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Shepard shoots to fame

Got myself together, now I'm ready to sing.

Had it not been for the surprise success of TV's Ally McBeal, Vonda Shepard might just have remained somewhere in the woodwork, where so many talented singer/songwriters dwell.

But that wasn't the case. Instead, the show has become the Fox network's prime-time jewel (seen locally Monday nights on WTVT-Ch. 13), and Shepard, who each week portrays a cocktail hour pianist in a trendy bar, is about to become a star.

On Tuesday, Sony Records will release Shepard's Songs From Ally McBeal, a collection that includes four original songs (including the show's theme, Searchin' My Soul), plus several other songs she has sung in various episodes.

For Shepard, it has been a long time coming.

"When I start to get overwhelmed with everything that's happened with Ally," she told an interviewer recently, "I think back to a year and a half ago, when I was playing in a club for 35 people and saying, "Where is my audience?' "

Lest anyone forget, Shepard's soulful, emotive singing made her a promising up-and-comer in Reprise Records' singer-songwriter stable in the late 1980s. Her 1989 debut, Vonda Shepard, even yielded a pop hit, Can't We Try. However, her follow-up album, Radical Light (which included the original version of Searchin' My Soul) barely sold 6,000 copies, and she was cut loose by the label in 1993.

"That's the way the business is, and I can accept it," she says. "I just vowed to keep working to get my music out somehow."

Last year, the 34-year-old got a call from Emmy-winning producer/writer David Kelley, who was putting together a new series centered around the life of a '90s career woman. Kelley, who is married to one of Shepard's longtime friends, actor Michelle Pfeiffer, had caught several of the singer's club performances in the Los Angeles area and thought she would fit nicely into the show's thematic scope.

In the series, Shepard portrays an unidentified bar musician who serves as muse for Ally (played by actor Calista Flockhart). Once or twice an episode she can be heard singing songs that clue listeners in to the character's inner thoughts.

Kelley has used several of Shepard's original songs in scenes, but often uses other well-chosen pop hits to get his message across.

"He's chosen some humorous songs, like This Guy's in Love With You, which I had to make into my own thing," she recalls. "I brought it back to David, and he said, "God, Vonda, this was supposed to be a joke, but it's so beautiful!' "

Since the breakout of Ally, Shepard, who grew up in Southern California, has been working to reclaim her turf as a live performer, traveling the small-club circuit when her schedule allows.

"Being on camera has been a learning process," she says. "I'm more of a human, natural kind of writer, not someone who has every hair in place, so having makeup people fussing around me all the time is challenging. But on the other hand, the character I play is myself, and singing and playing and writing is what I live for."

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