Her gig is at 'Ally McBeal's' bar Songwriter: Fans connect to the TV show and its heroine through Vonda Shepard's music.

October 01, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Vonda Shepard really is a singer/songwriter -- she doesn't just play one on TV.

With several albums to her credit, Shepard had established a career for herself long before she and her band began playing the fictional Boston bar seen on the Fox series "Ally McBeal." But thanks to the show's substantial viewership -- and the corresponding success of Shepard's album, "Songs from 'Ally McBeal' " -- things are a bit different now for the singer and her band.

"It's actually been very interesting," says Shepard, who will be playing a benefit concert at Pier 6 on Saturday. For years, she would play her own songs and win over an audience that way. But because her role in "Ally McBeal" involves playing oldies like "Walk Away Renee," "Hooked On a Feeling" or "Tell Him," she finds that the cover tunes play a much larger role in her live show.

True, "Searchin' My Soul" -- Shepard's theme for the show -- was a hit on the radio and goes over very well. But the bulk of the album is given over to oldies, and those are the tunes that get the fans singing the loudest.

"It's a strange feeling," she says. "I labor over my songwriting so much, and all I have to do is sing a happy little number like 'I Only Want To Be with You,' and they just go crazy."

Still, she understands. It's part of the whole Ally experience.

"As far as the live shows go, they want to be in the bar with Ally and her friends," says Shepard. "When they come to see me play, they want to feel like they're part of that world, in Boston in the club. They just want to have fun and sing along."

Part of the appeal of "Ally McBeal," after all, is the way it allows its audience to identify with McBeal. Not everyone at home is a thin, stylish, Harvard-educated lawyer. But many young, working women have the problems McBeal has and look for the same solace in friends and old rock songs.

That's where Shepard comes in.

Often, the songs she sings have a special resonance for the characters. For instance, when Shepard does the old Exciters hit "Tell Him," it isn't just because the song has a familiar melody and a good beat -- it's because the lyric underscores what McBeal is feeling.

Despite all the oldies, Shepard has no complaints about the album's focus.

"There were a couple songs that I ended up taking off -- a couple of originals," she admits. But all the decisions about what went onto the album were strictly between Shepard and David E. Kelley, the creator of "Ally McBeal."

"We really designed the album to be skewed the way it is on the television show," she says.

Shepard was particularly glad to have Kelley's input, because he has a deeper appreciation of what the songs mean to the viewers. "There were certain songs that I had overlooked, like 'Neighborhood,' " she says. "For David, that was essential for the album, since it summed up the relationship between Ally and Billy [Ally's ex-boyfriend from college]. It's not a song that would ever be on the radio, but he was right -- that song belonged on there."

By the same token, Kelley has been more than happy to work Shepard's songs into the show.

"The originals that are on there, like 'Maryland' and 'Will You Marry Me,' haven't been featured that much on the show," she says. "But David said he would really feature them this season, and they are. We filmed a few episodes to them already.

"I'm happy about that, because the song 'Maryland' is very close to me, it means a lot to me."

It isn't that Shepard is a Maryland native; in fact, she has only been to the state while touring. But Maryland always had a special significance for her mother, and that was what inspired the song.

"My mom always wanted to go to Maryland, to live there," she says. "Baltimore, actually. She had a best friend who lived there. She kept saying that she was going to move there and make that her home, but she only made it halfway across the country and got stuck in Iowa."

She laughs and adds that there was always something vaguely fantastic about her mother's vision of life in Baltimore. "She would talk about it almost like it was a dream," she says. "It was this amazing place she was going to go and find solace.

"So in the song, I took her dream and kind of turned it into my own. It represents home to me, basically. It's a metaphor for that."

Shepard herself only has fleeting impressions of Baltimore, but she definitely likes what she's seen. "I walked around the city, and it was very beautiful," she says. "And I love the East Coast, so I can understand why you would pick a place like that.

"I can't say that I know it that well, though," she adds. "So I need to go and get to know it better -- especially now that I have a song about it." She'll have her chance later this week. She's shooting a video for the song tomorrow and then there's the concert for the House of Ruth Saturday.

Naturally, Shepard has high hopes for the single. "For me, if 'Maryland' became half of what 'Searchin' My Soul' became, as far as radio play goes, I would be thrilled," she says. "Because it's a very simple song, but it took three years to write. Literally.

"I didn't want to settle on any part -- lyrics, melody, chords, anything. I just worked on it a little every day. And for the radio to embrace that kind of song would mean a lot to me, you know? That would really be incredible."

Concert for Justice

What: A benefit for the House of Ruth, featuring Vonda Shepard

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Pier Six Concert Pavilion at the Inner Harbor

Tickets: $125 (including pre-concert reception); $15-$50 Call: 410-481-7328 for tickets, 410-554-8449 for information

To hear excerpts from Vonda Shepard new release, "Songs from Ally McBeal," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6117. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2B.

Pub Date: 10/01/98

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