Best known as the musical director and actor in the hit US show Ally McBeal, where she performed with artists such as Robert Downey Jr, Vonda Shepard has since toured the world. The Grammy, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning artist is performing at the Lowry, Salford, 9 October.
Tell us a bit about your sound and your influences?
I grew up in the 1970s where the singer-songwriter was ubiquitous, and the genre certainly influenced me, including the artists James Taylor, Carole King, Paul Simon, etc. I was also introduced to the great soul artists of that time — Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan, among others. My music has turned out to be a fusion of those two distinct styles.
How have you evolved over the years?
I now feel I have nothing to lose. I can throw myself out into the world musically, vocally, and there is an abandon I didn’t used to have. I feel that through vicissitudes my life has become deeper, therefore my voice is stronger and deeper.
What are you up to at the moment artistically?
At the moment I’m still very much in the throes of performing songs from my newest album, Rookie, which I feel very inspired by still. I have a few new songs in the works as well. If I can put out another album in two years, I’ll be very happy — it’s a long boat race to get there.
What’s it like to operate in the music industry today?
Well, I just feel thankful that I had a great career before the music industry crashed. I wouldn’t like to just be starting out now. I was very fortunate to be brought up in the music heyday, where there was artist development and where the labels paid for demos for artists while they were honing their craft. No such thing exists anymore, that I know of. They’ll listen to your new songs, but they certainly very seldom invest any money in developing an artist. These days, you had better be great at playing live, because that is where you can actually make a living, if you’re smart about it.
How do you stand out from the crowd in a saturated industry?
Good question. The best thing is to always be yourself — we are all slightly different, and to stay true to yourself means that someone will recognise what is special in you. The other way to stand out is to work very hard at being good. When writing a song, I feel it is essential to do the editing work, which for me is 90 per cent of the job of writing. The first draft is often incredible, but there is much work to be done after that initial burst of energy.
What informs your songwriting?
There is much going on in the subconscious that can break through, unexpectedly. I often write about subjects I didn’t realise were floating below the surface. I do write in a journal as much as I can, and begin to excavate emotions. Often I am working out unresolved relationship issues. My best writing is when I’m honest. I’ve tried writing political songs but they really sound forced, so some aspects of my life and interest will never emerge in song form. I also like to make up environments in songs where I’d like to exist — living by the sea, spending time in a café off the beaten path. I like to live out my dreams through songs – and they feel real and realised.
What’s on your rider?
Water, hot water and honey for stage and warming up. Hand towels, a small tray of vegetables and maybe some hummus, a good meal for dinner and some decent red wine for after the show. That’s about it! I’m very low maintenance, but if those basics are not there, the show will not run as smoothly.
Tell us your most embarrassing or surreal experience.
No (haha)! I was playing a gig at a very large outdoor venue on my birthday, and after my last song, I tripped over the monitor and fell on my face – but I thought it was hilarious!
Tell us about your worst live show.
My worst live show was when I was about 19 years old, playing a small club where I had a sort of residency (I played there once a month, at least.) I distinctly remember not practising enough for the gig, and I felt so uncomfortable in my skin that I never, ever did a show without being extremely prepared.
What’s your worst lyric?
There is a song that was a hit for me in the States, called Don’t Cry Ilene. The chorus, for about a year was, instead of the words Don’t Cry Ilene, And I Am Free. Same amount of syllables, right? Terrible name for a song! I have even worse lyrics, I just won’t let them be put into print… ha!