A Few Words With...Vonda Shepard
by John A. Wilcox
Singer / songwriter Vonda Shepard has certainly lived a fascinating life. A successful recording career. Working on the hit show Ally McBeal. Performing around the globe. Married to producer Mitchell Froom. Vonda Shepard discusses all this and more...
PS: What was the first album you remember buying & do you still listen to it?
VS: The first album I remember buying was Carly Simon, You’re So Vain — I guess it was actually the single, and I found it so mysterious and enchanting, and on occasion, yes, I do still listen to it.
PS: What was your first paying gig as a musician?
VS: I played at a tiny club in L.A. called The Relic House. There were 12 people in the audience (at least!). I was 14 years old, and I believe I made a dollar per person… you do the math. : )
PS: If you could talk to your late ‘80s self, would you tell her to do anything different in terms of recording her first album?
VS: Wow… no one has ever asked me this question. I love it! On the one hand, I would say to the head of A & R at Warner Bros., “no, I do not want to work with your most pop producers, just to be successful. You signed me based on my ability as a singer/songwriter, not for being Paula Abdul”. On the other hand, I had fun, learned a lot and got to work with many talented people… but I think the over-riding feeling would have been to stick to my guns. I probably would have been dropped, as I eventually was, after my second album. At least I got to make 2 albums for Warner Bros., and some of the songs still hold up.
PS: How did you come to get the gig working on Ally McBeal?
VS: I was friends with David E. Kelley and his wife. I had flown in from New York to play a gig in L.A. and invited them to come to the show. The timing couldn’t have been better, as it was right when David was writing the pilot for Ally McBeal. He was looking for a musical voice for the character of Ally, and really connected with the songs I was playing that night which were from my newly released indie album, It’s Good, Eve. The song The Wildest Times Of The World was the first song he really thought would work on the show. I ended up doing the theme song, as well as being the music producer for most of the guest artists who appeared on the show.
PS: What was the most important thing you learned working on that show?
VS: I learned that all the work I had done leading up to the show really paid off… it was not all for naught. I always had a strong work ethic, and it was very frustrating not to be able to use what I had. So the lesson was “be prepared”. When your break comes, you’ll be ready. I also learned (but didn’t practice), balance. I should have said “no” about 20% more often, but I was so excited to finally have a great job and success that I couldn’t say no. And that made me out of balance. I saw that later in my life.
PS: I'd like to talk about a few songs on your latest album. Let's start with the title cut. What's the story behind Rookie?
VS: Thank you for asking about the new album! Rookie was inspired by the NBA playoffs, last year. I am comparing myself to a pro-athlete. The stamina it takes to persevere, the confidence, the effort, the energy, the excitement at being able to hit a high note and sustain it (sort of like a slam-dunk by LeBron). There is a line “I’m gonna go downtown, I’m gonna throw it down… I’m gonna win that crown - no one can hold me down."
PS: How about Need Your Love?
VS: Need Your Love was an “Aretha inspired track”. I play a couple of Aretha Franklin tunes in my set, and she was a tremendous influence on me, so I thought I’d write one of my own that I could really wail on. I love that gospel style of piano playing as well, so it’s very gratifying for me to play that tune live. There is a lot that people do not know about me, and I’m giving a hint in the song, when I say “I ain’t no Princess — if there’s a price, I’ve paid it”. What I mean is that my life wasn’t handed to me on a silver platter… I had to work hard to get here. I had it better than some, but struggled, as we all do, along the way. I don’t mean to keep quoting myself (haha!), but it helps to explain the song. There’s another line where I say - “though I got my troubles, I push em’ out of the way". The theme of this album is perseverance, strength, never giving up, even through adversity.
PS: Are you talking about anyone in particular on Walk On The Water?
VS: Hmmm… let’s see… Moi? (me!) Yes, I had a few years of fame and success, and it kind of dissipated, but that was the best thing that ever could have happened to me. The lessons in having been at the “top” and being brought back down to Earth are invaluable. I’m a much more grounded person than I was through all of the mayhem (and excitement.)
I wouldn’t trade this ride for anything… it has been an incredibly powerful road, with many lessons learned. (Am I talking too much?? Haha!)
PS: If I can jump back to the Solo album, tell me what sparked Lose My Way.
VS: Lose My Way was written for my album Chinatown, originally. I was with a man, and we decided to break up, but were still very close. We went out for New Years Eve, and decided to break up the next day, New Years Day. I sat down at the piano that day and wrote almost the entire song in one fell swoop. It’s very rare to have a song so fully realized, so quickly, but the emotion I was feeling was so intense that it came roaring out, in a crystal clear way. It’s one of my saddest songs, but feels really good to play sometimes. Music is such a gift of catharsis.
PS: Has working with your husband changed the recording process in any way?
VS: Working with Mitchell has made the recording process so much better. I had produced many of my own albums, including the four Ally McBeal albums, and I am a very capable producer, but working with a master arranger/orchestrator like Mitchell, brings such expertise to areas of music where I may not have the knowledge. Whether it’s changing a bass note, adding some space, changing a chord, etc., the song and arrangements are much improved from working with him.
PS: As you perform live, are there any songs that just don't work in a live context?
VS: Some of my songs that lean in a more “rock” direction seem to struggle live, probably because I lean in a more soul direction, naturally, and sometimes those rock tunes are stiff or staid, almost like I’m not being authentic. Other songs are just very hard to sing, so I kind of avoid them, unless I’m really feeling inspired to do them.
PS: With your current gigs, what decisions went into deciding what is & isn't in the set?
VS: I am playing about four or five new tunes, though I’d love to play them all, but it’s just not fair to inundate the audience with so much new material. On the other hand, the new songs hold very strong, fresh emotion, so they can often come off the best, if they are really good songs. I have a lot of albums, so I do one or two from each — a couple from It’s Good, Eve, one or two from By 7:30, Chinatown and I save the Ally tunes for the end of the set. I play a couple of the favorite Ally songs that I feel good about, like Sweet Inspiration, You Belong To Me, etc…
PS: Any plans yet for 2016?
VS: I have a European tour in December of this year, then planning next year — some touring, writing, back to England next October, as we just came off of a very successful, extremely fun U.K. tour. Hoping to do a tour with Emily Saliers, from Indigo Girls and Sharon Corr, of The Corrs, at some point in the next year, where we’d share a band. Looking very forward to that!
PS: Please tell me 5 albums you never tire of listening to.
Paul Simon - The Rhythm Of The Saints
James Taylor - Sweet Baby James
Latin Playboys (First album)
Stevie Wonder - Innervisions
Aretha Franklin - Let Me In Your Life
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