One of the most distinctive voices in rock music, Ellen Foley, has returned after a 30 year absence with an excellent new record About Time. Ellen, of course, is known for her three fantastic '80s solo records, Night Out, The Spirit of St. Louis and Another Breath, all of which contained many gems that were overlooked by the masses. Those same people know her, however, from her riveting performance on Meat Loaf's blockbuster song, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light".
Ellen has also graced many other records for performers like Joe Jackson and Todd Rundgren. In addition, she has been active on Broadway and TV, most notably starring in the series Night Court.
It was a real thrill to speak with Ellen recently about her new release. Here's our conversation:
antiMusic: Jim Steinman has been quoted as saying that for every thousand notes that Mariah Carey can ever sing, you can sing that one that will just blow them all away. And I would have to agree. At this point, you sound better than ever. And the record is just awesome so congratulations.
Ellen: Oh thank you. I never heard that quote from Steinman. That's very nice. I like that.
antiMusic: There's an obvious first question to begin with. The band Boston and Guns 'N Roses are known for taking a long time between records. You definitely have them beat in that regard. Why the heck has it been 30 years since you last put out product?
Ellen: Right. Well, after my third record, I didn't have the support from the record company so I just turned to other things. I thought, OK I don't want to be my own boss anymore, at least for a little while. So I went back to doing TV and Broadway and film and then in '89 I met my husband and had two kids and life took over. And I was still doing other things until seven years ago when I met Paul Foglino and we really developed this relationship and he wrote these songs for the record.
antiMusic: I can only assume that you've still been playing shows here and there. How long have you been playing with The Worried Men? I know Hilly (Michaels) and Tom (Mandel) have been with you for awhile.
Ellen: Yeah Hilly and Tom are not in the live band but I would say we've been playing for three or four years until we just took some time off and decided to go in and do the record, which was I guess two years ago. We took our time. I mean I'm just in the mindset that there's no rush. We just want to get it right and not hurry in releasing the record and getting it out to radio and promotion and doing shows. I don't want to rush it until it's done the correct way.
antiMusic: How did you get connected with Paul and what it is that created that real synergy with him?
Ellen: He wrote the music for a show I did in New York. He's not a theatre guy but the writer/director brought him in because she knew him from his band, 5 Chinese Brothers. And the songs were really witty, very much in my range, my abilities. There was a lot of intelligence and, of course, melody which is always the first thing but all those other things came along with it. And we have a really good relationship. I would say he's my weird little brother. (laughs)
antiMusic: I see this record described everywhere as Americana. Why did you/he decide to go in this direction?
Ellen: Well, I didn't. I don't know if I agree with that. I don't even know if I know what that means. You know? I guess Paul sort of comes from kind of a folky background but I don't think that comes through on the record. I think we took the songs and made it a rock & roll record. I'm a rock & roll singer and don't think that the Americana thing fits. I don't know who decided on that label but I don't agree.
antiMusic: Was the new material intended for a new record release or simply something for your live shows?
Ellen: It was just for live shows and performing until Paul said to me, "Let's record this." And at first I was like, "Uhhh. How do you do that?" I don't have a record company and I can't afford to go into a big studio. And then I found out that's not what you need anymore so we did it on a budget. We did it with this guy Mark Ettinger who produced the record. He had a home studio and had good sound. He even managed to get good drum sounds and he really did play on the record. And then we took it to Eric Ambel who did a great job doing the mix. You know, I think as long as you have the bare bones to it, you're in good shape.
So long story short, in the beginning I was dubious about recording, but I found out that this was a great way to do it. You have more control and it's more relaxed than someone saying "we're spending thousands of dollars"...I don't even know what it costs today to be in a big-time studio with a big-time producer. So it was kind of a revelation to me.
antiMusic: What was the first song that he wrote for you?
Ellen: I think it was a song that I had actually sung in this show, "All My Suffering".
antiMusic: Right. I see that on YouTube there are versions that go back as far as 2009.
Ellen: Yeah, at least. Even before that, maybe. I think we started getting together in 07. And then put the band together. We actually played at this legendary club in the lower east side called the Lakeside Lounge. It's very low-key but it was a good way to put it together.
antiMusic: Let's talk about some of the songs. Let's start with my favorite, "If You Can't Be Good". I think it's the best showcase for your voice and a perfect way to start the record. What can you tell us about how this song came around or how you picked it as the first cut?
Ellen: I love the sound of it and the great sound of the band. I love the philosophy about it. You know, you can't always settle but if you have to, if you can't be good, be careful. If you can't be wise, be clever. I guess, it's about survival and at this point in my life, survival is a big message (laughs).
antiMusic: "If You Had a Heart" is excellent. What can you tell us about this one?
Ellen: That was a relatively new song and I think it was built around the little guitar riff that starts it and ends it and we kind of went from there. We sat in my house with Paul and Slim Simon, the guitar player. Paul had the melody and some lyrics but Slim really came up with that little riff which I think really defines the song.
antiMusic: "Worried Woman" sounds like early Stones if they were writing for the Rocky Horror soundtrack. This one sounds like it would have been really fun to record?
Ellen: Yeah, it's got a tremendous amount of attitude. Like "I've Been Around the Block and Back". They've both got that. Like world weary --- I've got something to tell you. And you mentioned the Stones, and the Stones were a very big influence on me and I think it kind of seeped in from the guitar work and how we put it together. It was like screw Americana. I'd rather sound like the Rolling Stones, you know? And I think some of that was achieved. Not that it's derivative but if you have really, really strong influences, it's going to come out in what you like to sing, the way you like to sing and how you want to hear your music.
antiMusic: "Any Fool Can See" seems to bring out the most emotion of any song in this set. Just a gorgeous song. You co-wrote the lyrics. What about this one (and the other two) that invited you to help shape their content?
Ellen: Yeah, that's a co-write with me and Paul and I think it was very much about a certain time in my life and within my marriage and certain things that were going on. Yeah, it's very emotional. Sometimes Paul tends to be a little cynical and not super emotional in the stuff that he wants to say. But I think this one, maybe because I had more to do with it, has more emotion. It's a ballad, like "Guilty", the one flat out big ballad singing.
antiMusic: Considering your considerable music theatre background, "I've Been Around the Block and Back" sounds like it was written specifically because you could really sell this one live. Would that be accurate?
Ellen: Yeah, we used to open the set with that but then I thought it was a little too on the nose. But once again, there's an autobiographical edge to that.
antiMusic: I never fail to laugh at the line, "If you're tired of talking twaddle." (laughs)
Ellen: I know. (laughs) With some stupor model. It's pretty funny.
antiMusic: What was it about the Randy Newman song (Guilty) that made you want to cover it? Your version is excellent by the way.
Ellen: Thank you. I've been singing that song since the '70s. When I first came to NY and had a band way back then, I had heard the Bonnie Raitt version of it and just fell in love with it. Ever since then, as you had layers to your life, stuff about that song becomes more meaningful.
antiMusic: I love the way the record closes with "Everything's Gonna Be Alright". It just leaves you feeling good at the conclusion of the record. Was that the obvious final song?
Ellen: Absolutely. And I end the set with it. People objected to it and were going, "Oh you have to end the set with a big bang." And I'm just, "no". We do that at the end and come back for an encore. Cuz maybe the record is slightly rueful and has harder edges to it but in the end, that's what you want to say. Everybody is bound to die. Everybody is bound to cry. But we have to make it alright. No matter what's going on in your life, you have to just live with it, right? Make it alright.
antiMusic: Did any of the material change very much after you started playing it live?
Ellen: Yeah, well we've been playing it live since back in the day but I tell you what really changed it was the addition of the drummer, Steve Goulding. He was with Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and the Rumor. He came in before the first gig we did last spring at the Iridium here in NY and he came in and it just woke everybody up and it came together and all of a sudden, we're a great band. Going through different personnel takes a while to get it right and the god-send, to me, is Slim. He's just such a great guitar player.
antiMusic: You've got a good-sized back catalogue of songs. How do you go about doing your set list now? You've got a new album but you've got a lot of older songs that people want to hear.
