Vonda Shepard

Lookin’ at Rookie

‘Rookie’ is the new album from American songstress and writer Vonda Shepard – we really like her and her music AND she has pending UK dates. Warm and informative, Vonda is happy to talk about her latest creations…

JLTT: Good evening to you.

VS: Hey how are you. Pete?

We had a lovely chat about your last album, the upbeat one. In fact, I went to see you at The Pigalle in London

I loved that place! I remember that gig, yes!

Now I’ve listened to the new album ‘Rookie’ and you’re about to promote this and we’re gonna come down to one of The Pheasantry shows in London in the Autumn.

That would be great, please do

My slant is I don’t do conventional interviews, I do chats about music. Everyone from you to Buddy Guy and Steve Lukather seems to dig that. Can we just quickly run through some of the tracks on the new album as there’s a couple of things I’m not sure about? ‘Need Your Love’ is very confident sort of piano/organ based introduction to the record. It seems to be about yearning and finding strength in union. But what inspired that track?

You know, I think I’m a pretty strong woman and I’ve been through a lot in my life and I always feel like I can handle anything and there comes a point when you suddenly realise ‘I do need this person. I need support.’ That’s where it came from. Sometimes, I am superwoman in my life, juggling and handling everything. So I think it came from that need to express that yeah. That I have needs too.

You can bet your life that even Hillary Clinton has her tender moments

(Sighs) It’s really funny you say that because I was wondering about her. I picked up her book the other day and I thought ‘Does she ever feel vulnerable, scared, tired or lonely?’ Does she ever go through that?

This song again, one thing that came out of your live show was you’ve got quite a strong tinge of Aretha (Franklin) and maybe Candi Staton and that comes through in your work. People think of you in a way, as being a young Carole King. Which you probably are in some respects, but the soul side seems to be more and more evident in the way you perform and the songs you’re writing. Is that fair?

I think you’ve nailed it completely. Carole King was one of my earliest influences as well as Aretha and I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised the cathartic experience of singing in that way and leaning on that side of my voice. It’s really an incredible feeling of power, excitement and a need to just let it pour out as loudly and as soulfully as possible! As I get older, I feel more of a need to do that. That’s true

I think it’s loosening up. I mean, I tried not sounding like The Byrds and now I’ve given up. It’s there.

(Laughs) An admission from the cool guy!

I don’t hear it anymore because it’s part of my DNA. Talking of which, ‘Turn It Up’ has got a Family Stone style backdrop…

Thank you ! – I’m so glad you think so. Mitchell Froom, who produced the record and I were definitely going for that vibe… and I’m so glad it came through

We were hanging out with those guys at Ronnie Scotts in London last year. Fantastic band and really full of character. They have this guy who has that really stretchy Sly voice. They still sound the ultimate sound of multi-racial, all influence funk. You can’t sit still when they’re on

Oh gosh! That’s amazing to hear. Is Larry Williams in the band?

I’m not sure. It’s the original drummer as for a while they had Andy Newmark the English guy on drums. This ‘Turn It Up’ made me think a bit of Mary Clayton who sang with The Rolling Stones a bit. Are you your own chorale? It looks as though you are….

My own chorale?

Own choir.

Oh choir. You mean do I sing my own backup vocal? I do yes. So you know that block of vocals, behind me….I kind of put on the full backing singer hat!

I picked it up. I’ll tell you why, when I play your records now, the funkier tracks, there’s a thing that comes into my head and it’s a forty five spinning round and it is red and black on the Atlantic label. Part of what you do and part of what’s in your writing is the classic Atlantic RnB sound which you obviously like. You’re not duplicating it but it’s just there in the way you create music.

Definitely a cool image as I’ve had that visual many times in my life but I’m picturing that spinning forty five right now. You’re right – it just becomes part of your DNA or something

That Atlantic thing actually throws warmth into your music. More than you realise I think but anyway…‘I Just Don’t Get It’ is very sharp – it about jealousy?

No, it’s more about not speaking my mind and feeling the distance that starts when you are too shy and holding back too much in a relationship and not communicating. It’s about wanting to be more forthcoming and stronger

It’s the downside of self-editing…

Yeah that’s exactly right. You’re overdoing it with the self-editing

I feel that ‘I Just Don’t Get It’ needs a trumpet.

You think so?

I reckon so. It’s that kind of song where a trumpet adds a slightly melancholy sound

Are you thinking of a muted trumpet or a different type?

A Miles (Davis) style silvery muted trumpet.

