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Q&A: Ellen Foley On Her New Album ‘Fighting Words,’ Working with Jim Steinman, Gardening and More
When visionary sonic conceptualist Jim Steinman passed away this year at 73, he was mourned by many music-industry veterans, artists like Meat Loaf, whose 1977 Bat Out Of Hell debut he sculpted into one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. But few felt his loss more acutely than rock diva Ellen Foley, whose singing career was launched by her memorable performance on said disc’s girl-vs-boy duet, “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.”
Naturally, the anthem’s dated front-seat-teenage-sex concept wouldn’t play too well with today’s vigilant PC police, but back then, Foley’s virtuous caveat question rang true; “Will you love me forever?,” she earnestly inquires of her horndog beau, who tiptoes around the issue with the repeated response of “Let me sleep on it/ Baby, baby, let me sleep on it … and I’ll give you an answer in the morning.”
Although she didn’t clock in on the proceeding Bat Out of Hell world tour, or even its groundbreaking stop on a Christopher Lee-hosted episode of Saturday Light Live (Karla DeVito sat in for her throughout), Foley — who returned in August with a rollicking comeback album, Fighting Words, her fifth — signed a solo deal with Meat Loaf’s suddenly red-hot imprint, Cleveland International, who issued her own Mick Ronson/Ian Hunter-produced first effort Nightout in 1979.
Two years later, the Missouri-born artist celebrated her home town with her sophomore set The Spirit of St. Louis, but had moved on to hanging with faster, more colorful company; the album was produced by her then-boyfriend, Clash guitarist Mick Jones, who co-wrote several of its songs with Joe Strummer (reputedly, Jones’ hidden London Calling classic “Should I Stay or Should I Go” was penned about their turbulent relationship).
Having initially moved to New York to study acting, she would go on to appear on TV (Night Court, All My Children), in films (Cocktail, Fatal Attraction, The King of Comedy) and on Broadway (“Hair,” “Into the Woods”), but she never shelved music, continuing to work with co-writer Paul Foglino, whom she met at experimental Big Apple theater La Mama in 2005. And he instinctively knows what suits her rafter-rattling voice — his Fighting Words contributions are Phil Spector-panoramic, on the Gary Glitter-ish “Are You Good Enough” and the self-explanatory “I’m Just Happy to Be Here,” a duet with her old stand-in, and now close friend, Karla DeVito).
Foley, who just turned 70, was preparing to tour behind Fighting Words, only to have COVID lockdown has draw the brakes on said plans, with one concession — an upcoming appearance at New York’s Bowery Electric on Friday, Oct. 22.
— Ellen Foley (@EllenFoleyNYC) September 8, 2021
Until then, she and her husband of 31 years, Doug Bernstein, are staying put in their upstate New York home, she says, where she’s made a surprising transformation. “These days, I’ve become something of a farmer — not really the way I thought I’d one day see myself,” she chuckles. “but in the summer, it’s great. And right before I got on this call, I was out. back, crawling around, waging my endless fight against weeds in my garden. And I get vengeful — I hate them! For some people, it could be fighting zombies in The Walking Dead, or slaying vampires for others. But for me? It’s these fucking weeds!” So she’s happy to discuss the verdant career she’s cultivated instead for a lively hour.
Rock Cellar: There are days when I wake up and I’ve just got to hear your Nightout again — it really holds up, four decades on. And you were working with Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter, two of the biggest names in the business at the time. I’m surprised Bowie didn’t drop by those sessions.
Ellen Foley: Yeah, I know! Wouldn’t that have been something? But I would have been paralyzed, you know? I couldn’t have dealt. And somebody asked me the other day — because I always talk about Mick Jagger — “Have you ever met Mick Jagger?” And I said, “No. I couldn’t!” I think I saw him standing on Riverside Drive one day, and I took a detour because I couldn’t possibly be that close to his presence.
Rock Cellar: It would have been nice to hear what he thought of your cover of the Stones’ “Stupid Girl.”
