'Ally McBeal' muse is singing a new tune

By John Beck (New York Times)

Vonda Shepard, the "Ally McBeal" lounge muse, spent the summer venue-hopping all over the country and into Europe, playing casinos, amphitheaters, county fairs and nightclubs as well as Chicago's House of Blues, and even Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall.

Shepard is out supporting her fifth CD, "By 7:30," and planning her next moves.

"Every night is different," she says, taking a one-day break from the road in her West Los Angeles Spanish-style villa. "You never know what you're going to walk into."

These days the unknown is not as daunting for her, especially after serendipity led to her "discovery" after she had already recorded three albums in a Los Angeles club where Michelle Pfeiffer and her husband television producer David E. Kelley caught her sultry song-and-keyboard routine. Not long after, Kelley tapped her to fill the role of a recurring Boston bar singer who voices the internal monologue that guides a young lawyer by the name of Ally McBeal.

After several seasons with "Ally McBeal," her long blond locks and TV cover tunes are more familiar than most of her original work.

It's an unscripted dream and yet a frustrating separation: She's a musician, and she plays one on television, except it's not exactly herself. On one hand, she's stroking the keys for 10 million viewers a week. On the other, although she coined the show's theme song, "Searchin' My Soul," she spends much of her time learning and playing cover songs like Blue Suede's "Hooked on a Feeling" and Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee."

Resembling a young Carly Simon ("We both have big lips and big teeth and smallish eyes") she's recognized by fans on the streets of Los Angeles even when her hair is "ratty, a sure sign you've made it" but they don't often know her latest tunes.

At 36, she is gearing up for another television season and a second "Ally McBeal" song collection; nonetheless, the inevitable next installment is looming: Life after "Ally."

"I wonder about it all the time," she says. "My life is so consumed with it. I really have two careers. . . . I know that it's going to end someday so I don't want to push it away too soon. I want to appreciate it and get the most out of it personally."

More than just a launching pad, the show has grown into a valuable learning experience. " 'Ally' uses more of the left side of my brain." she says. "It's a lot more craft-oriented. And I spend a lot of time working in the studio as a producer, not just a singer."

Born in New York, Shepard was raised in Los Angeles by her father, who was a mime, and her mom, a model. She began piano lessons at 6, taking a class with her three siblings.

"We had a lot of weird people sleeping on the couches because of my dad's Bohemian, artsy lifestyle, and one of them was a woman who was a singer/songwriter," she says. "She was 19 and I was like 7 or 8, and she would play these songs that she wrote, so I started writing songs."

Her father introduced her to the studio at 10, and a music journalist set up her first gig at 14. She began singing backup for Rickie Lee Jones at 19, later harmonizing with Jackson Browne.

After last year's successful "Songs From 'Ally McBeal,"' she weathered the rite-of-passage record label bidding war but chose the independent label route, opting for artistic control above all.

"I knew that if I had signed with any major label they wouldn't let me put out a new record this soon, and they wouldn't let me make this record. They would want to put me in the extreme pop category . . . I love pop music, but I don't want to be Celine Dion."

Taking its name from the manifest ultimatum, "By 7:30 you'll fall in love with me," her latest CD weaves a tightknit diary of introspective songs wavering mellifluously between overblown independence and recurring vulnerability.

Almost a throwback to Carole King, Shepard's pulpit is the white blues piano confessional, revolving around a desperate need for hu-man contact ("No girl is an island," she sings) and the weight of hollow, spent relationships.

The most polished radio-groomed song on the CD parades as the catchy duet with Indigo Girls' Emily Saliers, "Baby, Don't You Break My Heart Slow."

When she met the Indigo Girls backstage before a show at Los Angeles' Greek Theatre, "Emily came running up to me and said, 'Oh my, I love that song 'Baby, Don't You Break My Heart Slow' on your first album.' She said, 'Will you do it in our show tonight?' I had never met her, and she asked me to sing it by myself in front of 8,500 people."

Shepard wound up playing "The Wildest Times of the World" that night, but later, while opening for the Indigo Girls on tour, she and Saliers often belted out the "Baby Don't You Break My Heart Slow" together.

After the success of "Songs From 'Ally McBeal,"' taking new original material on the road posed a healthy challenge. "I was a little insecure about it at first," she says. "I didn't know how open-minded the 'Ally' people would be."

But, so far the tour has drawn a gathering of musical converts and gawking TV fans loaded with re-quests. The only missing ingredient at each venue is a single-sex bathroom where fans can compare notes as the characters do on "Ally McBeal."