Vonda Shepard: Red Light, Green Light Track By Track

by Amanda Flinner

Vonda Shepard became one of the most recognizable voices of the late '90s when the popular legal dramedy Ally McBeal used her song "Searchin' My Soul" as its theme song. She also landed a regular gig on the series as the bar singer who entertained Ally and her co-workers at the end of each episode with her soulful covers, often joined by music legends like Gladys Knight and Al Green.

In the years since the show's end in 2002, Shepard continues to prove that she's so much more than Ally's musical subconscious. Although she still performs songs from the show, the singer-songwriter has released a number of projects featuring new, original music, the latest being Red Light, Green Light. The album was written during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and is set for release on September 23, 2022, just a couple weeks after Ally McBeal celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Produced by her husband, Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Fleetwood Mac), the collection features the singer's musings about romance, friendship, and motherhood. Here, Shepard takes us through all 10 tracks, including the singles "Shine Your Light" and "Disappear."

Red Light, Green Light

This song pulled from a relationship I had long ago, involving unrequited love. The character in the song leads me on and can't make up his mind, so I would never know who/what to expect - Red Light? Green Light? Are we on or off? But the truth is that this relationship never actually fully manifested to the degree I write in this song. My character in the song feels slighted, even though "you were never mine."

This is probably the most modern production on the album, and Mitchell felt strongly about going in that direction. It worked!


Dirty Laundry Line

This song, as is often the case, is a composite of real people in my life. One verse is about a very old friend, the other about a newer friend. It's about a person who constantly vents about their problems, and how it becomes wearing. The issues are real, and she tries to fake happiness, but the truth all comes out in ways that are not always pleasant.

This was one of the quickest songs I wrote on the album (three months). We recorded it with the drums from the beginning, but edited them out, so the song starts with just piano, making it build nicely. And again, we relied heavily on background vocals in the B-sections and the choruses, which is a huge part of my sound on my last few albums. The production also features my incredible band of many years.


Made Of Rain

This song touches on memories of my son at the beach, laughing in the sun and blowing out birthday candles one by one, at a young age. It's about how painful it can be to be a parent, and how no matter how hard you try to hold on, they slip through your fingers. The song is about how hard it is to get through to your child, especially in this day and age, with the ubiquity of electronics and distractions: "A million combinations here and every gear, and still I can't get through."


Shine Your Light

In this song, I'm telling the boy that I will watch over him like a satellite, if he'll let me, because I can see he's lost out in the cold, basically floating around in space. It's about seeing the potential in your child, but it's up to them to shine their light, and be seen:

In all the sound and in all the noise you're lost again
I can see you've given up this fight
I'll stay with you as another dream gets tossed again
Baby, won't you try to shine your light?
Shine in the darkness tonight
.


Smoother Ride

The focus of this song is that there is something driving me to always keep going - pushing hard, no matter what, but I thought it would all be easier than it is. It's my modern-day spiritual song. One of the lines came to me on a very hard hike: "Something is driving me up this hill… something spiritual, like a force of will." But even in all of the strength and positivity, I admit that, "I thought it'd be a smoother ride." It's also about letting go of trying to be perfect: "Took a while to get myself straight… I'm sure I'll be bent one of these days."

This song has a funky groove and vibe that I worked on quite a lot with Mitchell. Something about it reminds me of a Los Lobos song (Mitchell produced many of their albums).

To The Stars

This is my only "pandemic song." When I wrote the first line, "Breathe the air I forgot was there," I knew I was on to something. The song is about how we are literally trapped in our houses, but the chorus has these uplifting lyrics:

To the stars, we will fly
To heaven and Mars, not so far
.

Originally I had the line, "in our minds," but I decided that people could figure that out. The end of the song has Mitchell's absolutely enchanting keyboards solo-ed, so you can really hear the magic he's creating. That is one of my favorite parts of the album. It's made for dreamers… and astrophysicists.


Disappear

"Disappear" is a song I had to turn myself inside out to write. I wrote it in the midst of the pandemic, but also in the middle of the terrible social injustice that was ubiquitous. The blatant racism coming out in force, that I found so horrible and crushing that I wanted to literally disappear from this Earth that I so love, but no longer recognized. I live in a kind of fantasy world that I create in my mind (as per "To The Stars," as well), which is why I use a lot of references to nature, specifically the sea. I only call it "the sea" in songs! In life it's "the ocean." And again, the chorus is uplifting, despite the desolate nature of things:

I think life is beautiful, despite this.
Maybe there is too much wrong to right this, I don't know…



Haven't Gone Astray

This song is about being a mom. As my son is two years away from college, the early years are slipping away, and I feel a great need to capture the vignettes forever in songs. "Heaven is here, on this shore my dear… chasing the tides." The chorus is about the fact that in this moment in time, you're here and you're on track and doing fine: "Haven't gone astray today… and summertime, summertime is on the way."

We recorded this with just piano and vocal. There is a lovely bass-note solo… I've never done that before. Mitchell helped me with that beautiful arrangement. We just took the melody, simplified it, and put it in the bass clef.


Paradise

This is a "sound-check song"! James Ralston (guitar) and Jim Hanson (bass) were jamming on a riff, and I started singing to it and recorded it on my iPhone, because it was so funky and fun. I saved the recording, and we actually used that as part of the track! So the guys are co-writers on "Paradise."

This song is about cutting loose and going crazy to blow off steam after being cooped up for two years. Wanting to find some form of paradise through dancing, having a party, seeing friends. Almost remembering how to do this.


These City Lights

A song with very forthcoming verses about all that has gone wrong in this world, and yet in the chorus, the escape to the positive:

Fly through the night, over sand, over sea
With you next to me
.

This is the most political song I've ever written, and it was triggered by my fury at the racism and the lies so prevalent:

Comfort the troubles weighing me down
I don't see any way out
Raising my shield, cause the dangers abound
Can't be silent, we gotta cry out
.

It reminds me of a political song from the '60s a bit. Rufus Wainwright was working with Mitchell at the house on his album, and somehow this song was influenced by him to some degree. His lovely free-form piano style sort of filtered into my soul. (I haven't told him this yet!)

September 21, 2022

For more information about how to buy or stream Red Light, Green Light, visit vondashepard.com

Further Reading:
Our 2012 interview with Vonda Shepard
90210 to Buffy to Glee: How Songs Transformed TV
Interview with Lisa Loeb

Photos: Pamela Springsteen

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