Vonda Shepard, singer songwriter and actress chats with Kevin Cooper about working on Ally McBeal, her love for British audiences, her latest album Rookie and her forthcoming tour of the UK
Vonda Shepard is an American singer, songwriter and actress. She appeared as a regular in the television show Ally McBeal in seasons one through five, in which she played a resident performer at the bar where the show’s characters drank after work. She was offered the role after being spotted by the show’s creator David E. Kelley. While on the show she recorded two full soundtrack albums and was featured on two other Ally McBeal compilations. The songs Shepard recorded for the Ally McBeal soundtrack albums were mainly covers of old songs with lyrics that paralleled what was happening in the title character’s life onscreen. However, the album’s biggest hit single, Searchin’ My Soul was an original penned by Shepard and Paul Howard Gordon. Since appearing in the show, Shepard has often released her own material, her last album Rookie was released in 2015.
Whilst busy preparing for her forthcoming tour of the UK, she took the time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what she had to say.
Hi Vonda how are you?
I’m good thanks, how are you?
I am very well thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
It’s my pleasure and thank you for being interested in what I am currently up to.
And just how is life treating you today?
At the moment life is treating me very well. We have just finished up the summer but I am still managing to get myself down to the beach most days so that’s nice (laughter). Everything has been good and my son is now back at school which means that I now have a little more time. And I am currently getting myself ready for the forthcoming tour of the UK which I am really getting excited about.
What I was going to suggest was that before we speak about the tour should we get the elephant out of the room to start with?
(Laughter) the elephant wouldn’t be Ally McBeal would it by any chance?
It would indeed (laughter).
(Laughter) in that case, sure lets go for it.
Was Ally McBeal a good career move for you or are you now into that “look mummy there’s that lady from Ally McBeal” territory?
I have to say that working on Ally McBeal was a great career move for me. In all honesty it was also one of the only career moves that was offered to me so it was just a fantastic experience and turning point in both my life and my career. The part that I sometimes still struggle with is knowing just who my audience is whenever I make a set list (laughter). I simply have to trust myself and say okay I really do feel like playing a couple of the songs from this more obscure album of my own but I will always incorporate some of the Ally McBeal tunes. It gets confusing at times because I realise that when I speak to people after the show some people have never heard of me or seen me before and they have been dragged to the show by someone else (laughter).
They were happy with whatever I chose to play, either original songs of mine or any song that I felt like playing. They were happy with whatever I played. I feel that I sometimes overthink it at times as I am always trying to balance the set and make sure that everyone gets a little of what they want.
Did you enjoy your time on the show?
I loved it; it was just so much fun. As you know I was the music producer for the show so I was working constantly in the studio with all of the guest artists together with my own band. It was so much fun and I have to say that David Kelley is the best person on earth to work for. He just trusted me and let me do whatever was my interpretation of his script. He gave me a lot of freedom and there was a great camaraderie in working with the cast. It was just the most incredible experience.
Whilst on the show you won the Billboard Award for selling the most TV Soundtracks in history. Just how did that feel?
(Laughter) that felt good. In fact that felt really good. I always compare myself to Ricky Ricardo the character played by Desi Arnaz in the TV show I Love Lucy (laughter). When I was a kid he was the most famous musician who was an actual musician on a TV show. But going back to your question I would have to say that yes, being given that award was something special. In fact I was only thinking about this the other day and I have to say that yes, looking back it was quite an accomplishment. I am hoping that my next award will be for having a song in a movie. That would really be fun (laughter). I have had a great career so far and I am still able to do what I love doing which I really do appreciate; I love still doing it.
You are going to be touring here in the UK in October. Are you looking forward to that?
I am so very much looking forward to that. We had a real blast on the last tour and it was great that the people came out to see just what we were up to, which was fantastic. I was literally home from the last tour for about a week and then my agent and I booked this tour (laughter). We both agreed that the last tour was fun and that it had worked really well. I love going to a new town and just walking around in the streets, checking out the shops together with the small cafes. It is so different over there in the UK to what it is here in the States. There is so much more charm to the UK and that is just one of my favourite parts of touring. It’s not just about the shows, meeting the audiences and having fun singing and playing; for me it’s about walking around the streets anonymously, getting a taste of the culture. I totally love that.
I have to say that I do find it hard to believe that Vonda Shepard can walk around the streets of the UK anonymously (laughter).
