Vonda Shepard and Sharon Corr to cook up something new in Belfast
Ahead of her Belfast gig with Sharon Corr next month, multi-award winning singer Vonda Shepard tells Lorraine Wylie how the pair swap recipes, why she would love to try an Ulster fry and how Van Morrison is one of her favourite singers
Golden Globes, Emmys and the Screen Actors Guild are some of the entertainment industry's most coveted awards and Vonda Shepard has two of each. In a career spanning almost four decades, the American singer/songwriter has sold over 12 million albums. However, in the early days she found the music business a hard nut to crack and, despite some measure of success, stardom eluded her. It wasn't until she appeared in the 1997 TV show Ally McBeal that Vonda really came to eminence.
Her role as the resident performer in the bar where the show's character's gathered after work shone the spotlight on her skills and brought the recognition she deserved.
Now she's ready for a new venture and this time she's hooked up with Sharon Corr for a whistle-stop tour of the UK and Ireland.
When I caught up with Vonda at her home in LA, I found the star in slightly apprehensive mood.
"Hi, would you mind holding on a moment," she says in a hushed whisper.
A few minutes later she's back on the line.
"I'm sorry about that but my son is home from school with a cold and, well, he's kind of dramatic," she laughs. "He's 12, still at that manageable age but the internet problem here, like everywhere I guess, is a real problem. We tend to be quite strict and don't allow any access on school nights. Last year we did allow it but in the end, we couldn't get him off. Now we try to keep it to short spells.
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"It's about finding balance. You don't want them to be an outcast but equally you don't want them addicted.
"Parenting is hard, it's certainly not for the weak. Yet I know these years are precious so I'm clinging to them for as long as possible."
Married to music producer Mitchell Froom, the couple have one son and Vonda is also step-mum to Mitchell's daughter Ruby from his previous marriage to Suzanne Vega.
I ask about her own childhood.
"I guess we had kind of an unusual childhood. My dad, you probably know, is Richmond Shepard, a mime artist but both my parents were very much into the arts and culture, so there was constantly creative people coming and going.
"There always seemed to be an actor, musician or some other artist sleeping on our couch. We were surrounded by all sorts of talented people.
"I thought it was natural to sit at the piano and write songs.
"In our house, it was kind of required for us kids to learn to play piano and so from the age of six, I had regular lessons. To be honest, in the beginning I didn't like playing, then I started to think it was okay and eventually when I was around nine, I actually started to enjoy it."
Who were the artists that influenced her?
"I guess there were two very different genres that I loved. First there was the likes of Elton John, Carol King and Paul Simon. You know, those classic sounds of the Seventies.
"On the other hand, I was also drawn to soul singers like Stevie Wonder, he was incredible. But I have to say, the list wouldn't be complete without one of my favourites and Northern Ireland's greatest - Van Morrison.
"Whenever I hear Into The Mystic, I feel a magical sense of what is possible in the world. I'd love to perform it.
"You know, when I was 18, I worked at a restaurant called The Great American Food and Beverage Company, where waiters would get up and sing songs to the diners.
"The one I loved was the song Domino, by Van. The whole restaurant would go crazy, singing along to the chorus."
Considering her artistic background and musical influences, I wonder whether she'd ever considered a career outside the industry?
"Yes ma'am!" she exclaims. "When I was young, I wanted to be an astrophysicist. Growing up, we didn't have much but my dad read a lot so we had a ton of books.
"I'd go to our library, when I say library I mean a funky little room, I'd go there and just stare at the books.
"I was particularly fascinated by science and even in school I was really good at the subject as well as maths. So if my life hadn't turned out this way, I think that's the route I was headed."
Her self-titled debut album, released in 1989, didn't reach the heights she'd hoped but one of the singles, Don't Cry Ilene, peaked at number 17 on the Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Chart, holding the spot for 12 weeks.
She went on to make another two albums before she was eventually spotted by David E Kelley, creator of the show Ally McBeal. Suddenly her career took off.
"I was so grateful for the show," she tells me.
"I was struggling at the time and Ally McBeal really was my big break.
"It came along at the right time in my life but when it ended in 2002, I was ready and kind of excited about trying new things.
"Now I'm enjoying writing and I always make sure I have my journal with me so I can record any ideas or little bits of inspiration."
Does she find the creative process therapeutic?
"At times throughout my life, yes I have found it beneficial. I think as you get older and have children, in some ways you need it more.
"For me it can be a kind of escape from the routine. But sometimes if I'm not in the mood, it's just another chore. Still, once I get practising, after 45 minutes or an hour, I get lost in it.
"I'm in another world. So, yes that feeling is very special. It makes me feel pretty good."
Now that she and Sharon Corr have teamed up, what can Belfast audiences expect from the Shepard/Corr duo?
"Sharon and I get on so well and we've such a lot in common but actually our voices also work very well together. Do you know we're currently writing a song? It's quite fascinating really because we're so far apart and we have to send it back and forward to each other. At the minute we're calling it Made of Rain."
I tell her that might work in Belfast aka Rain City.
"Yes, you could be right," she laughs. "Anyway, when we meet up, we'll practice and then we'll debut it live every night throughout the tour. Well, we will do unless it turns out to be terrible!"
Having noticed that a lot of Vonda's songs are about loss, I ask what Made of Rain is about.
"It's about that time in your life, you know, when someone is slipping through your fingers - like rain."
The conversation turns toward another of Vonda's talents - cooking
"Yes, I do love to cook. I make a lot of Italian dishes, mainly because I once took lessons from some great Italian chefs. In our house, we tend to like Mediterranean themes so a typical dish might be fish, salmon or maybe halibut.
"I'll roast some peppers, sauteed garlic and place them on the fish for a bit of flair.
"I have to admit, I'm addicted to garlic, I love the stuff. Sharon used to eat at our house all the time when she was recording her album, The Same Sun, so now she often sends me recipes and we'll experiment together."
I suggest that she and Sharon, who still sings with her siblings in their band, The Corrs, should write a cook book. There's a lengthy pause as she considers it.
"You know that's not a bad idea," she says. "I have been approached by two other people asking me to write a cookery book. But now you mention it, that could be something for Sharon and me. That's something we can talk about in the van."
The show sounds like a good night and no doubt Vonda and Sharon will enjoy the break. What woman wouldn't enjoy a few weeks away from the domestic dramas?
But what is Vonda looking forward to most about Belfast?
"I've been to Belfast a few times, when I've played the Waterfront. To be honest, I didn't get a lot of time to see as much as I'd have liked.
"I did take a walk round the town and had coffee in some of the little cafes.
"I thought it a very beautiful city. I've also heard of a dish called Irish stew and would love to learn to make it.
"Then there's another one called Ulster fry but I'm not too sure what that is yet but it sounds hearty! I'll look forward to trying that one. You know, what really impresses me about Belfast is the people. They are always so warm and friendly. I'd like to see more of the city this time."
Considering Sharon lived in Belfast for several years, perhaps she could give her a tour of the fabulous restaurants in town, especially on the Lisburn Road.
"I'll make sure Sharon gives me a tour," she laughs.
"What's the name of that road again?" I get the impression it's going in her journal. Who knows, maybe that Shepard/Corr cook book will make it to the shelves after all. If so, you'll know who gave her that particular recipe.
Vonda Shepard /Sharon Corr Whistle Stop Tour: Wednesday, March 13 at the Empire Belfast. For full details and tickets contact: www.aikenpromotions.com