Shepard goes indie route, sounding more Amos than Ally

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

Vonda Shepard sings the songs of "Ally McBeal." Now there's a record that can't miss. And it didn't, selling more than 3 million copies worldwide in the past year.

But what do you do for a follow-up?

Take the "Ally" out of the equation, and things become more uncertain. In fact, for Shepard to make her fifth album the way she truly wanted it, she resorted to the Ani DiFranco route -- releasing it independent of major label support.

"Yeah, it's so complicated," Shepard says on the phone from Amsterdam, finishing up a European tour. "The business side of things can be so not related to music. And I really wanted to make the exact album I wanted to make and work with the producer I wanted to work with, Mitchell Froom.

"If I had gone with a major," she adds, "a) they wouldn't have let me put out an album this soon. They would have wanted another 'Ally' record. And b) I wanted total artistic control, because I can have it now. Why give that up?"

Certainly, Shepard has been down both roads before in her journey as pop star. After entering the L.A. clubs as a teen-ager, she got her first break as a back-up singer for her then-idol Rickie Lee Jones. That got her signed to Warner/Reprise, where she recorded two records that fell short of their commercial expectations.

It wasn't until she was dropped by Reprise that Shepard got her big break. David E. Kelley, who was in the midst of creating "Ally McBeal," saw her in a club, and thought she'd be perfect for "Ally's musical soul" (it was only a coincidence that Shepard was friends with his future wife, Michelle Pfeiffer).

The result has been weekly exposure, if not on camera, then at least in the theme song and other music on the show. Finally, Shepard is selling records and headlining theaters rather than playing clubs like the one the lawyers go to after a long day of flirting.

But there was no plan for a "Walk Away Renée" or "Hooked on a Feeling" on Shepard's new record, "By 7:30." With its artier ballads, worldly rhythms and more ethereal production, it's more likely to be mistaken for a Tori Amos record.

"People who like the whole poppy, 'shoop-shoop' direction, there's nothing like that on this album," she says. "But there are songs, like 'Confetti,' that are fun and up. And there are definitely the ballads that people seem to be drawn to."

Yes, listening to the first single, "Baby, Don't You Break My Heart Slow," you can picture a raincoated Calista Flockhart walking dreamily down the street -- and it doesn't even get abruptly cut off in mid-stride. The ballad finds Shepard in a duet with Emily Saliers, whom she met years ago backstage at an Indigo Girls concert. Shepard went on to open some shows for the Girls, and Saliers suggested they record the song together.

Though Shepard has yet to befriend the queen of Lilith, Sarah McLachlan, she is able to move in musical, as well as television circles, and maintains a longtime friendship with Sheryl Crow.

"If people really look deeply, they can see that I sing with integrity, I just don't throw it away. I try and take time and care. Sheryl said, 'I'm just happy for your success.' She used to sing backup for Michael Jackson, so she knows where it's at. We've all been there."

If Shepard was looking to define herself outside of "Ally," it happened this past season based on Kelley's scripting of the show. To her dismay, Shepard did see more action than the dancing baby -- but not much.

"I wasn't on there as much this year," she says. "And it wasn't because I was working on the record. I don't know if I should tell you this, but it's really expensive doing the bar scenes, and that's part of why it wasn't on that much. I was so busy that in a way it was kind of a relief, but after a while I did start to feel kind of worried, like, 'Oh, I hope I'm going to be on again.' And then I'd get a call and be on. I felt a little more disconnected this year."

Although she says she doesn't want to be stuck in an "Ally mold," you have to wonder where this 35-year-old singer-songwriter would be without the show.

"You never know," she says. "When I was younger, on Warner Bros., I thought for sure I would [make it] because of all the hype that was happening. And I was really built up to think it would happen on the first album, and it didn't. So I did at times have that hope. By the time I got to the indie record, 'It's Good, Eve,' I just decided I wanted to make music and do a grassroots thing. So when Ally hit, it was like, 'God, how great is that?' "