Ellen Foley: Yeah. But I doubt that he ever heard of it. So anyhoo … Nightout was recorded in New York, so it was very comfortable because it was my turf, you know? And the place was amazing — it was this studio that had been a church at one point, and just the sound in the place was kind of incredible. And I felt very sort of … taken care of. I was young enough, and ignorant enough, that with Hunter and Ronson I didn’t really feel that I was so out of my league. I was I guess 25? But I had just been in New York from St. Louis for four years, and there was something about the Midwest. Something about the Midwest that you wanted to get out of. But I think St. Louis was a really cool, interesting place, because of its connection, historically, and it’s on the Mississippi and it’s got a lot of music.
Rock Cellar: And you grew up there on classic girl group and Phil Spector sounds?
Ellen Foley: Yeah. I grew up on Phil Spector, then the Motown sound, and then in the ‘60s went to the rock and roll thing, into the Stones, Hendrix, and some of The Beatles, like Sgt. Pepper. But I wasn’t a big Beatles fan. I got more into Jefferson Airplane, and then later, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills and Nash. So there was quite a wide range of stuff I was listening to back then. But in high school, it was always like, “Are you into The Temptations?” Or “Are you with The Four Tops,” you know? There were choices like that. But the girl group thing I think was even earlier. I remember the first single I bought was “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. And that really took me back, so my singing has always been affected by that kind of girl group thing, with the vibrato and the attitude. Those were my influences largely, I would say.
Rock Cellar: “We Belong To the Night” just captures that classic sound right out of the gate on Nightout. Ronson really nailed it.
Ellen Foley: Yeah! It’s got the Spector beat to it, it’s got the wall of sound. But then it takes it to another place when you get to the Ronson guitar solo — that takes it to a whole new rock and roll level, out of the Spector sound.
Rock Cellar: How did you and Karla DeVito originally meet Jim Steinman? And what was his early off-Broadway production Neverland about?
Ellen Foley: Well, I met Jim Steinman first because he and Meat and I were in a touring show of The National Lampoon Show. So I met him around 1976. We did that, and he was writing the [Meat Loaf] album, and I started working with him on “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.” But then he did this show at the Kennedy Center in DC, and it was called Neverland. And Jim was always fascinated with — even up to the Bat Out of Hell musical — the Lost Boys, and that whole Peter Pan myth. So that’s what Neverland was pretty much about, and I played Wendy, and I sang “Heaven Can Wait.” And Karla’s band was actually the band playing onstage, and she was singing background vocals for all the stuff, during the show. Jim had met her through a good friend of his who was the director, and there always connections like that leading somewhere, until it becomes incestuous, in a really good way. So that’s the story there.
Rock Cellar: I was talking to Bonnie Tyler during the pandemic, and she said she still wasn’t certain what Steinman’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was about. She was pretty sure it concerned vampires.
Ellen Foley: Yeah. With Jim’s songs, I think a lot of them are really clear. I’ve never really listened to the lyrics of “Total Eclipse” that much, but if she says it’s about vampires, I believe it’s about vampires. Because he did that whole show, that German thing with Roman Polanski, and I think it was called “The Dance of the Vampires.” So that’s another facet of the storytelling that he was into.
Rock Cellar: The weirdest twist is, you and Karla knew each other back in the Neverland days, but you only recently got to be friends?
Ellen Foley: Yeah! And obviously, with her lip-synching to my song [on early Meat Loaf tours], I was not really ready to be friends yet for many years, because it was weird. But when I met her again, we did a tribute to Jim in a club in New York, and he came out. And he was in a wheelchair and stuff like that, but we were both so happy that we were able to do it for him. I sang “Heaven Can Wait,” she sang “Lost Boys and Girls,” I think is the name of the song. And we just started talking, and it really clicked. So she’s a fantastic girl. And I mean, we’re not girls — we’re women.
