No need to send out a search party for the “Searchin’ My Soul” singer. It’s true that Vonda Shepard has kept a low profile of late, not just during the pandemic but for a few years before it, not having released an album of new material since 2015’s “Rookie.” But she’s back with her 13th studio album, “Red Light, Green Light,” titled in part for the stop-and-go feelings a lot of us might have experienced during the past two and a half years. For Shepard at least, who has touring dates now lined up on the east coast and in Europe to follow the new release, all systems are go, again.
For the still-curious who never really checked out Shepard’s discography outside of the “Ally McBeal” music, which she produced as well as sang (four of her 13 studio releases are “McBeal” soundtracks), the new album is a chance to discover anew that she’s not just a soul-revue woman, but a distinguished songwriter when she’s out from under the covers. For those who already knew her from top-flight original albums like “It’s Good, Eve” and “By 7:30,” it’s a revisitation with a next-gen figure whose work snuggles comfortably alongside that of her piano-based ‘70s forebears.
If you’re curious about the “Ally” TV sequel reportedly in early stages of conception, Shepard doesn’t know much more about it than you do, although it sounds like if drafted, she will gladly serve on anything respecting the original show, which has reached its 25th anniversary point. (Anyone want to throw a party? She does.) In the meantime, “Red Light, Green Light” gets her back to where she once belonged even earlier than that, with a solo career that’s now 33 years in.
It’s been seven years since your last album, so you’re not flooding the market with product, as they say.
No. [Laughs.] There comes a point when you play shows where you need new material just for yourself. I love playing live and going on tour, but it’s really important to infuse the show with fresh songs and energy, so I was getting to that antsy point. And though I always say writing is really the hardest thing I do, the pandemic lent itself to focusing heavily. There was a lot to write about, including my son, and politics, and wanting to escape and break out of this pandemic, and all the injustices that were going on in the world.
Musically, you’ve got a lot of piano on this album — not surprisingly, for you, but there are even a couple of songs where it’s just that all the way through, and then some that start that way before the band kicks in. You’ve done some music in the past where you and (producer and husband) Mitchell Froom played around with loops. But you’re not looking to reinvent the wheel when the piano is right there.
Definitely. I still love ‘70s music. I still love singer-songwriter music — Carole King, Elton John, that’s where I’m at home. Mitchell was producing the song “Red Light, Green Light” in a little bit of a more modern way, and it took me a minute to adjust to that, because I am very happy hanging out in the ‘70s with a piano and just the band playing along. Mitchell is not Mr. Modern, but he likes to experiment with different sounds and I appreciate that it took me a minute to adjust. But I’m pretty happy with the sound of it. I was thrilled with the band’s playing. Unfortunately, the guitars we had to do over Zoom, because my guitar player is a little bit in a vulnerable, just slightly compromised state, so that was a challenge.
Mitchell has been producing your records since 1999, right?
Yeah, I think this is our eighth album together, Mitchell’s and mine. You know, before I met him, he was my favorite record producer, so it’s kind of amazing to work with him. And he’s not a pushover. He speaks his mind and is incredibly opinionated, so it’s not always easy. But most of the time, I walk into the pub where I’m practicing and I say, “Here’s my new song,” and I’m so on the edge of my seat to see what he’s going to say. I don’t mean anxious as in worried. I just mean excited because he’s gonna come up with some brilliant little moment or gem, like where he’ll add a bass note or he’ll leave space or add a passing chord that I wouldn’t have thought of. It’s thrilling — that’s the word I’ll use. And I get to be married to him, you know? That’s a bonus. But just working with him is a constant education.
Getting into themes, you seem to get political in the album’s final song, “These City Lights,” even though the title doesn’t necessarily indicate that’s where its going to go. It sounds unhappy about the climate. In the song, you mention the radio — is that literally listening to talk radio?
It’s literally hearing about people listening to talk radio. [Laughs.] It’s about hearing about a certain faction listening and believing what they hear. “When did they discover the world isn’t round?” I actually wrote some of the song during the January 6 insurrection. It was so upsetting to me, and I felt scared and I felt like I needed to protect myself and my family. I kind of spell it out with “shame on the people smarter than that” – basically, they know what they’re doing, these powerful people, but they’re letting the lies happen anyway.
I don’t normally write about political issues because I’m not comfortable with confrontation. I don’t like fighting with people about their views. I just couldn’t hold back in this case. And, like a lot of the songs, the choruses have this kind of uplifting quality, including “Disappear,” which says “despite all of this, I think life is beautiful.” With “These City Lights,” it’s like, meanwhile, while this is all going on, we’re flying above it all, seeing the city lights, and at the end they’re smiling at me. It’s not like an intellectual thing; it’s part of my personality to be positive and try to balance.