Ellen: Yeah, we put the new songs in there but it's a fine line presenting new music to people that they've never heard. So you have to sprinkle them with the older stuff so we play "Stupid Girl", "We Belong to the Night", "What's A Matter Baby", and also some covers. In this last show, we did "The Air That I Breathe" by The Hollies. It's an incredible song. And we do "Sway" by the Stones. And I end the set actually with "Should I Stay or Should I Go". So you put all that stuff in there and it brings people up to the level of paying attention so that when they hear the new stuff, they can really take it in.
antiMusic: I guess I would be remiss if I didn't ask you something about Bat out of Hell. I know you were familiar with Jim from your work on the National Lampoon Revue but when you first heard the material for Bat out of Hell and in particular the song that features you prominently "Paradise", but did you think this guy was crazy if he thought this material was ever going to be played on the radio?
Ellen: No, not it all. I felt like a complete part of it. Steinman is just this amazing character who just sucks you in with the music. No I never doubted it. Even when were just slogging around trying to find a record deal, I knew it was something great.
antiMusic: But it's far beyond what was being played on the radio right then. I mean eight minute songs. It must have been kind of a daunting thought that this would get airplay?
Ellen: Yeah, exactly but you know, it got on the radio. It's extraordinary music.
antiMusic: From what I've read, you declined to join the tour behind Bat out of Hell due to your subsequent record deal. In retrospect, had you known that the Meat Loaf project would blow up to be as big as it was, would you have still opted for your own record? I mean, the resulting exposure didn't necessarily help Karla's solo debut
Ellen: Yeah exactly.
but it would have at least meant a few years of steady high-profile work.
Ellen: Uck. I didn't want to do that. No. High profile work as a backup singer and coming out for five minutes of sweaty making out. I didn't want to do that,
antiMusic: How did you come to be connected with Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson?
Ellen: Through my then-management/record company guy named Steve Popovich who ran Cleveland International Records who hooked us up. It was just kind of an easy pairing. He said "these guys are going to produce your record." We went up to Woodstock and did some demos and tried it out and it happened. I love that they kind of
.you know, they're British, they come from a whole other sensibility but they really got that place that I had been coming from. You know, the American girl singer sound. They really got that.
antiMusic: Ronson is reported to have been one of the most easy-going, nicest guys ever while I've heard that Hunter, while still nice, is more stand-offish and very British --- polite and formal.
Ellen: Yeah, he could be prickly but I wouldn't call him standoff-ish. And Ronson was just so sweet. So sweet!
antiMusic: On Night Out, you had the most of your own material that you had on your three initial records. Was it important for you at that time to establish yourself as a songwriter as well as writer?
Ellen: I never really saw myself as a songwriter. I got together with this guy Fred Goodman and we wrote "We Belong to the Night" and it came out great but I dunno, I just never saw that as my strength.
antiMusic: I think a lot of people weren't expecting the change in material that showed up on The Spirit of St Louis. While "Phases of Travel" is my favorite song on the record, I loved "Torchlight" and "The Death of the Psychoanalyst of Salvador Dali". Were you confident that people were going to embrace this sort of material after the more straight ahead stuff on Night Out?
Ellen: Gosh, I think I was just in the moment and not thinking about it. But if I had thought it through, I probably would have seen that from a business side, it probably wasn't the best idea. But I think it was adventurous. It was bold to do something like that and work with a band like The Clash. That ended up having some historical significance musically.
antiMusic: My favorite record of yours is Another Breath. What do you remember about making that record?
Ellen: It was really fun because I was back in New York. I worked with Vini Poncia and people I knew and it was more back in the pocket of pop songs in the American tradition. I just had a lot of fun doing it. Whether the record company was into doing it at the point or not, I had a great time making that record.
antiMusic: You wrote with a pre-Bon Jovi-related Desmond Child on the record. What was it like working with him?
Ellen: Yeah, I had Desmond with me then. Well, you know, I had known him for years because he was in the New York sort of Cabaret scene and he had this group called Desmond Child & Rouge.
antiMusic: I love them.
Ellen: Yeah, so that was before he went out and did the whole superstar thing so back then it was more like, Oh there's Desmond, just a guy, from the neighborhood as it were. Desmond from the block.
antiMusic: So what's the plan for the foreseeable future? Are you going to be playing a lot of shows or just seeing what the reaction is like first?
Ellen: What we're going to do is book some shows and I'm going to try to work on some radio promotion. There's interest from a label in Europe. So I think it's going to be over the next six months where we really see some movement on it but like I said, I don't want to rush it. Because I think it's worth taking a little time and doing it right.
Morley and antiMusic thank Ellen for taking the time to speak with us.
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