After suffering a number of career disappointments, Vonda Shepard has finally found the limelight thanks to the Fox television series "Ally McBeal."
The 35-year-old singer-songwriter has played an integral part in the hit show since it debuted in the fall of 1997. Singing material popularized by other artists such as "Hooked on a Feeling" and "Walk Away Renee," as well as a few of her own songs, Shepard is regarded as the series' musical conscience.
When the album "Songs From Ally McBeal featuring Vonda Shepard" sold more than 1 million copies in the United States last year, Shepard was sitting pretty as she began to search for a solo recording contract. Surely, the Los Angeles-raised artist would ink a profitable deal with a major record company. Instead, Shepard rejected several big-label offers to record and release her latest "By 7:30" album through a small company she created with her manager, Gail Gellman.
"We stayed independent because I wanted to make an album without any interference from record executives," explains Shepard, who performs Saturday night at the Orange County Fair. "So my manager and I formed this label. I was free to do whatever I wanted [creatively]. It was so wonderful. I also didn't want to be subject to getting dropped by a label if I didn't make the quarterly minimum [in album sales] for the company."
Putting out an independent album was not a new experience for Gellman and Shepard. In 1996, Shepard released her self-financed "It's Good, Eve" album on Gellman's Vesper Alley label.
The duo have hired marketing and promotional services to help plug "By 7:30," and they boast that they've aligned themselves to a top-flight distribution company, assuring the album wide availability. By avoiding the high overhead of big-label releases, Shepard says, she is able to make triple the money per album sold than she would with a corporate label.
Shepard's affiliation with "Ally McBeal" has certainly helped increase sales for "By 7:30." Nevertheless, it's still difficult for a small independent label to duplicate the power of a corporate record company when it comes to bringing an album to the public's attention. "The first week out, the 'Ally' album sold 143,000 records" on Sony-affiliated Epic Records, Shepard says. "The first week out, this album sold 15,000. My manager was thrilled, and I was like, 'It's not the same!' But it's done extremely well for an independent album. It sells something like 10,000 to 15,000 a week, which is neat.
"I'm not against the idea [of signing with a big record company again] if the right situation came along," she adds. "There are times when we miss having a ton of staff doing a lot of the groundwork for us. It does get tiring. But right now we're happy. We feel like we're fighting for this cause."
Shepard acknowledges that her decision to release "By 7:30" independently was colored in part by negative experiences early in her career.
In 1987, the young vocalist signed a recording contract with Reprise Records. Within a week of the release of her self-titled debut album in 1989, the A&R; executive who had signed her to the major label was fired. This left Shepard without one of her biggest supporters at the label. Reprise subsequently tried to transform the introspective singer-songwriter into something she was not, a pop diva.
This ill-conceived tactic failed to generate commercial interest, and she was dropped from the label a month after her "The Radical Light" album was released in 1992.
Today, Shepard voices some regret that she didn't put up a bigger fight to retain her artistic identity while at Reprise.
"I take responsibility for my actions now," she says. "Back when I was on Reprise, I was young and I made mistakes."
Shepard found herself discouraged and depressed following her exit from Reprise. She even contemplated leaving the music profession. Instead, she landed a gig touring as a backup singer for Jackson Browne. (Earlier in her career, she also worked as a touring vocalist for artists such as Rickie Lee Jones.)
"It's Good, Eve" represented a significant step forward for Shepard. Though it sold only 9,000 copies, the album infused her with confidence. Without interference from record company executives, she was able to create an album reflecting her own personality and sense of artistry.
After a Los Angeles performance in 1997, Shepard was approached by television producer David E. Kelley about contributing music for his upcoming TV series "Ally McBeal."
The singer was surprised to eventually discover that Kelley intended her to be a regular part of the series. Each hourlong episode contains songs selected by Kelley and performed by Shepard and her band. The music reflects the various moods of the McBeal character, a respected but somewhat ditsy young attorney.
Shepard isn't just the focal point of the show's soundtrack, she's part of its visual tapestry. She can occasionally be seen on the show singing and playing the piano at the local bar frequented by McBeal and her colleagues.
Finding extended time to enjoy her success has been almost impossible for Shepard. Once "Ally McBeal" wraps up each season, she heads onto the road for three months of feverish touring with her band. Her concerts consist of songs from both the television series and tunes from her four solo albums.
Shepard is planning to stay with the show two more seasons before devoting herself full time to her solo music.
"I love the show and I love being involved in it," she says. "I don't want to leave too soon where I look back [with regrets]. So I'm going to stay two more years and then I'll still be young enough to tour for a few years. I love touring, and sometimes I miss that I can't just fly off [and perform my own shows]."
* Vonda Shepard performs Saturday night at the Arlington Theater, Orange County Fair, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. 7 and 9 p.m. Shows are free with fair admission: ages 13-54, $6; seniors 55 and older, $5; ages 6-12, $2; ages 5 and under, free. (714) 708-FAIR.