It Never Rains in Southern California’
The ‘70s soft-pop anthem about struggling to hit it big has a glum, overcast nature to it, and Deschanel concedes that the tune makes her sad. “But it’s still such a jam,” she said. “I put it on because I think it’s a jam.
“It’s such a blatant story song about trying to make it. I like the theatrical quality that it has. It’s kind of good to even dance to. But I think of California as our nation’s greatest state. It’s multifaceted. It can have a melancholy about it.”
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, ‘Act Naturally’
Broken hearts and Hollywood dreams intersect in this country classic from Bakersfield’s Buck Owens, but despite the cinematic ambitions and lovelorn undertones, Ward said the song reminds him more of a place than a feeling. “When I hear Buck Owens’ music, I think of Bakersfield,” Ward said. “My sister used to live in Bakersfield, so these are all personal memories. I can’t help but put my favorite songs in a geographical place.”
Merle Haggard, ‘California on My Mind’
Staying with a Bakersfield artist and maintaining the country tip, Deschanel cited Haggard’s California-boosting tune as one of her favorites. “That’s just about wanting to be in California,” Deschanel said of the cut, as the narrator is eager to leave behind cold winters. “Secretly, I think everyone who makes fun of California really does want to be in California.”
Tammy Wynette & George Jones, ‘Southern California’
“I like that song because it’s an outside opinion,” Deschanel said of the country duet in which West Coast dreams threaten to tear apart a relationship.
“It’s people talking about Southern California who aren’t Californian,” Deschanel said. “I love George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and together they’re even more exciting.”
The Beach Boys, ‘I’m So Young’
“Zooey and I can wholeheartedly agree that we love everything they’ve ever done,” Ward said of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Ward noted that narrowing down the Beach Boys to one song was difficult, and he instead went with one of the act’s more well-known covers.
“To pick a California song from Brian Wilson, we could have picked any of his songs,” Ward said. “So I picked ‘I’m So Young’ because it reminds me of being young. Those harmonies and chord changes? That’s the sound of California.”
Joni Mitchell, ‘California’
Deschanel said Mitchell’s classic album “Blue” was one of her go-to soundtracks in high school, and Mitchell’s homesick ode to California was a standout track. “That’s another song about longing about California,” Deschanel said.
“That song evokes a certain time of my life. I think her music had a complexity that I was first able to appreciate in high school. She can write pop songs, but she also will write songs that take a few listens before you can fully appreciate them. That record, ‘Blue,’ was very dear to me. If she had just made that record, she would be one of my favorites. I appreciate her individuality.”
// Notes from the Road
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