The bar scenes in Ally McBeal were shot at 5 a.m. The piano was muted and her vocals were recorded later, but Vonda Shepard still sang on the set with all her might.
These days, Vonda feels like one of the luckiest people in the world, but getting there was a struggle. Along with her three sisters, she was raised by a single dad, working hard to help her family while developing her extraordinary talent for singing and songwriting.
As a teen, she worked as a singing waitress, which prepared her for her big break: duetting with Dan Hill on the 1987 hit "Can't We Try." She landed a record deal and recorded some great songs, but was dropped from the label after her second album. Her next break was even bigger - Ally McBeal.
Vonda appeared on every episode of the show, a wildly popular comedy/drama with a cultural impact far exceeding its ratings. Created by David E. Kelley (who also did L.A. Law and The Practice), Ally ran from 1997-2002. Vonda played herself, appearing behind the piano in the famous bar scenes that were a staple of the show. It was clever casting, using a real (and established) working musician who was dealing with many of the same relationship issues explored on the show. It wasn't how Kelley envisioned it, but Vonda quickly became a key character and the musical embodiment of Ally, the smart, single lawyer with short skirts and long drama.
During this run, Vonda recorded close to 500 songs and was joined on various episodes by Gladys Knight, Sting, Barry Manilow, Al Green and Jon Bon Jovi. It was a great day job - at night she often performed at places where the martinis were real. Her post-Ally projects include the albums Chinatown (2002), From The Sun (2008), and the acoustic set Solo (2011).
Vonda Shepard: That's a good question. I always compare myself to Ricky Ricardo. (Laughs) Because, wasn't he like a musician - what was his name, Ricky Ricardo, right?
Songfacts: Yeah. But his real name was Desi Arnaz, I think.
Vonda: Oh, right. What am I saying. You're right. I knew that. Okay, so the answer to your question is possibly. I haven't done the research. But it was really weird when on the show they'd go to the club and say, "Oh, Vonda's got a new CD." They did that kind of as a favor when I put out a new CD on the show. And it worked. They worked it into the storyline. So that was pretty hilarious.
Songfacts: I remember Mel Tormé would show up on Night Court, but it was nothing like what you did. How did this whole thing develop? I can't imagine David E. Kelley conceived your role as being as comprehensive as it was right from the outset.
Vonda: No. It developed from an idea, but it developed so quickly. It grew exponentially week by week, into a more full role. Basically what happened was I was playing a gig in L.A., and I had recorded a new album called It's Good, Eve, which was an indie album after I had been on Warner Brothers. He was at the club and it was right when he was formulating Ally McBeal, and it was the proverbial lightbulb going off when he saw me up there. I was friends with him through his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). And so in the beginning, he heard a song called "The Wildest Times of the World," which was on It's Good, Eve. And that was the song that made him realize this was the voice - I was the voice, I was the sound for the character's emotional make up. And originally he had thought that Calista was going to actually be singing the songs. I don't know if you knew that.
Songfacts: I didn't.
Vonda: Lot of people don't know that, but that's what David told me years later. It was so funny - he wanted it to be one person and then he split it into two characters.
So I recorded that song and we recorded one other song, I think it was "Tell Him." And originally David wanted "Tell Him" to be the theme song for the show. I was living in New York at the time, so I flew to L.A. and recorded a couple more things. My manager and I really wanted one of my own songs as a theme song, so we played a bunch of producers about five of my songs, and then they chose "Searchin' My Soul," and said, "If you can squeeze this in to one minute, this can be the theme." So then I was suddenly doing the theme. And then David decided to have a bar scene, so I was in the pilot. I was still living in New York when we did the pilot. And then I kept getting calls saying, "Can you record this song? Can you record that song?" It was very casual at first. It was just me and my guitar player or me and the band.
Then I moved to L.A., and I thought, this is really escalating. Suddenly I had a serious job.
Songfacts: How did you know Michele Pfeiffer?
Songfacts: So "Searchin' My Soul," you wrote, I think, in the early '90s. It was long before the show.
Songfacts: What was going on when you wrote that song?
Vonda: Music was my life, I was obsessed with it. I had been playing clubs since I was 14. Finally got signed at the age of 24, did an album for Warner Brothers. And it was tremendously exciting to be finally signed after all those years of trying and writing and being obsessed with music, but they dropped the ball on the first album and they basically said go and write another one. It was hard. I went to New York to write with some writers, I had to really dig in. I guess it was a little disappointing. I felt like the first album could have gone much farther, and there I was back writing again.