A lot of singer-songwriters will write about their children when they’re very young. But when they become teenagers? Suddenly, parents are less inspired to write about their kids. But you do have a couple of songs on this album at least prompted by your 16-year-old son, although that may not be immediately apparent, including “Shine Your Light.” It sounds hopeful, but you’ve got the “why you been away so long?” sentiment in there too.
Well, you’re right. The song starts off sounding almost like it’s about a romantic relationship, but when I say, “why you been away so long” and “you’re so far away,” that just emotionally. The song talks about him being lost in all the sound and all the noise and all the distractions of life that everyone, not just teenagers, deals with on a daily moment-to-moment basis, and sort of watching the (younger) dreams slip away. Many of those dreams are probably my own dreams I project onto him. But it’s just trying to encourage him to be the best that he can be and shine his own light out of the darkness. That sounds kind of corny, but it’s up to you to shine your light and be the best you can be, but I’m here as kind of an overseeing guide. I’ll always be here for you — as like a satellite or something.
And then there’s the song “Made of Rain,” where it’s like, I feel his childhood slipping through my fingers. It’s the analogy of rain — you can’t hold onto it. So, yeah, the angst of having a teenage child and also the joy in all of that, with images of going to the sea together — I just felt a need to put the struggles and the joys into song.
In other songs you have lines like “Breathe the air that I forgot was there.” That almost sounds post-pandemic…
Not almost — 100%, a pandemic-induced song. And then “feel the love when I thought he didn’t care.” Because when you’re stuck with somebody for a year and a half inside, you kind of discover things about them, and rediscover things. And in some ways I got closer with my husband, so there was a gift to that. And “find the justice when it’s so unfair … Easy to say when you’ve got the means.” Because I could afford to have Netflix and watch movies and I could afford to order food. But it was terrible for a lot of people who didn’t have those luxuries.
Although the album tend to be contemplative, you have your signature funk/soul songs that figure in, like “Smoother Ride.”
Another weird thing from the pandemic was I started hiking. I hadn’t hiked in 30 years and would be thinking, something’s driving me up that hill, something spiritual, like a force of will. It was almost literal, as metaphors for everything in life that’s going on go. I’m persevering. I’m not gonna quit. I’m just gonna keep pushing up that hill.
You’ve said before that you started out in more of a purely Joni-inspired mode, but couldn’t help adding the soul along the way.
It’s part of who I am. And I don’t know if it’s a mistake to do it in some people’s minds, because the album’s going along and you’re in a (reflective) mood and all of a sudden, bang, this thing hits you. But I definitely have that in my personality. I like to dance and just lose my mind in up-tempo, fun grooves. I would be denying something of myself if I didn’t have a couple of those party/fun songs. I grew up listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan, and they were equal parts of what I listened to along with Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones. I loved both equally.
“Ally McBeal” is just so well remembered that there’s talk now about a sequel. It may or may not have that much connection to the original series, but someone believes that IP is valuable.
It is valuable. Yeah, I have seen that. I’m not part of it yet, but that would be pretty wild, to see the reboot. I hear it’s mostly African American characters. I don’t know much about it, but David Kelley mentioned it to me. I’m ready for it!
There was talk there might be an “Ally McBeal” 25th anniversary reunion in the cards?
I was working toward having an event, and was talking to Disney and Hulu about it… As of now, there’s nothing happening, which is kind of sad because I was really excited about a reunion. It’s a bit of a milestone — it doesn’t have really true significance, but it just is a moment to celebrate and acknowledge the show, which was a really fun experience and opened the door for me in so many ways. So now I’m thinking, do I have to just have a party at my house and invite everybody?
You’re going out on tour — mostly the east coast and Europe being on the lineup, after this special L.A. kickoff you just did at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato club. You’re revved up for it and the pandemic didn’t take it out of you or anything?
No, it’s the opposite. I’m ready. The States are harder to tour because it’s so spread out and more expensive. I play like 300, 400, 500 seats and so sometimes there’s not the budget to charter a tour bus. And I know my U.S. audiences are disenchanted with me for that, because I stay on the coasts. But maybe down the line we’ll see.
I had an epiphany during the pandemic: I am not ready to retire. You know, my guitar player is 73. My bass player is a cancer survivor, and he’s 60-something. And we’re just going to go out there and kick some ass.