Vonda Shepard had a rather unusual introduction into the television scene. As an indie musical performer, she caught the eye of TV guru David E. Kelley who enlisted her to work on his series Ally McBeal, which will finally come to DVD in the 31-disc Ally McBeal: The Complete Series set and the six-disc Ally McBeal: Season 1 DVD sets on October 6. Also out on October 6 is a brand new CD compilation, The Best of Ally McBeal, compiled by Shepard and featuring a brand new unreleased track as well. I had the chance to speak with Shepard over the phone, and here's what she had to say.
I was just kind of curious how this whole journey with Ally McBeal started with you. I heard you were discovered by (series creator) David E. Kelley, so were you approached on the acting side or on the music side, or how did that all work out?
Vonda Shepard: Well, actually I knew David. He was a friend of mine, I was friends with his wife. They used to come and see me play at this little tiny club. It's kind of a long story because they didn't know each other at the time, but I was friends with his wife and when I met David, he said, 'Oh, I used to come see you play.' So, he was kind of a fan of mine and then we became friends. Basically, I had been living in New York, sort of struggling, the artist lugging my keyboard and all of that stuff that you do. I flew into L.A. to do a gig and just called them and invited them one Saturday night in Hollywood. They came to the show and it was very fortuitous timing because he was in the middle of formulating the idea of this show, Ally McBeal, and he was looking for a voice for her. Originally, he thought that the character Ally McBeal was going to be singing her own songs, but he saw me play that night, which he had many times before, and basically had the epiphany and decided I was going to be the musical voice of Ally McBeal. I was playing songs from this indie album I had recorded called It's a Good Eve and, just to give an example how it went, I watched the first season yesterday and he used six or seven of the songs from my original album in the first 15 minutes of the first episode of Ally McBeal (Laughs). So it was just incredible how he identified with those songs and my sound and put them right into the show. That's the short/medium version.
So, once you signed on, can you describe the process of how you would go through, picking songs for each show, and how that whole process was, working with David?
Vonda Shepard: OK. So there was no music supervisor on the show. David chose all the songs from the show and I was the music producer. He would write a script and the songs were so specific and so important to the show that he would actually write some of the lyrics in as part of the dialogue. So, the process was I would read the script and kind of get the tone that he was looking for, the emotional tone and the vibe and everything and then we'd get sent the songs and we'd learn the songs. We'd go into to the studio at about 10 AM and record three songs in a day (Laughs) with my incredible band. Basically, we nailed it most of the time, and sometimes I would have a question for David and I'd call him and play him a song over the phone, literally. This started 12 years ago, so we weren't using pro tools, we were using telephones and 24-track tape. The whole thing was really done old-school, manual, steam-driven, you know (Laughs). I just have to say, It was an incredible experience, just immersed in music and constant creativity and just working with these incredible artists that kept marching through the door in the studio. I don't know if you saw the list of the people we worked with, but every time we went in, it was kind of an adventure, whether the adventure was to capture a song, some crazy song that was really hard to sing, or whether it was just working with Al Green or Gladys Knight or Chubby Checker, it was quite an incredible five years.
Yeah. It sounds like a dream job, for sure.
Vonda Shepard: Yeah, it was. David Kelley, I have to say, is the most easy-going person I've probably ever worked with.
So, with all the work that you did in the show, when you would actually watch these episodes, can you talk about your reaction, when you saw how it all came together, and how you felt about how your work was portrayed on the show?
Vonda Shepard: You know, there's a very distinct difference, for me, between the visual side and the so-called acting I would perform in that actual music in the background. I was very critical of the visual side (Laughs). I sometimes didn't like the way it looked or I was surprised that we would shoot or we'd be on the set for 12 hours and we'd use 30 seconds of that day, so it was just amazing to me how much work goes into one tiny little scene. But, when I'd be watching it, at the end of the episode and she'd be walking down the street and she'd be crying and they were playing 100 Tears Away, a song that I wrote, these songs that I wrote for my own self or my own life, I'd feel the emotion and I knew the music was enhancing the emotion of the show and it just made me feel great. It made me feel like I was doing a good job and it was one of the great gigs.
