HomeInterviewsVonda Shepard on Red Light, Green Light, Ally McBeal & More

Vonda Shepard on Red Light, Green Light, Ally McBeal & More

Photo Credit: Greg Shappell & Nick Leopold

With a career spanning 35 years and experience in music and television and accolades from Golden Globes and Emmys to Screen Actors Guild awards, the creative and soulful spirit of singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/musical director/actress Vonda Shepard has survived the shifting times and remained popular. Recently, the Ally McBeal regular spoke with me about the positives of isolation, the lessons she’s learned from her collaborators and mentors, her new album Red Light, Green Light, and more.

Andrew Howie: Your press release mentioned how isolation was helpful in how this newest album came together. Can you elaborate on that?

Vonda Shepard: In life, we’re all so distracted. Not only because of the obvious things like electronics, but just living! Running errands, trying to get things done. I also have a son, and driving back and forth from school and everything, it was really kind of good for me to just have that isolation, and just really hone in and focus, and I had no kind of excuses. It was important, and I don’t know, frankly, if I could do it again like that, but this time it worked.

It was tempting to binge watch The West Wing (which I did a little bit of), so I allowed myself some treats like that, but I felt very antsy to have new songs to play live, and that drove me to sit there for hours every day as well.

AH: Music has occupied much of your life in one capacity or another for quite some time; how has it shaped who you are as a person?

VS: It has been a huge part of my existence. A huge part of my happiness is to have music playing. Funnily enough, I’m not a person who plays much music at home, and I think that’s because when I’m writing, I’m in my head, you know? My husband Mitchell Froom, who is a producer and writer and arranger, is the same. Before I start driving though I choose something really nice and it inspires me and changes my whole mood. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. I’ve been open to new music, especially through my son, who is into hip hop. It’s good to hear new things. Over the years, I still listen to my favorites from the ‘70s often. James Taylor or Jackson Browne, Rickie Lee Jones, Elton John. I go back to the ‘70s a lot, because it’s just very comforting, such solid songwriting.

AH: Speaking of Rickie Lee Jones – you were part of her band at one point, and you also worked with artists like Al Jarreau and Jackson Browne. What can you tell me about any lessons you learned from them?

VS: First of all, Rickie Lee Jones – she has just an extremely strong work ethic, besides being one of my favorite artists. Just the way we were going into rehearsals, she would really crack the whip and say ‘we’re going to be on stage in front of thousands of people in four weeks.’ I respect that, I learned something from her. The way she was so creative with the performance as well. She didn’t feel like she had to be locked into one way, she kept delving into different creative ways to express those songs and changing it up every night, which was cool. We were on our toes.

With Al, just watching a veteran get up on stage at Wembley Arena in front of 16,000 people and just command the audience and be so lost in the music and so passionate. In my experience, if you’re in the moment emotionally, your singing is much more in tune and much more ‘on.’ You’re not just trying to sing, you’re lost in it. I found that with Al.

Jackson was just a comforting mentor to me, a great presence. His relaxed demeanor on stage was also cool to observe. He’s not a show-man, not a super-performer, just a relaxed person playing songs. So I learned it’s okay to do that as well.

AH: Were there any major differences between your approach to the music on Ally McBeal vs. the material on your studio albums?

VS: In my case, it was a unique situation. I was doing cover tunes for Ally McBeal. David Kelley [series creator] was basically hiring me, the show was hiring me for those. I would read the script and interpret the emotional feeling he was going for. That was a craft job. That was me as a producer, analyzing it and getting into the scene. It was great, I loved it. It was really fun. I seemed to lock in with David Kelley’s vision pretty consistently, and with my band, who were amazing. When it came to my own songs on that show, that was separate. I didn’t specifically record songs for the show, I recorded for my albums, which I did the same way as I’ve always done, and he would sort of pluck them out and put them in different scenes. So that was a completely different feeling of recording my own songs. 

AH: What’s the total album count for you now?

VS: It’s my 13th, if you include the four Ally McBeal albums, which we should because they were a lot of work! It’s my 9th solo album, 13th studio album, and 17th overall.

AH: That’s quite the catalog! Do you tend to go into a project with ideas in mind or do you sort of let the music tell you where it needs to go?

VS: Every album is so different. But in the early days on Warner Bros, I felt like I knew who I was pretty clearly with the songwriting. But I was also told by some of the executives who were in charge of the product, I was put in that position of working with people who were maybe a little too pop for my taste, and when it came to my indie album after Warner Bros, I just stayed so true to anything that felt right and real to me with those songs. So that album to me has so much integrity and is really who I am as an artist still in so many ways. But as we progressed, I really dug into the soulful quality of my voice, and when I started working with Mitchell Froom, we did By 7:30 together, and we as progressed together From the Sun and Rookie, he really dug into me leaning on that soulful quality and a lot of background vocals, and we would work on the arrangements and he would add space here and there when I was jamming too many lyrics into one space. He’s really good at that. Every album is different, but I continue to be open-minded while trusting my instincts if I have a different I want to go.

Working with Mitchell is such an amazing education in music because his knowledge runs very deep. That’s why even though I’m very sensitive and kind of brace myself for any impending criticism, I’m still very open-minded because he’s very good at presenting it in a way that makes a lot of musical sense. It’s great.

AH: You mentioned earlier how your son has introduced you to some new music. Is there anyone current you’re really digging?

VS: I was introduced to people like Andrew Bird through my engineer David Boucher who engineered some of his albums. I don’t have a vast knowledge of his work, I just like his violin playing and his material. Madison Cunningham, she’s really cool. Just on a pop, soaring-vocal level, I like to listen to Sia now and then, and in the hip hop area I sometimes check out Flo Rida to get dancing.

AH: Sort of piggybacking on this line of questioning; when you mentioned those ‘70s artists, what do you think it was about their music that made it so timeless?

VS: For me, it’s all about the songwriting in general. In that era, you had Carole King, Joni Mitchell…maybe it was just coming off the ’60s that opened the door to some of those concepts, being open in the lyrics, expository and revealing. There were also things like Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, those songs that just go off. They have different sections, they don’t stick to the pop formula, which is why I think I keep going back to them. They’re more exciting and fascinating.

AH: Anything you’d like to say to the fans before the tour?

VS: I will have CDs and some vinyl of older albums, so fans can pick it up there because you can’t get it anywhere else.

Vonda Shepard will be at Rams Head On Stage on Wednesday, January 11, City Winery Philadelphia on January 12th, and 54 Below in New York City on January 13th.

Andrew Howie
Andrew Howie
Andrew Howie is a Midwestern treasure who isn't exactly sure how to talk about himself without being sarcastic and self-deprecating. His music taste is pretentious and he wants to tell you all about it.

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