And I had been dealing with stuff from the past, a lot of stuff from my childhood and difficult times. So on "Searchin' My Soul" I dug into that, basically resolving some past issues and really hoping to move on and be positive in the world and be positive in my own life. So that's where that came from.
Songfacts: Was there one night where this all poured out of you, what you say in the song?
Vonda: I'm trying to remember. No one's asked me that in the all these years. I seem to recall that that was one of those kind of fairly quick songs to write. Some songs take years. Literally. "Maryland" took three years to write, and I worked on it consistently. I'd work on it every day, every week, and I had to wait until the chorus came. I didn't know what I was saying yet. "Searchin' My Soul" was a little bit quicker. Wish I could be more specific. It's been a long time now. It's been more than 20 years.
Songfacts: One thing that you notice when listening to your songs is there must have been one guy or multiple guys that affected you in some way. Was it the same dude?
Vonda: (Laughing) When you write a song, sometimes it's about one person or one dude or whatever. And sometimes it's about the person, plus the fact that this happened when I was 10 years old. But, no, there have been several dudes that have affected me enough to write a song about them along the way. My first album, there's a song called "Looking for Something," which I wrote when I was 17, and it was about this guy. That song still holds up, and it can apply to several different people in my life. Or "Baby Don't You Break My Heart Slow" from my first album is a good example of one that was about one guy, and it's the only song I wrote about that guy.
But one album that I did, called By 7:30, the entire album is about the same person. Then I moved on from him, and that album exists like a little tribute to that relationship and that time of living in New York. Then I moved on.
Songfacts: The By 7:30 album, you were already on Ally McBeal when you did that one, right?
Songfacts: So here you are writing about something that's going on in your life and some of these songs are ending up on Ally McBeal. What was that like?
Vonda: That was great. That was very, very cathartic and gratifying to know that that year I spent pining over this person was actually used and brought out into the world.
It was also very surreal to suddenly hear the song "Soothe Me" that I worked on for a year in New York City in my tiny little cool apartment waiting for this person to come around... and he never came around. I recorded the song and played it for David. He listened to it in the car on his way home from the set, He drove down Santa Monica Boulevard - "Boys Town" they call it - it's like transvestite young boys standing on the corner. It was around Christmas. So he was playing "Soothe Me" and said that he saw this innocent looking sweet boy who was a transvestite. He went home and he wrote the episode "Boy To The World." So how cool is that, to not only have my own cathartic experience by writing the song, but then to have David be inspired by it and have that moment. Serendipitously having it all come full circle was just really cool.
Songfacts: Did you ever write a song specifically for the show?
Vonda: I actually did, I wrote part of a song specifically for the show. There's a song called "Rain or Shine," it's on Chinatown (Vonda's 2002 album). I was writing Chinatown toward the end of Ally McBeal, trying to find myself again, I was trying to get back to my own style, because I got so pulled into the cover tune thing.
I was in the middle of writing "Rain or Shine," which I wrote with Mitchell Froom. Suddenly I could picture the characters, Ally McBeal and what was Robert Downey's character called? I don't even remember.
Songfacts: I'm not sure. (Turns out it's Larry Paul - he played Ally's love interest on 25 episodes.)
Vonda: Whatever his name was in the show, I could picture them having a scene with this song - I think I had seen a daily of it or something like that. It was like I wrote the chorus for that. I played it for David, and he loved it, but it didn't get used in that specific scene. The chorus is [singing], "There's rhythm, we came together rain or shine, I'll love you all my life." I could see the whole thing. So that chorus was inspired by the show.
And also on From the Sun (her 2008 album), there's a song called "Finally Home." It's the last song on that album. I wrote that in the dressing room of the set when I was filming. It was one of the very last weeks of filming, and I wrote that song. I think Peter MacNicol was playing the bagpipe in his dressing room and I could hear that droning sound and I was inspired by it. We actually put that song in the show, but it ended up being replaced by, I think, "Blowin' In The Wind," which is not a bad thing to be replaced by.