(Laughs) Nice. I like that. Maybe when I come back and play The Phesantry . I just met a great trumpet player last night so I might actually take that idea and run with it

‘Saturday’ is quite pastoral and it’s the closest you’d come to Paul Simon.

That collection of the chords, yes….

It’s a Brian Wilson thing really.

I’m a huge Paul Simon fan so that’s a compliment. That song just kind of came flying out of myself. I just said it one day and I had to write the song. The song took forever to write but I really wanted to capture the romantic images in my life likefresh coffee, being by the sea …and chocolate. I’m just trying to incorporate images of things that I like

The other song that goes into that particular ambiance whilst painting a picture is ‘Train To Inverness’ and I don’t know if that was written on a train?

It was not written on a train. But this is what I do, I escape into the world of my imagination and my creativity and I really have these images that are like movies before my eyes. I try to capture those in a new way, an original way and when I do that I enjoy it. I like to see those images and I wanna share them with people and I like to put a lot of actual physical places people can identify with

Yeah. It’s quite a bitter lyric though ‘Train to Inverness’

(Laughs) Oh it’s the worst! That song took a long time to write as well and once it was done I thought ‘Ok. I don’t think I’m ever gonna play this again.’ It’s so heavy. My hardcore fans will like it I think

I wrote in my notes, ‘energetic piano. Most recognizably Vonda.’ But you say that’s a dark song, how do you think Bob Dylan feels singing ‘Tangled up in Blue’? !

(Laughs) Yeah!! Memories!

It must hurt him because that’s a story of distilled pain. It’s a wonderful song and he often says (In Bob Dylan voice) ‘That album is the worst period of my life. Why do people like it?’

(Laughs) That was pretty good!

Again, that recording freezes in time how he felt in that moment. Why shouldn’t you do that? A painting does that so why shouldn’t your songs do it? Your songs should be your snapshots.

That’s exactly right and for some reason it felt like I had to finish that song for whatever reason and it was painful to write. It came from a deep need to get it out of my system and I did. Hopefully people won’t request that one live!

No. I WILL request ‘Walk on the Water’ because it has a very funky catchy gospel feel. And again, I see the Atlantic forty five spinning on the turntable. But is that a set-opener? With your band especially, it sounds like something you could just go straight into and then come on. It sounds like a really good set-opener to me

Ok. I’m gonna take note of that in my brain. You know, we’re trying to decide on the next single and it’s between ‘Walk on the Water’ and ‘I Just Don’t Get It’. So I’ve been getting a lot of feedback about ‘Walk on the Water’ so maybe that should be the one

I have a favourite track on this album which I’ll tell you in a minute. The title track ‘Rookie’, is poly-rhythmic as it has a lot of rhythms going on in there. It has that urgency doesn’t it?

Yeah., that was the thing on that song, edgy

But it’s got that quasi-orchestral sort of keyboard thing in there which reminds me of a guy called Marty Paich and he did the arrangements for Spirit who were a big influence on the young Pete on guitar. His son, Dave Paich is now in Toto with Steve Lukather

Ok. Dave Paich played on my record but I know exactly who you’re talking about now, Marty…

Right. It was his dad but Dave Paich has got the same touch. Even in Toto now, the way he plays the keyboards has got that thing that hangs in your memory. I mean you know Mitchell’s (Froom) work with Suzanne Vega. A song like ‘Luca’ has that, does doesn’t it? It’s in there. He did that with Crowded House too.

He did. He’s so good at that. His forte is arranging and orchestration and not many producers out there, I’m sure you know this as a musician; they aren’t even musicians, let alone arrangers or orchestrators. So I think it’s a great gift to work with Mitchell because on the track ‘Rookie’, I’m basically just shaking a tambourine cause’ that’s how I wrote the song which is rare for me. I sang it for him with a tambourine and we recorded the demo of it, the basic track. Then all of a sudden two hours later, I walk into the studio and he’s put this magic in there.. and to me it made the chorus

Absolutely right. My favourite track is ‘Long For the Days’.

(Happy) Oh I’m so glad you said that!

I’ve written down here ‘Lovely gentle atmosphere and great piano figure. Vocals exquisite.’ I don’t know if it’s a single or not, but that’s the track that stopped me in my track.

Wow that’s so cool. That’s one of my favourites as well and I’m really glad to hear that. It feels really nice to play that song. Especially one that I felt needed some work. It needed another section and I walked into the studio and usually I don’t work at night anymore but in this instance I went out and I wrote the bridge that night. When I headed home and the bridge was complete I was like ‘Thank goodness I’m home!’ The song came full circle and it felt special. I’m glad you like it

Who is The Time Machine? They‘re thanked in the notes

They pledged my Kickstarter campaign and pledged to have their names in the special thanks. I have no idea who they are but they do this for publicity. It’s really funny because it cost them a hundred and seventy five dollars to have them thanked in my special thanks so that I could have the funds to make this record. It was one of the rewards and I was like ‘Ok. Thanks.’