(Hysterical laughter) let me tell you that without makeup and my hair swept back you would never recognise me (laughter). I am really good at being incognito (laughter). I have to tell you that from my point of view being recognised is vastly overrated. I love being unrecognisable and just being able to live my life. Then at the shows I put on my best face and throw it all out there but then it is nice to have some privacy and my own downtime.
Do the British audiences treat you well and appreciate what you are doing?
I have to say that the British audiences treat me very well. They are very respectful during the show. They are known for being very quiet during the songs and polite but what I found on the last tour was that if they like something then they really do show it. They will stand up at the end of a song, clapping and cheering. I can sometimes feel that the people want to stand up and dance so I demand it (laughter). I can tell that they want to so I will shout “okay everybody up” and they all stand up. They are very obedient (laughter). I think that the UK audiences are wonderful and that is why we are coming back.
I will be coming along to shoot and review your gig on Friday 14th October at the Lowdham Village Hall. What can we expect?
What you can expect is a few songs off my latest album Rookie, which has been out for around a year now. I will probably play three or four songs from that album, along with a couple of tracks from my 1996 album It’s Good Eve, a couple from the 1999 album By 7:30 and a couple of tracks from my 2002 album Chinatown. I will, as you would expect me to do, be doing some of the best of the songs from Ally McBeal and this time I am bringing a drummer over to the UK with me. He will play half of the show with me after I have played my solo part of the show. He will come on stage and we will have a party with the best of the Ally McBeal songs. So the show will have a lot of dynamics, it will be dynamic whilst being intimate and fun. I am hoping that it will be a party.
You have mentioned your latest album Rookie and I have to tell you that I have been playing it to death.
Yes really and I love it. I think that it is a great piece of work.
Oh my gosh, thank you so much. That makes me so happy.
My two favourite songs at the moment are Need Your Love and Turn It Up. I think that they are fantastic.
I like those tracks too and I was really pleased with just how well that album turned out for me. We will be doing both of those songs at the show in Lowdham so I will expect to see you dancing (laughter).
I understand that Rookie took you quite some time to record. Why was that?
Yes that’s right, in fact it took me around three years to write the album and I found it really gruelling if I am being honest with you. At one point it felt as though it was never going to be realised. My husband, Mitchell Froom who also happens to be my record producer was pushing me very hard to get the album finished. He told me that I had it in me and that I just needed to channel the creative forces within me (laughter). He told me to write about anything that I was feeling at that time and to just let it rip so I did just that and I have to say that I was surprised at just what came out. It finally dawned on me that I just needed to cut loose and let some of the pent up energy that was inside me get out.
That is the way that I write so it was twofold; I got to have a new album plus I enjoyed the cathartic experience in creating something that I could play which would make people happy. All round I really do think that on this occasion everybody wins (laughter).
Once the album was finally out there were you happy with how it was received?
To be honest I was very happy with just how well the album was received. It is a word of mouth album rather than a big release on a major record label. I have noticed that when I play the songs live people are singing along. I did a show recently where all of the women who were sitting at the front were singing along to I Just Don’t Get It so after the show I asked them if they had the album and every one of them replied “no” (laughter). I thought ‘oh well, it’s a catchy song and they are all singing along. That’s cool’ (laughter). I got some really good reviews for the album and people who hear it, like you, keep telling me that they really do like it so yes, I am pretty happy with it.
It would have been nice to have had, like I did back in the old days, a machine behind it. With a major record label behind me my albums would sell in excess of a million copies or more. But those days are gone, but its fine, I don’t care. I am lucky that I can still do it and still tour and that is how I sell records now.
You used Kickstarter to enable you to raise the funds for Rookie. How was that experience?
For the people out there who have never heard of Kickstarter, they are exactly the same as PledgeMusic in that they help artists and musicians find the resources and support which they need to make their ideas a reality usually through donations made by the fans. And that is just how I raised the funds for Rookie. The fans would much rather have you make an album than not because of the fact that you don’t have the money to make it. They would much rather prefer to chip in a little and feel that they are participating in helping the artist realise the album. A lot of people will look at my bio and say “she has sold twelve million records, she must have enough money to pay for a record” (laughter).
However, the thing that people forget to take into account is auditing the record label three times, hiring lawyers and paying managers; nobody knows that in reality the artist ends up with very little (laughter). You still make money; I bought a nice house back in 2000 so thank god for that because that is my retirement.
Are you always writing?