Vonda: It was on Warner Brothers 1989, and it was called Vonda Shepard, and the original version was on there. That was a song that hit me like a lightning bolt. Driving down San Vicente Boulevard, I pulled over, I wrote the words, went home and wrote the song. It was pretty much done in about 2 days.
Songfacts: What happened to the guy that song was about?
Vonda: Oh, that guy? He went on to break millions of hearts after me. (Laughing) I know that for a fact.
Songfacts: Is he semi-famous?
Vonda: Not somebody that you would know, or anybody would know. He's kind of known in another genre.
Vonda: Right. That was kind of funny. I was invited to see the Indigo Girls at the Greek Theatre in L.A. and it was the first time I'd ever met the girls. And Emily came running down the hall, literally, like, "Vonda fucking Shepard!" She said, "Oh my God! I love you! I love the song 'Baby Don't You Break My Heart Slow.'" This was literally the first time I met her, and she said, "Do you want to sit in with us tonight at the Greek?" Eight thousand people sold out. I said, "Oh my God, sure!" And she said, "Why don't you do our first encore?" She asked me to sing that song, "Baby Don't You Break My Heart Slow." I actually wound up doing "The Wildest Times of the World" instead, because I didn't feel comfortable doing that one. So we became close friends and we decided to do a duet of it.
Songfacts: Was that ever used on Ally McBeal?
Vonda: Yes. That was used.
Songfacts: Wow. You got a lot of mileage out of that one.
Vonda: I sure did. It's weird.
Songfacts: Boy, sometimes you almost gotta thank some of those ex-boyfriends for giving you that lightning bolt.
Songfacts: You're married to Mitchell, right?
Vonda: Uh huh.
Songfacts: You released a song in 2008 called "I Know Better." Was that one of your more recent songs, or is that another one that goes way back?
Vonda: That was a recent song, but I was writing about the past. That and "Roll in the Dirt" are two songs that I went back and kind of healed a past relationship that was unresolved. So it was great to do that and cut that person loose, finally. I mean, it's not like you're still in love with the person, but you feel weird about an unresolved relationship. And rather than have the conversation with the person who maybe wasn't willing to have the conversation, I just wrote it into a song.
That's why I started writing, just to communicate and get things off my mind.
Songfacts: Yeah. And sometimes it can be tough to come up with material when you're in a happy, committed relationship.
Vonda: You're not kidding. I mean, I am just starting to write my new album and I'm digging, I'm going, Okay, should I write about the frustrations of family life? I have a 6 year old and it's very hard. But I don't really feel like writing a children's album, and I don't really feel like writing about my son. My relationship is great. So I'm going back and I have to say to my husband, "This is not about you, honey." (Laughing).
And that's the challenge, too, with writing, because you have to just go with what you feel and not worry about what people think about it.
Songfacts: Richard Marx met his wife when he was 21, he's still married, and that's his eternal challenge.
Vonda: Oh, my God, I'll bet.
Songfacts: What was going on with the song "Don't Cry Ileen"? Was there a real Eileen?
Vonda: Yes. There was a real Ileen. And you know what's funny, it is like documented fact that the song is about an interracial relationship; that's not true at all. I don't know who made that up. It's not about that. It cracks me up, because people say it, like, you know, very educated, interesting smart people think that's what it's about.
I was kind of in love with this guy and he had a girlfriend, and that's what it was about. But in the song, in my little story of the song, he breaks up with her, which he never did. He breaks up with her, and I'm telling her, it's okay, Ileen, maybe it's all for the best. But it's very circuitous, where it's as if there's this other person. But it turns out I'm the other person, even though we're not together in the song. It's kind of complicated.
Songfacts: And then in real life it happened very differently?
Vonda: I guess it did happen somewhat differently, but some of it is true. It's funny, because I don't get asked about my original old songs very often. Most people want to hear about Ally McBeal stuff. So it's kind of cool to talk about and try to remember what was going on back then.
Vonda: That's so true.
Songfacts: So how did you end up on "Can't We Try"?
Vonda: Funny. Dan Hill was recording at a place 5 blocks from my house in Los Angeles, and I used to go there and work sometimes. The studio manager was a woman who knew me. They were auditioning singers and he wasn't happy with any of them, and she said, "You should check out this girl, Vonda. She's really good. She always plays at this little club here." She had my number, so she called me. I literally walked to the studio that day, auditioned, sang with him, and he said, "That's great. Come back tomorrow." And that was the 4th of July. I just have such a visual of that. The 4th of July, went up to the studio again and recorded the song. Totally fun and easy and he was great to work with. We really only met once or twice, that's the irony of it.