Right. Two other things, you’ve been in Faust in New York I think.It’s the Randy Newman thing isn’t?


How did it go?

Well it was an incredible experience and Randy was in the show of course. Getting on the stage like that was thrilling and scary but I got to play the character Martha. Working with Randy Newman was just such an honour and delight. I know him through Mitchell Froom and the highlight for me, was doing the number with Randy.

Yeah. You see really, this is the equivalent of an actor working with Woody Allen…If you follow the pairing there.

That is a very interesting thought and it is like the ‘master at work’ and he is a veteran

Exactly what I’m thinking

Yeah I could see that

You won’t come out of that the same person.

No – you don’t! (Laughs) I have to say, this is gonna sound silly but even to be asked to do the role in this show with him was such an incredible honour in itself. Then to have the experience of doing it was life-changing

Ok. I’ve got time for one more thing: it’s time you made a live album.

I have recorded a live album ….it was recorded on an island in Spain

I haven’t got it so I’m gonna have to track that one down. The other thing that crossed my mind, apart from the Atlantic label thing and you get that totally, do you know Joan Osborne?

I do know her!

See, she’s someone who blends her own ideas with a very strong soul and blues roots. I think you’re actually moving towards her kind of style. I just wondered if she was someone you liked or have come across

I like her a lot. She has a great voice and I like her as a person. Mitchell actually produced one of her records. Actually, she’s in ‘Standing In the Shadows in Motown’ in the movie. I actually did the song she did in the movie with The Funk Brothers. She’s great.

I just wondered because the way she puts her own feeling and originality into rooted music, I kind of think that’s what you’re doing more and more

I think I am, I just wanna make sure I don’t fall into any cliché with it. It has to feel genuine and it still has to feel original to me, which is why I keep writing my own stuff obviously.

It does but it’s the colours you’re using. It’s a bit like a painter because every time you hear something it must come out in your playing and singing. I wear the influences proudly because a lot of people I admire I will never be anything like as good as them. I play guitar but I will never be as good as Frank Zappa. However, he’s left his mark on me and it still gives me a slightly original sound. I use a lot more major sevenths then I used to.

I actually don’t know a lot of Zappa but I should check him out not that we’ve had this conversation. That makes me curious….

Go on YouTube and there are a couple videos of a song called ‘Room Service’ and that’s the route into Zappa I would humbly suggest. He’s having fun but you kind of get Zappa a bit better. Well I look forward to seeing you and your band again and I will try and say hello

Please come and say hi before and I’ll bring you the live album.

I would really like a live album of you and if you can get one to me I would be very grateful

I will for sure, Pete. Great to talk to you again and thank you so much

Pete Sargeant


Vonda Shepard’s new album ‘Rookie’ is out now. To coincide with the release, Vonda Shephard will embark on a UK tour in the Autumn at the following venues:

Tuesday 6th October 2015- The Pheasantry, London (SOLD OUT)

Thursday 8th October 2015 – Selby Town Hall, Selby (SOLD OUT)

Friday 9th October 2015- Bury MET Arts Centre, Bury, Greater Manchester (SOLD OUT)

Saturday 10th October 2015- The Ropewalk, Barton (SOLD OUT)

Monday 12th October 2015- The Sage, Gateshead http://www.sagegateshead.com/event/vonda-shepard/

Thursday 15th October 2015- Huntingdon Hall, Worcester http://www.worcesterlive.co.uk/

Friday 16th October 2015- Pizza Express Live, Maidstone, Kent (SOLD OUT)

Saturday 17th October 2015- St John’s Church, Farncombe http://www.wegottickets.com/location/971

Sunday 18th October 2015- Tithe Barn, Cheltenham (SOLD OUT)

Tuesday 20th October 2015- Henry Tudor House, Shrewsbury (SOLD OUT)

Thursday 22nd October 2015- The Stables, Milton Keynes http://www.stables.org/

Friday 23rd October 2015-  Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne http://www.tivoliwimborne.co.uk/

Saturday 24th October 2015- Ropetackle Arts Centre, Shoreham (SOLD OUT)

Sunday 25th October 2015- The Pheasantry, London (SOLD OUT)

For more information visit: http://vondashepard.com/

(Thanks Vonda, Dave C and Glenn)