Sure, your mind goes straight to dancing babies and high hemlines when Ally McBeal is invoked—but we’d bet all of our unisex bathroom privileges that Ally’s legacy is shared by singer-songwriter Vonda Shepard, 51, who’s responsible for plushing Ally McBeal with sentimental, musical life.
When the lawyers of Cage/Fish & Associates would hit the bar for cocktails, Shepard serenaded the room with oh-so-coincidentally thematic lyrics that aligned perfectly with Ally’s feelings du jour. Shepard credits show creator David E. Kelley with selecting the perfect songs each episode, but her role grew alongside the show’s own rising star. She struck up a collaborative relationship with Kelley that eventually allowed her to bring her own musical choices into the fold.
As part of our Ally McBeal binge guide—available in this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly—we asked Shepard to share five of her favorite musical covers from across the entire series, as well as her memories of the show’s iconic theme song. Which we may or may not have had on loop all week.
“Pearl’s a Singer”
Season 1, Episode 2: “Compromising Positions”
VONDA SHEPARD: “It’s maybe [a] surprising [choice] because it was never on one of the [show’s] four albums, which was I guess kind of an oversight on my part. For me personally, after having been dropped from Warner Bros., this is just more of a personal note. To be sitting on the set of a major television show filming a song about a failed singer, which is kind of what I felt like, living in New York and lugging my keyboard around before suddenly getting a call to be on this show… I’m singing about a woman who never made it, but then here I was. The juxtaposition of that feeling and then singing the song…it just had a lot of power for me personally. You hear the longing and the pain in the lyrics, and then in my performance it’s actually a genuine delivery of the feeling. I want to try to find a way to release it somehow.”
“You Belong to Me”
Season 1, Episode 4: “The Affair”
“It’s gorgeous and such a classic. It was written in the ‘50s, originally about a man going off to war, but it’s for anyone who goes away from their lover. It’s the epitome of Ally McBeal, picturing Ally and Billy dancing as you hear that first line, ‘See the pyramids along the Nile…’ There are so many visuals in that song, and it just pulls at you with the melody. Those visuals pull you in very intensely. For me and a lot of people, that’s one of the most significant songs in the show. It turns out that it was also apparently my dad’s favorite song and when I was a little baby, he used to sing it sometimes, and I didn’t know that! Isn’t that neat?”
Season 3, Episode 1: “Car Wash”
“Of all the soul R&B tunes that were featured in the show, of which there were many, that one is my favorite. It’s so funky and it’s got this uplifting spirit. I actually play that live and it is the high point in my show. Everyone goes crazy and jumps on their feet. It wasn’t going to be on the album originally, the second album, but then I just had this vision of it being a very important song. So I called David [E. Kelley], and he said let’s put it on. It’s doesn’t relate to the characters as much as a ‘You Belong to Me’ type, but it’s a song I just love personally. Oh, and people love it. I’d say 75 percent of the fans who come to see me are still Ally fans, so when they hear anything from one of those first two albums, they totally recognize it and it’s a moment of retrospection.”
“Some Enchanted Evening”
Season 5, Episode 4: “Fear of Flirting”
“I seem to be drawn to the really romantic songs. It’s a Rodgers & Hammerstein song, and it was originally in South Pacific, which I’ve actually never seen. It’s such a romantic, nostalgic, quite visual stroll that is so optimistic and so hoping for love. It’s like a promise of love. ‘Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger across a crowded room, and somehow you’ll know even then.’ It’s a very Ally song.”
“Always On My Mind”
Season 5, Episode 6: “Lost and Found”
“This one is surprising. Recently, I was listening to a compilation of some Ally songs, and this voice came on. And I went, ‘Who is this!?’ And it was James Marsden. Man, that guy can sing. I actually heard the song years later, and I wanted to contact him and say let’s do an album together. The song is a beautiful song, and just to hear that voice come out of nowhere… this is something really special. I think James Marsden delivered it with true depth and talent.”
BONUS: “Searching My Soul”
“David asked that I have a few songs in the pilot, and we recorded ‘Tell Him.’ He originally wanted ‘Tell Him’ to be the theme song, but my manager and I really thought ‘Searching My Soul’ would be good. We of course wanted an original. So basically, we flew into LA and played all of the producers five of my originals, and David and the producers said if I could whittle ‘Searching My Soul’ down into one minute and speed it up, then that could be the theme song. Which we did, and it worked!
“The song was actually on my second album originally in ‘91. It wasn’t until ‘97 that it got put onto Ally McBeal. The original version was there and nothing happened with it. Richard Perry produced it. He thought it was going to be a hit. I worked on that song literally for a year, and we cut it three times for my album. And so to have it have this life breathed into it from Ally McBeal was miraculous, but then to have the longevity beyond that is…I just smile. When I play it live, that’s the one they want to hear. “Ally McBeal! Play Ally McBeal!” That’s what they say! It’s a solid song and it’s got a good, uplifting theme.”