The Heartfelt Soul of 'Ally McBeal'

By Scott Moore (Washington Post Staff Writer)

Sunday, April 19, 1998; Page Y07

I've been down this road walkin' the line

That's painted by pride

And I have made mistakes in my life

That I just can't hide.

Oh I believe I am ready for what love

has to bring

Got myself together, now I'm ready to sing.

-- Vonda Shepard, "Searchin' My Soul"

She's the striking blond piano player in the trendy yuppie bar frequented on-camera by "Ally McBeal's" off-the-wall cast. She's the soulful vocalist whose words parallel the thoughts of the title character -- who in turn represents the working woman of the '90s.

She's also the non-television watcher whose video will be played for about 10 million Fox viewers before "Ally McBeal's" closing credits on May 4. The following day, the show soundtrack -- for which Sony paid a reported $3 million rights fee -- hits stores.

Not bad for a 34-year-old musician who a year ago lugged her keyboard through a New York City rain to play before a crowd of 35 people.

Bygones.

Although it took 20 years for her to achieve this "sudden" acclaim, Vonda Shepard's soul contains no animosity or bitterness. In fact, success came none too late.

Hey, she's been here before. Shepard traveled the world as a band member for Rickie Lee Jones, Al Jarreau and Jackson Browne. She hit No. 6 on the pop charts with "Can't We Try, " a duet with Dan Hill in 1987. She borrowed nearly $100,000 from friends, family and former boyfriends to produce her third album, "It's Good, Eve," in 1996.

"It's been a long road," said Shepard, 34. "I've only wanted to reach the public. I've just been given this opportunity of exposure."

She has no complaints about the 12- to 14-hour days on the set of the Monday night Fox series, nor of the all-night recording sessions to finish the soundtrack. And certainly no qualms about a two-month summer tour that includes a May 11 stop at the Birchmere in Alexandria and a New York City show at the 1,000-seat Irving Plaza. ("Hopefully people will show this time," she joked.)

She also has a fourth solo album in the works for next year.

"Everything is better," she said. "I'm working every single day and not sitting at home with all this energy, saying, 'What happened?' My father told me when I was younger that a spiritual leader said work is good for the soul, and I totally believe that."

I've been searching my soul tonight

I know there's so much more to life

Now I know I can shine a light

To find my way back home

The light at the end of the tunnel for Vonda Shepard came courtesy of David E. Kelley, who attended her show about the time he was creating "Ally McBeal."

In Shepard -- a longtime friend of Kelley's wife Michelle Pfeiffer, who had the same voice coach -- the television producer found an on-camera lounge singer whose original and cover songs give voice to the conscious and subconscious thoughts of insecure young lawyer Ally McBeal.

Kelley also found the show's theme song, "Searchin' My Soul," on the lead track of Shepard's 1992 album "The Radical Light," which sold fewer than 6,000 copies.

"It's just a timing issue," Shepard said. "Right now, obviously, my music fits perfectly with what's happening. It just shows that if you stay true to what you do, it's going to come around eventually."

Though she has written a few songs since the show started taping, only the instrumental interludes are written expressly for the show. "I just write what I write for my own personal albums, and David picks what he wants," she said.

So far, Kelley has used about a dozen Shepard songs from the 64 she has submitted.

The irony of the success is not lost on her. She has escaped bar gigs through this very public bar gig. She has gained attention for her original songs by doing other composers' songs for the first time. And she has done it all on television, which she doesn't watch.

"I don't watch it at all," she admitted. "I'm probably missing some good stuff. I've seen only four 'Seinfeld' episodes, and I'm going to watch all the re-runs for the next nine years. I'm just not a sitcom person, and dramas are too heavy for me."

Instead, she spends her time writing in a journal for an hour a day, and up to five hours composing.

"It really starts with a feeling inside; it's almost visceral," she said of her songwriting, which tends toward introspective folk rock. "I can tell when I'm inspired, and even before I touch the piano I turn on the tape recorder because I know something good is on the horizon. Usually, in those moments of great inspiration, it comes out as a melody and then sometimes gibberish or actual words. . . .

"I think of it as letting go of the controlling part of the brain and letting the subconscious take over."

For instance, on the lead cut from her "It's Good, Eve" album, the muse took Shepard home to "Maryland," although she was born in New York and raised in Southern California.

"That song, though it's a very simple song, has complicated meaning to me," she said. "It's about going home. I never lived in Maryland, but my mother wanted to move there for many years and kept talking about moving to Maryland. She never made it. She was stuck in the midwest somewhere.

"For me, though, the way she talked about it romanticized the city [of Baltimore], and I pictured that as a home to go to some day."

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company