I write in a journal around five days per week so I am always writing in that sense. When I was younger I would be writing constantly; I would have to write something every single day. I would leave great parties just so that I could get home and write a song when I felt inspired and that was dedication (laughter). However, I have to say that now that I have a family I am very dedicated to my son and that means that there simply is not as much time and space for writing which is why the last album was so hard to do. But once I get deep into a couple of songs, that seems to pull me in and then I can do it. Once I am on a roll then I want to write every day.
On that point are you already writing or at least thinking about writing for the next album?
I have a few things that I am currently working on and at the moment it is all about structuring the time and finding the time once I am off the road probably to do that. I have finally realised that writing is something that I need to do in my life. I need to keep it going and find the discipline to keep it going because in the end it brings me tremendous happiness. It’s sort of like working out and going to the gym (laughter). One doesn’t necessarily want to do it but it makes you feel better and hopefully the result is good (laughter). You are a writer so you will understand that it is something that is unique and has never been written before, maybe.
It feels pretty special like you have transcended into another realm. It almost feels spiritual like you are on another plain. It is a great place to be so it would be nice to keep going with that.
As a record collector of over forty years now I have to take my hat off to you for releasing Rookie on vinyl.
Thanks for saying that. Vinyl is pretty cool at the moment isn’t it (laughter). I was excited about the album being released on vinyl and people are snatching them up; they are really into it. To be honest I was really surprised at the response so we will also be bringing one of my personal favourite albums of mine It’s Good Eve over to the UK on vinyl. The pressing with be finished in around two weeks so it will be all ready for the tour. Come over and say hi and I will give you a vinyl copy of the album.
That would be great. Thank you very much.
I am an old soulie at heart and I have to say that I love your versions of the Four Tops numbers Walk Away Renee and Something About You.
That’s really cool. Thank you.
Is there any chance of you recording a Motown covers album?
To be honest with you I have thought about that myself on a number of occasions now. The honest answer is I don’t know; maybe. People have asked me in the past if I would do it but these days’ record companies simply don’t say “hey Vonda Shepard wants to make a Motown album. Sure, here’s eighty thousand dollars, go for it” (laughter). I would have to raise the money in order to do that but it would be fun. Do you have any song suggestions for me?
I thought that perhaps you could cover a few of the early recordings that were made famous by Martha Reeves?
Okay I will check those out. She recorded Dancing In The Street didn’t she?
Yes, she did along with Jimmy Mack, (Love Is Like A) Heat Wave, Nowhere To Run, In My Lonely Room, Third Finger Left Hand, the list just goes on and on.
Sometimes I play some private shows here in the States and the band and I learnt Dancing In The Street which always goes down well whenever we play it. I love her version of that song. I will have to look into that because you have got me thinking now. It could be fun to do that at some stage. For your information at every one of my shows I always play Walk Away Renee so listen out for that at Lowdham (laughter). One of the young guys who I sometimes work with came up to me at a show and said “I am so glad that you are doing one of your own songs” and he was talking about Walk Away Renee (hysterical laughter). I said to him “that’s not one of my own songs but I am really glad that you think it is” (laughter).
Also at every show I play Sweet Inspiration which really is like a Gospel explosion together with a couple of Aretha Franklin numbers because, like you, I am drawn to those deep soul numbers.
Staying on the Motown theme if I may, back in 2001 you were the featured artist on the Standing In The Shadows Of Motown tour. What was it like to be on the same stage as the remaining members of The Funk Brothers?
Oh yes, oh my god that was heaven. In fact it was fantastic. By that time the movie had come out so everyone suddenly knew who these guys were and all of the places on the tour were packed to the rafters. We were playing some really big outdoor venues and every night we were playing to a full house. I got to play with some of those legends such as Jack Ashford who played the tambourine on all of those Motown hits. Jack was eighty years old when I did those gigs. For me to be standing up there with the original guys was I have to say pretty powerful. There I was singing What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted with The Funk Brothers in Detroit of all places was, I would have to say, a very big highlight of my career.
I was fortunate to catch the tour when it came over to Manchester here in the UK back in January 2004. It was such a magical evening seeing and hearing those guys play.
Really, that’s great that you managed to get to see at least some of the original guys. Who was singing on that night?
That is a sad note because it should have been the late, great Issac Hayes but due to scheduling problems he couldn’t make it over and as you know he fell into ill health and died in 2008 so I never actually got to see the great man perform live. The vocals for the night were taken care of by Billy Preston in the first half of the show and Steve Winwood in the second.
