Success hasn’t spoiled Vonda Shepard, but it has made her a little giddy. Last winter, at a Los Angeles party hosted by Ally McBeal castmate Gil Bellows (lawyer Billy Thomas), Shepard, who plays the alluring lounge singer on the hit FOX series, was hugging Calista Flockhart (Ally) like a long-lost sorority sister. “We spent five minutes going, ‘How is it for you? How are you doing? Are you getting recognized? I am—are you? Everyone is turning their heads,’ ” Shepard, 34, laughingly recalls the conversation.
What Shepard is turning is famous. In April the singer-actress embarked on a three-month, 40-city concert tour to promote her new CD, a compendium of pop oldies and four originals called Songs from Ally McBeal Featuring Vonda Shepard; it shipped gold. Shepard’s ascendancy on the show has been nearly as meteoric, even if her role is a bit unusual. She expresses Ally’s mood in song. If Ally is blue, Shepard might sing, “100 Tears Away.” Or, if Ally is feeling amorous, Shepard might belt out, “Hooked on a Feeling.” Says Greg Germann, who plays Fish, Ally’s boss: “[Vonda’s] got an amazing voice. I could listen to her sing all day.”
Shepard’s easy listenability comes as no surprise to her father, Richmond Shepard, 69, a New York City actor, director and mime. “She was playing the piano six to eight hours a day from the age of 7,” he says, recalling her childhood in L.A. When Vonda was 10, her mother, Hadria, a former fashion model, walked out without explanation, leaving Richmond to raise Vonda and her three sisters. Their mom’s departure “was the worst,” says Shepard. “I didn’t realize how bad it was until later.” (Hadria, now 59, lives in Iowa.)
At 16, Vonda wanted to quit high school and play the L.A. club scene full-time. Her dad gave his okay—after she passed her high school equivalency exam. At 20, she landed a job as Rickie Lee Jones’s backup singer and keyboardist, and six years later she released her 1989 debut album (Vonda Shepard). The album failed to chart, but it did introduce Shepard to guitarist Michael Landau, who had played on Joni Mitchell’s albums. “We clicked immediately,” she says. “We just fell in love.”
Though they broke up five years later—”Both of us still had a lot to do on our own,” she says—Landau was there to lend support when Reprise Records dropped her in 1992 after her second album, The Radical Light, tanked. “It was scary,” she says. “I had no idea what I was going to do.” She toured as a backup singer for Jackson Browne in 1995. Then, after turning to meditation, she started composing songs for her third CD, 1996’s It’s Good, Eve. Though it sold only modestly, Eve restored Shepard’s confidence. “That whole album came from a very quiet, deep place,” she says.
Her McBeal deal grew out of her friendship with Michelle Pfeiffer, who met Shepard at a 1980 concert. Early last year, Pfeiffer took her husband, David E. Kelley, McBeal’s producer, to see Shepard perform at a Hollywood club. Already a fan, he asked her to perform on the show. “I was so excited, I screamed,” she says.
She cringed, however, when she saw herself on the first episode and anxiously phoned pal Pfeiffer, who gave her advice about hair and makeup. “My nature,” she explains, “is to worry about everything too much.” That includes the new man in her life, whom Shepard declines to name. “I like him a lot, and I think he likes me, but [our relationship] is very undefined,” she says.
But unlike Ally, Shepard, who has moved out of her rented bungalow in Venice, Calif., and plans to buy a house when her concert tour ends, is trying not to fret. In a recent McBeal episode, a psychiatrist encourages Ally to choose a theme song for herself. She picks “Tell Him.” Shepard, however, is singing a different tune. Relaxing between gigs, she starts snapping her fingers. “Don’t worry, be happy…” she trills.
Michael A. Lipton
Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles