She & Him's Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward talk 'Elf' origins and 'soft cancel' of 'Baby, It's Cold Outside'

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·5 min read

She & Him, the folk-pop duo of singer-songwriter/actress Zooey Deschanel and indie musician M. Ward, are currently celebrating the 10th anniversary of their classic holiday album A Very She & Him Christmas, which they just reissued with an accompanying 7-inch containing two new ‘80s covers: Wham!’s “Last Christmas” and a festive take on Madonna’s “Holiday.” As they chat with Yahoo Entertainment, the conversation of course eventually veers to Zooey’s breakout role in Elf — not just because it’s one of the most beloved holiday movies of all time, but because it was actually that film that led to She & Him’s formation in the first place.

“When I saw Elf, I thought that when I heard Zooey's voice it was such an amazing voice, and I thought this is someone that has a bunch of records already recorded,” recalls Ward, referring to Deschanel's iconic "Baby, It's Cold Outside" shower scene in the 2003 Christmas comedy. “But I was really surprised — when we met in a studio at the invitation of a film director to cover a Richard and Linda Thompson song, I was amazed to find out that she didn't have any records, and only one song out into the world, which was through Elf. So very, very quickly after working on this Richard and Linda Thompson song, I was really happy to receive a few originals that Zooey wrote. And that's really been the longevity of She & Him, is Zooey’s songwriting.”

“I sent Matt some of my songs, and he said, ‘Come up to Portland, we'll record 'em,' and the rest is history,” says Deschanel. “But yes, the origin was like, he was willing to give me a chance because he'd heard me sing in Elf. So, he was not like, ‘Who is this crazy lady?’ He was like, ‘OK, I know she can sing.’”

Deschanel was admittedly nervous to put her music out into the world, because “everyone told me once I became an actor, I was told that you couldn't become a singer without people thinking you're just kind of like a joke. So, it took me a long time to kind of figure out the right way to do it,” she explains. As soon as she connected with Ward, after “looking for the right producer for many years,” everything clicked.

Ward says “there was never any trepidation” on his part regarding the stigma against actors who also do music. “[Deschanel’s] songs were so good, and the voice is so good, that I knew it was going to work," he says. "Neither of us had any idea that we'd be doing it for 15-plus years! We thought it would be just one record and see what happens. But it just really worked when we made [She & Him’s 2008 debut album of originals] Volume One, and that's really what started the snowball.” (No pun intended.)

Ward describes many of the developments of She & Him’s long career as happy accidents, starting right from the beginning — because the scene in which Deschanel’s character Jovie sings “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Will Farrell’s Buddy Hobbs wasn’t even in the original Elf script. 

M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel of  She & Him perform on 'The Tonight Show' in 2011. (Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)
M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel of She & Him perform on 'The Tonight Show' in 2011. (Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

“It was kind of tailored to me, because I know that when I first talked to John Favreau, who directed the movie, he said that he wanted whoever — I was probably like their fifth choice, because I was like not a known person — but he wanted whoever they cast to be someone who had like a special skill,” Deschanel reveals. “And I think one of the people they were looking at was good at skateboarding or something, and they were going to maybe have her be a skateboarder. But when it was me, he knew that I could sing this kind of old-time-style music. I had a cabaret act and I sang a lot of jazz stuff, and I had a lot of knowledge of that kind of old music. And so then he kind of tailored that part to me. I feel very lucky that it turned out that way, absolutely.”

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which was introduced to the public in the 1949 film Neptune's Daughter, has undergone what Deschanel’s jokingly calls a “soft cancel” in recent years, because its lyrics — depicting an aggressive male suitor begging a woman to stay at his house and have another (possibly roofied) drink — do seem jarring in the #MeToo age. So, when She & Him decided to cover the song on A Very She & Him Christmas, they decided it needed a gender-role swap. “That was just a good Christmas duet. And then we thought if we flipped it and had, you know, me saying the ‘predator’ part, we could modernize it,” Deschanel quips. “Hopefully people will like it better this way.”

Deschanel stresses that "context is everything," and elaborates: “We just play it in a very comedic way. I think if it were played in a serious way, when you're looking at the lyrics, it is problematic, but again, different contexts lend different meanings. … It was written as a character song originally. And when you see the original, it's supposed to be coy, but of course, definitely when you look at the lyrics through today's lens and you just think of it as a pop song, it is not one that would be written now! But it was written as two characters that are very much of the time they were written — definitely not how we want to teach our young men to be right? She said ‘no’ once! Just let her go!”

She & Him are now embarking on a holiday tour to commemorate the 10th anniversary of A Very She & Him Christmas, but they reveal that they “made another record over the pandemic” and have “been making music the entire time,” and this still-secret project is “kind of a songbook situation” that will hopefully come out in 2022. In the meantime, fans can catch them doing all their holiday hits live — including “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” of course, because as Ward says with a chuckle, “We're always courting controversy.”

Check out Yahoo Entertainment’s full, extended She & Him interview below, in which they discuss how Sonic Youth inspired their Madonna cover, their love of holiday music, and in an especially amusing tangent, the misheard lyrics in used car salesman Cal Worthington's theme song:

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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jimmie Rhee

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