You are kidding me, Billy and Steve on the same night. That would have been fantastic to see and I am sure that they both loved it. It sounds like a truly fantastic evening. I really did enjoy the movie.
It was the look on people’s faces when they found out that the band had played on more Number One hits than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and Elvis combined (laughter).
(Laughter) that’s right, I remember that. That is truly amazing.
Was it always going to be a career in music for you?
When I was twelve years old I thought that I was going to be something more like an astrophysicist. I was very interested in science and astronomy. However, I played my first gig when I was fourteen and I realised that was my real destiny and so I went for that (laughter).
Who were you listening to when you were growing up?
I would always find myself listening to a lot of the singer songwriters such as James Taylor, Carole King, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, those kinds of people. However, I would also listen to Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Candi Staton who were my favourite artists from the age of sixteen. So as you can see there were two sides to who I was listening to; there was the soul side and there was the singer songwriter side which I always felt was a good combination (laughter).
What was the first record that you bought?
It was a single and it was You’re So Vain by Carly Simon. I vividly remember buying it back in the days when I had a turntable (laughter).
Who did you first see performing live in concert?
Well, I was dragged along to see The Beach Boys (laughter). I would have been ten or eleven years old and the whole audience screamed throughout the entire concert (laughter). So I just sat there with my best friend and her mom screaming for two hours. It was so exciting; there were eighteen thousand people there at The Forum and I was one of them.
Who has inspired you musically along the way?
That’s a tough one. As a young female singer songwriter I was a huge fan of Rickie Lee Jones because she did a lot. She played the piano, guitar, she sang and wrote amazing songs and lyrics. I found myself working with her; I was in her band which was incredible. When I was young she was a very big inspiration. Now days I look to people such as Tom Waits, simply because of his lyrics. Tom writes with his wife Kathleen (Brennan) and some of their lyrics are just so incredibly brilliant which as a writer makes me want to be better. Then it has to be Aretha Franklin who sings so effortlessly. As a singer I know just how hard it is to hit those notes but Aretha makes it all sound so easy and relaxed so she is a great inspiration as well.
If I had to push you, what would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
That’s a tough one as well because there are so many highlights. I am going to say something that you might not believe but I think that the highlight of my career was finding my current band. We are so close that we are just like a family. I love them so much and we are so connected musically and on a personal level we are the best of friends. So for me to find a band where there is never going to be a mutiny, dissention in the ranks, people talking about one another and a band that I can trust and who trust me, is such a gift. So I would have to say that is the highlight of my career because I can’t wait to rehearse with them. I can’t wait to go out and play with them, have dinner together after the shows; I just love them.
What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?
My son was practicing the piano. He was playing the right hand and his father was playing the left hand. I actually captured it on video and that made me cry. They were playing Carry Me Back To Old Virginny (laughter). So there you go (laughter).
Do you have any ambitions left to achieve?
If I can just keep doing what I am doing for another ten years I will be pretty content. I would love to continue to build the audiences back up to where they were back in 2000, which it seems like we are doing that again. Careers go in waves and it is on the upswing again which is great. I would love to continue doing it and have that experience for quite a while yet. Other than that I always say that I am going to write a book someday and I may. I have forty years of journals which I can source (laughter). I’m sure that the book will happen at some point.
From a personal point of view because I love the man and his work, I have to ask you what was it like working with The Reverend Al Green?
Oh my gosh, that was one of the highlights of my career as well. First of all he is a genuinely nice person, and when I was sixteen years old his Bell album was one of my favourite albums. It is literally one of the coolest sounding albums ever. When he walked into the studio I was simply blown away. Here I was not only working with him but I was also producing him. There was a point in the recording where he did that laugh which he did at the end of a song on the Bell album; he did the same laugh and I was back in 1978 (laughter). It was just incredible. For me to realise that I was working with The Reverend Al Green having listened to his album every single day for a year was simply amazing. It was such an honour for me.
I saw him perform here in the UK a few years ago now. He came out onto the stage with the biggest bunch of red roses that I have ever seen. He then proceed to hand all of the ladies on the front row a single red rose (laughter).
(Hysterical laughter) that’s funny, you can’t knock that can you. It really is old school (laughter).
On that note Vonda can I once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Thank you and thanks for asking such great musical questions. It’s good to talk to someone who obviously loves music. I hope to see you at the show in Lowdham and please do come over and say hi.