I was on the road with Al Jarreau, and the bus driver was playing the radio. And all of a sudden, there my voice comes - there's Dan Hill and then my voice coming over the radio. It became a huge hit and I was on the road, so I had to fly home and do a video on an off day. We shot the video, and I flew back out on the road with Al. And then eventually I got my record deal on Warner Brothers.
Vonda: I think we recorded it in '86, so I was 23.
Songfacts: Wow. What a huge break. What I find kind of striking on that one is the vocal performance. It's really something. Was somebody coaching you through that, wringing that emotion out of you?
Vonda: No. That's just how I sang. I used to be very shy as a child, and I got a job at a restaurant called the Great American Food and Beverage Company when I was 18. It was a singing restaurant, all the waiters sang. I started off singing my own songs, kind of shy, kind of like introspective. And the guy believed in me enough, the manager of the restaurant, to say, "Come on, Vonda, you gotta step up and belt it out. You have a great voice. Come on." And I got good at doing that. I got good at expressing myself loudly and putting out the energy.
That restaurant was tremendously helpful to me to come out of my shell. I was feeling very confident when I went in and did that song, and I was full of emotion from whatever was going on.
Songfacts: You're one of four kids, right?
Vonda: Uh huh.
Songfacts: Is it all girls?
Vonda: Uh huh.
Songfacts: What order are you?
Songfacts: I was reading somewhere about how your dad ended up raising you guys from age 10; is that correct?
Vonda: Uh huh.
Songfacts: What happened there?
Vonda: Oh, it's very personal, but my mom, she probably got married too young and had too many kids. There was no money, and there weren't the resources we have now, like self help books and what have you. We couldn't afford a nanny, so I'm sure she was just overwhelmed. So my mom left and we were raised by my dad.
Songfacts: You talked earlier about how some of your upbringing shows up in your songs. Can you point to any examples of where your songwriting brought that out?
Vonda: There's a song called "Cartwheels" on my second album, The Radical Light. And it's pretty heartbreaking. You hear it in there, I cry when I play it. It's about the memories of sitting on the lawn with my mom, with my sisters and I doing cartwheels on the lawn and longing for the days when my mother was still there sitting on the lawn watching us play. Things were so different back then. Kids just played outside on the front lawn. And it's about wanting to go back, and it's about forgiving my mother for leaving, for going on her journey. I say, "You want us to forgive you, but you did nothing wrong. You followed your road. But sometimes you want to come back home and you want to have it be the way it was with your Shaynamaidala, doing cartwheels on the lawn." So that's what the close of the song is.
Songfacts: You were talking about how "Maryland" took you three years to write. What's the connection to Maryland and what was going on for those three years?
Vonda: The connection to Maryland is that my mom loved Baltimore and she wanted to move there. So I took her dream of home, her placement of home, and I put it into my song as if I'm coming home to Maryland. Because that's where my mother wants to be. So in my song I want to go home to that place. In the song it makes it sound like I grew up in Maryland. I kind of put a twist on that.
And what was going on is that I had been dropped from Warner Brothers after The Radical Light, three months after it was released, so it didn't even get any chance at all. And that's the irony, that "Searching My Soul" was on that album - it was the first song on that album. I was writing It's Good, Eve, and when Warner Brothers dropped me, I let my manager go and I was just floating and having a really hard time getting signed again. I thought I was going to get signed quickly. So in the song "Maryland," I was feeling like a failure. In the song I was thinking, well, at least I can sing. No one can take that away from me. Even if I never make any money at it, I'm just playing music for my friends and hanging out. That's what that song is about.
Songfacts: Why was the album called It's Good, Eve?
Vonda: (Laughing) God, you're asking me questions no one ever asks me. It's so funny.
Songfacts: Nobody ever thinks to ask that? My gosh.
Vonda: Oh, they've asked me that, but it's just been years, because people are focused on the "Ally" stuff, so it's really kind of fun for me talking about this stuff. It's just from my favorite movie. There's a movie called Being There. Do you know the movie?