That approach to music on a show hadn't really been dealt with before then, so have you been seeing the influence of Ally McBeal starting to seep into television these days?
Vonda Shepard: Well, the thing I tell everyone, and the irony is I don't really watch television at all, so I can't really answer the question. But I know that, back then, from what I had read at the time, that Ally McBeal kind of created a new paradigm and it was a kind of groundbreaking show, in terms of music. I was aware of that, and since then I've heard that there has been a lot more music used in those ways, but I just don't watch it.
So, I noticed that you performed on Tracey Ullman's State of the Union, so are there any more acting gigs lined up for you in the future?
Vonda Shepard: Oh, that's so funny. I'm doing the next Tracy Ullman show. I'm going to film it tomorrow. Mostly what I'm doing is I'm touring. I have a good touring career in Europe, especially. We did a big European tour about six months ago and I put out an album called From the Sun about nine months ago, so I was out promoting that album. I'm actually going out again in January to do another European tour. I'll obviously be playing some Ally McBeal songs, but also From the Sun songs. Then we're going back to New York again in March and then Asia in June. Yeah, and then I think I'm going to open for Sugarland. We knew each other and they actually opened for me when they were first starting out, so I'm going to do some of those. I've also been telling people that if they want to see where I'm playing, they can go to my website VondaShepard.com and they can come out and see the shows and. stuff. We do a mixture of my new stuff and my Ally stuff, so it's a pretty fun show.
I was kind of surprised, when I found out that this was the first time that it has been on DVD, because it was such a popular series. So it's been quite a wait for the fans, I suppose.
Vonda Shepard: I know, it has been. The reason was it was so expensive to re-license all the songs. They had to make deals with all the artists and songwriters, so it took a long time and, I think, that's part of why it's not in syndication, so hopefully it will come into syndication next.
So, along with this first season and the complete series set, they're also releasing a new CD of your work from the Ally McBeal show, so with all these new releases, what's it been like to kind of revisit this whole process from working on the show?
Vonda Shepard: It's been fun. When the prospect of doing the CD came up, I kind of had a little bit of nostalgia and it was really fun. I went back and listened to about 60 songs that we had recorded, because I have a lot of previously unreleased tracks. It only ended up being one previously unreleased track (Laughs), called Something About You, and then there's a new song from me called I Know Better. It's really fun going back and listening to those songs and I really want to put out, in the future, a previously unreleased CD. People request it and come to my website and say, 'Can I get a copy of blah-blah-blah for my wedding?' (Laughs). I think there's a demand for it out there.
So just a CD set of all unreleased tracks?
Vonda Shepard: Yeah. Because we recorded 500 songs for the show and there are probably at least 20 that didn't make it on to the soundtracks, that were great, that could kind of be tweaked and sweetened or whatever. So that's what I kind of hope will happen.
So, finally, what would you like to say to fans of the show or your music about what to expect from these new DVD sets or the new CD that's coming out?
Vonda Shepard: I guess I would just say that it would be fun to go down the emotional, nostalgic lane of Ally McBeal. In watching the first show yesterday I remembered how cool the show was. It's finally coming out and I think fans are really going to like it, even new fans who have never seen the show. And the CD is just pretty rockin' and probably captures the best of the three CD's, so yeah, I hope people enjoy it.
Excellent. Well, that's about all I have for you, Vonda. Thanks so much for your time and the best of luck with your new tours and CD's.
Vonda Shepard: Thank you so much. I'll talk to you soon.
You can enjoy the musical work of Vonda Shepard on either the massive Ally McBeal: The Complete Series 31-disc set, the Ally McBeal: Season 1 six-disc DVD set or the new The Best of Ally McBeal CD compilation set, all of which hit the DVD and musical shelves on October 6.