Just when Vonda Shepard thought she was going nowhere, she bumped into her new best friend, Ally McBeal.
The New York-born singer-songwriter isn’t a complete stranger to success. Her duet with Dan Hill on his 1987 comeback hit, “Can’t We Try,” went Top 10. She also recorded a few critically lauded albums for Reprise Records and made some high-powered friends along the way.
But, in a flash, she was back to square one.
“During the down time, when I got dropped by Reprise (in 1992),” Shepard said recently, “and I couldn’t get anything going, I got very, very sad, and I put all that sadness into my writing. I loved the songs so much that I thought, ‘I’m not going to stop.’
“I finally got it together to record the ‘It’s Good, Eve’ album and got signed (by independent label VesperAlley) from that and started getting exposure. There’s a song on there called ‘Maryland,’ where it says, ‘I’ll never give up, ‘cuz what is there to give up anyway?’ I love music, why would I quit?”
Good thing she didn’t. Her longtime friend, actress Michelle Pfeiffer, married TV producer/writer David E. Kelley (“Picket Fences,” “Chicago Hope,” “The Practice”) several years ago, and both often attended Shepard’s shows before sparse crowds in Hollywood, Calif., clubs.
Shepard’s songs, Kelley thought, would be perfect for his next project, the Fox series “Ally McBeal,” a dramedy about the personal and professional travails of a young female lawyer.
The pilot episode had been shot, but Kelley wanted to add a bar, a place where McBeal and her co-workers could unwind after hours of litigation. He then took it a step further, placing Shepard onstage in the bar, her songs serving as the voice for McBeal’s thoughts.
“It started with, ‘Can you act?’ and I said, ‘I used to,’ ” Shepard said. “I studied acting for a few years, and I said, ‘Maybe, I don’t know, let’s try it.’ I didn’t know it would entail everything that it’s entailed up to now. It’s been a whirlwind.”
Shepard now has “TV star” to add to her resume, along with a new album, “Songs From Ally McBeal featuring Vonda Shepard” (550 Music/Sony Music Soundtrax, released April 28) and a hit waiting in the wings, the theme song “Searchin’ My Soul.” She’s also touring the country with Willy Porter.
“I had hoped for so long that it would happen and I had my sort of successes along the way to keep going,” Shepard said. “There was a time when I was worried it wasn’t going to happen.
“I thought I would be overwhelmed by all this attention, but I just go and do my job. I’m in the studio and don’t see anybody for 18 hours and then I’m on the set with all the actors and other people. It hasn’t really hit me yet, for some reason, and I think that’s probably good because if I was 21 years old, I’d be freaking out right now. I’ve been through enough in my life, so I’m grounded.”
As he’s writing scripts, Kelley chooses the songs for each episode, be they Shepard originals or standards (such as “I Only Want to Be With You” and “Hooked On a Feeling”).
“A lot of times, he plays my CDs while he’s writing and gets inspired by a certain song,” Shepard said. “He has a lot of music in his head; he’s an aficionado, and it’s part of his writing process.
“I just write for myself and for my albums, and he feels my songs are so intrinsic to Ally’s emotional life that they just really fit and I don’t have to really alter any of my writing styles or lyrics. I did write a new song called ‘Soothe Me,’ which I played for him, and said, ‘You might like this song.’ He thought it was perfect for this one episode and put it in.”
Which brings up the question: Is Shepard a lot like McBeal?
“My songs are autobiographical,” she said, “and they seem to fit with her character, so I guess we do have a lot in common, at least emotionally. We are both career-women in the ’90s and have the desire to end up with somebody.
“I’m pretty focused. That’s what’s interesting, people are drawn to the music, that’s her deeper soul. Even if on the surface she’s sort of a goofy and neurotic person, she does have supposed deeper inner thoughts.”
Before “Ally McBeal” took over her life, Shepard wrote enough material for another album, which likely will come with a major-label deal soon.
BWF (before we forget): “Songs From Ally McBeal” peaked at No. 7 on Billboard’s pop chart and went platinum (selling more than 1 million copies). … The Vonda Shepard album discography – “Vonda Shepard” (Reprise, 1989); “The Radical Light” (1992); “It’s Good, Eve” (VesperAlley, 1996); “Songs From Ally McBeal featuring Vonda Shepard” (550 Music/Sony Music Soundtrax, 1998). … Search for more on Vonda Shepard on the Web @ www.550music.com or www.vesperalley.com.
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