A Long Road

By Fred Shuster - Los Angeles Daily News

Vonda Shepard has been around for 20 years, but is just now finding fame on `Ally McBeal.' A year ago, Vonda Shepard was slogging through a New York City rainstorm, lugging her portable keyboard under one arm, to play to a crowd of about 35 people. These days, Shepard is performing club and theater date for thousands who've gotten to know her through a high-profile role as the blond pianist in the Boston yuppie bar frequented by the cast of Fox's ``Ally McBeal,'' which has a weekly audience of about 10 million viewers. Shepard's overnight success actually took 20 years. ``I've been around for a long time,'' said singer-songwriter Shepard, who started playing Los Angeles clubs as a teenager. ``It's been a long road.'' Her first break came at age 19 when Rickie Lee Jones asked her to play keyboards and sing backup vocals with her touring band. Since then, Shepard has released three solo albums: ``Vonda Shepard,'' ``It's Good, Eve'' and ``The Radical Light.'' Shepard is also featured on the new ``Songs From `Ally McBeal' '' soundtrack, which is poised to debut in the upper reaches of the national albums chart this week. The album, which boasts a picture of ``Ally'' star Calista Flockhart on the front and a shot of Shepard on the back, is a blend of originals and covers of pop classics and oldies like ``Walk Away Renee,'' ``Hooked on a Feeling'' and ``Tell Him,'' a tuneful mix familiar to ``McBeal'' fans. ``I'm in heaven right now,'' Shepard said last week from a tour stop in Florida. ``I'm having the dream career. It's a bit surreal because I'm walking on stage in front of 10,000 screaming people now. I can't tell you how shocking that is. Last year, I was lucky to draw three dozen.'' The big change came thanks to producer-writer David E. Kelley, who caught a Shepard club date at the time he was creating ``Ally McBeal.'' Kelley's future wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, may have been in the audience because the actress was a longtime friend of Shepard's; the two even shared the same vocal coach. In any case, Kelley wrote Shepard into the ``Ally'' plot as an on-camera lounge singer whose original and cover songs give voice to the thoughts of the young lawyer Ally McBeal. Kelley found the show's theme, ``Searchin' My Soul,'' on Shepard's 1992 album, ``The Radical Light,'' which sold less than 6,000 copies. Jeffrey Kramer, head of David E. Kelley Productions, calls Shepard the ``musical soul'' of the main character. ``Part of it is she underscores Ally's emotions and helps them resonate,'' Kramer said. ``Plus, this is a woman who can really sing. She was the first and only choice.'' Monday's episode is the season finale, but Shepard will be back on the set in July when the series begins shooting new shows for airing in September. Shepard, who lives in West Los Angeles, said her role in the Golden Globe-winning series requires nearly a week of preproduction, recording and videotaping for each ``Ally'' episode, which usually features at least three tunes. ``I've got to learn the songs, arrange them, get in the studio and record the songs in one day and mix them,'' Shepard, 34, explained. ``People in the music business would fall over at how fast we work. The next step is learning to lip-synch, which takes several hours per song. Then, we do one or two days of preparation, and my part of the shoot takes one or two days.'' The rest of the time, Shepard says, is spent on her solo career: composing, playing shows and doing press. A fourth solo album is in the works. ``Eighteen months ago, they didn't even have my name card in the record store bins,'' Shepard said. ``I wanted to cry. It was heartbreaking. Now, sales have skyrocketed. ``The great thing is I have these three solo albums out and people are hearing them. The records are being restocked and we're selling a few thousand a week of each one. We walk into Best Buy and Tower and there's tons of records.'' Currently in the midst of a two-month summer tour, Shepard says nobody involved with ``Ally'' could have predicted its massive success here and abroad. ``When I saw the pilot, something clicked and I said, `This could be very successful,' '' Shepard recalled. ``But none of us knew it would take off the way it did. The first sign that this was a national phenomenon was at the Golden Globes (where the show won two awards).'' Shepard was raised in a somewhat chaotic environment. Born in New York and raised in Los Angeles, she and her three sisters shared a bohemian upbringing. Her parents split up when she was 10 and the four girls lived with their father, a struggling actor and writer who encouraged Vonda's musical pursuits. After her stint with Rickie Lee Jones, Shepard toured as Jackson Browne's harmony singer. Yet, nothing prepared her for the recognition that ``Ally McBeal'' has brought. ``I didn't realize with my small amount of camera time that I would get recognized,'' Shepard said. ``But as the weeks went on, more and more people came up to me, and I realized just how powerful TV is.'' At the same time, Shepard admits her personal style is a far cry from Ally's tailored image. ``Being on-camera has been a learning process,'' she said. ``I'm more of a human, natural kind of writer, not someone who has every hair in place. So, having makeup people fussing around me all the time is challenging. But, on the other hand, the character I play is myself, and singing and playing and writing is what I live for.''