It doesn’t matter how small your cult following is if you’ve got the right cult. Consider the serendipitous case of Vonda Shepard. Dumped by Warner Bros. Records six years ago, a label-less, manager-less Shepard was left to lug her 150-pound keyboard to solo gigs at L.A.’s tinier acoustic clubs, where her small cadre of followers included (unbeknownst to one another) future showbiz couple David E. Kelley and Michelle Pfeiffer. Only after they met under other circumstances did they realize their mutual fandom, and after their first shared Shepard gig last spring, Kelley says, “it just sort of clicked that this voice and these lyrics are commensurate with the character of Ally.”
Next thing Shepard knew, it was pilot season and she was the on-screen muse for Calista Flockhart in Ally McBeal — although, she says, “David’s very shy and quiet” and never did warn her how extensive a part she’d have: She pops up once or twice an episode as the musical mainstay of the bar where the show’s attorneys congregate, not to mention additional aural appearances as Ally’s “emotional conscience.” In a rock world where female performers are suddenly extremely valued — if they’re young, edgy, and tart — Shepard, 34, seems to have struck a chord re-embodying an ideal almost lost since the late ’70s: the seasoned but yearning white-soul chick who is unabashedly emotional and not always angry.
Speaking of “Lawyers in Love,” Shepard’s most visible prior role was as Jackson Browne’s backup singer. Like Ally, she’s struggled to find her solo voice; her two Warner albums ended up slick and undistinguished. “I laugh when I hear it,” she says of 1992’s The Radical Light, which, laughable or not, provided “Searchin’ My Soul” — Kelley’s choice for Ally‘s theme song.
Being dumped by a major only a month after that album’s release led to some soul-searching — and her homemade triumph, 1996’s lovely It’s Good, Eve: “You can hear that I’m in there.” But that independent album’s complex, Laura Nyro-esque writing style isn’t easily encapsulated in McBeal‘s sound bites. And so viewers hear a lot more of Shepard performing Kelley’s choice of recognizable oldies — which, she says, “may seem random sometimes, but he’s almost 100 percent lyric oriented” in underscoring plotlines.
Shepard’s omnipresence inspires the same pro-and-con passions as the series itself, with Vonda lovers clamoring for a soundtrack album (currently the object of a label bidding skirmish). Has any musician gotten this much exposure on a network series since Desi Arnaz? “Well, the Monkees did it,” Kelley says with a chuckle, “but I’ve never tried it before. It’s been great…. Even her songs that talk about tragic circumstances, underneath is the idea that [like Ally] she’s not gonna give up and still hopes and longs for more.”
So how close is the “voice” of Ally to the unreal McBeal? “I see similarities, being a hardworking woman with no relationship, and her personal life is kind of shaky,” says Shepard, who lives in L.A. “When she bangs her head against the wall and says, ‘I have my health,’ I can relate. We’ve become, on the show, the same person…but I’m not really her — in life.” How not? “Not as neurotic — I don’t think. And I don’t stammer on stage.”