Vonda: Being There is with Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine, and it's my all time favorite movie. And it's just a line from the movie. It's not the exact way they said the line, the title is not even based on the scene in the movie. It's just kind of a shout out to the movie more so than actually having a meaning that specifically is meant to go with the scene. It's just silly. It was kind of random.
Songfacts: What about the song "100 Tears Away"?
Vonda: On "100 Tears Away," I was working with my friend Paul Gordon, the songwriter. He's a fantastic songwriter, and he wrote Jane Eyre on Broadway. He actually wrote one lyric line "Searchin' My Soul." I went over to his house to say, "I'm stuck. I can't finish the song. Can you please help me." And so he wrote a line on the song that was very helpful. And while we were there, he played me "100 Tears Away," which was not finished. He just had the beginning. I loved it, so we wrote the song together right then and there.
Songfacts: What was the line he contributed to "Searchin' My Soul"?
Vonda: A big one. (Laughs) He wrote the first line of the song, "I've been down this road walking the line painted by pride." That was the line I was missing. I had, "And I have made mistakes in my life that I just can't hide." But I didn't have the first line, I had the sound of the first line. Sometimes when you write it is gibberish. I was like, "I've been down duvoh singing the sime bu duggudeh da." And he's good at that, he just nailed it. I had "I've been down," and that's all.
Songfacts: Very lucrative line that he wrote there. Made him some good money. Did you end up getting a huge payday from those albums?
Songfacts: But what about all the albums that came out of the show?
Vonda: After struggling for 33 years, I finally got a big ass paycheck, and it was so fucking exciting. It was astounding. It was like winning the lottery. My salary on the show, the first year was scale. I made like $600 a week.
Songfacts: Well, sure. They don't have to pay you more than scale, of course you're going to do the show.
Vonda: Yeah. They paid me like $600 a week, and then it was like double scale, it was $1200 a week. When I got my first check from Sony, I bought a house. I put the whole thing as a down payment on the house I live in now, which is gorgeous. I'm so lucky. I love it and I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world.
Songfacts: It's a lot of sitting around when you're working on a TV show, and you got to sit at a piano a lot, I'm sure.
Songfacts: Were songs coming to you while you were there?
Vonda: Well, the piano was muted, because I was lip synching, which in itself was a big, huge job, because I wouldn't cut myself any slack. I would always sing like millions of blues licks and not care if I had to lip synch the next day.
Songfacts: Oh, so you were singing instead of just mouthing the words?
Songfacts: And you would even strain your voice sometimes, because you weren't going to sing half-assed just because it wasn't being recorded.
Vonda: Right. That's why it looks really real. That's something I'm proud of.
Songfacts: Are you one of these human jukebox types where you can sit at a piano and play just about any song somebody shouts out to you?
Vonda: No. If I know the song I can figure it out really quickly, because I have a good ear and I'm trained a little bit. But I never did lounge gigs, I don't sit around playing Beatles songs on the piano. I wish I did, because it's fun at a party.
Songfacts: But it must have been frustrating having that darn piano muted when you're sitting there at the thing.
Vonda: Well, even if it hadn't been muted, I wouldn't have been allowed to play it, because actors were rehearsing. They were rehearsing their lines. You had to be totally quiet while the director was talking to the actors. We had to always be quiet on the set. We had to whisper. It would have been even more frustrating if it had been unmuted.
Songfacts: So it's very much a working environment. The show was so much fun that you get the impression that during off takes you guys are all singing and dancing and stuff.
Vonda: No. In fact, the bar scenes were shot first thing in the morning, because there were so many people on the set. There were so many extras. I'd get up at 4 a.m., sometimes after having done a show the night before, or recording the night before. My call time on the set was always 5 a.m. It was never like 8 a.m. It was always 5. That went for everybody, the actors, everybody, because they wanted to get that scene shot and get everybody out of there, rather than having people wait around, because it was too expensive to have like 45 people waiting.
So we'd do those scenes, and we were exhausted. And then they'd hit the music, they'd turn up the music very loud - they would really crank it so we would get completely into it. And once the music started, I must admit everyone woke up and we got all excited, and the fake martinis looked real. There were fun times and there were fun moments, but there was a lot of waiting around, there was a lot of re-shooting. It's pretty boring filming. That's why being a musician is much more fun, I think, than being an actor.
June 29, 2012. Get more at vondashepard.com.
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