But we are still girls, because that’s where we were when we got into the Steinman world. So I just really, really liked her, and then we sang as a trio on “Braver Than We Are,” the Meat Loaf thing, although we weren’t in the studio, but we touched base in a hotel in Nashville. And I said to Paul, “You know, I’d really like to sing with her.” And he wrote this song, but it wasn’t what I pictured — I pictured a tongue-in-cheek battle between us or something. But it ended up as “I’m Just Happy to Be Here,” which he wrote as this incredibly positive, uplifting metaphor.
So most of the record was done before COVID, because it’s been kind of sitting there, and the gestation was like five years before we decided to put it out now. But it was living during COVID, as we were. And Karla and I now are talking about the possibility of doing some kind of video of “I’m Just Happy to Be Here,” which may or may not happen, because on my end it’s complicated, because I have to find somebody to do it. Karla has her husband Robby Benson, and they’re like two peas in a pod, so he’ll help her with it, I’m sure.
— Ellen Foley (@EllenFoleyNYC) August 6, 2021
And my son is a producer on MSNBC, and he works on one of its morning shows, so I have the resources here — it’s just down to whether I can gather them or not. But I think it would be a good thing to put on YouTube, a video of her and me, doing a song.
Rock Cellar: And on June 5th, you just turned 70? Time has been very kind to you.
Ellen Foley: Yes. I am 70 now.
Rock Cellar: Is there a Dorian Gray portrait hidden away in your garret somewhere?
Ellen Foley: That’s right! Actually, I dug a hole in my yard so nobody can ever find it. It’s no longer in the attic.
Rock Cellar: So you weren’t the singer appearing with Meat Loaf on his first Saturday Night Live appearance? When the host Christopher Lee mistakenly introduced him with, “Ladies and gentlemen — Loaf!”
Ellen Foley: No. You know, I didn’t ever tour — that was the whole thing, that it was Karla touring, and that was the thinking behind putting her in the video, because she was the girl that everybody was gonna see on tour. And that’s funny, though! Christopher Lee was the perfect host!
Rock Cellar: Your list of career achievements is impressive. But I have to say that your TV writer husband Doug Bernstein penning an actual Thundercats episode, “The Evil Harp of Charr-Nin,” is also pretty awesome.
Ellen Foley: Ha! I’ve got to tell him that you did a deep dive into his career — that is so cool! I’ve never seen Thundercats, but I’ll take your word on it. He was working on Silver Spoons and things like that way before I knew him, back in ’81 or so, and we met in ’89. So that was way before I knew him.
Rock Cellar: How do you think “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” would play now, post-#MeToo movement?
Ellen Foley: (Sighs) I know. I know. We were in the car the other day, and Rod Stewart came on, and I said, “Rod Stewart would be SO canceled at this point.” Great question. I think Steinman still might write it now — if Steinman was around, and he was still 20-something years old, would he write all this? Yeah, absolutely. Because Steinman didn’t exactly live in the actual world, so yeah, I think he’d still write “Paradise.” But he was Steinman forever — out of the womb, he was fully formed, and he just had it all cooking in his brain.
Rock Cellar: What was this Club Dada (In Difficult Times) production you were working on, pre-lockdown?
Ellen Foley: Actually, my partner in that is coming here today, because we’re gonna do a live stream thing for the club in New York where we did it. It’s sort of a surreal tale of two ancient vaudevillians who are buffeted through different times and different periods, and in the meantime they sing these great rock and roll songs. And we are controlled, and buffeted, by a Voice, and the Voice is Jonathan Friedman, who was the voice of Jafar in Aladdin. And he’s still appearing in it when it opens again on Broadway. But this thing is really out there, and very funny, and tapping into the surreal, Dadaist period back in the ‘30s, pre-German influences. So we hope to keep working on it and get it back up and running, because we worked on it for some time initially, and then we did two nights at La Mama in New York, March 6 and 7, 2020. And we were all ready to keep going, but then everything closed down, literally, one week later.
Rock Cellar: It’s fun, going through your resume. You did All My Children — amazing. But in The King of Comedy, you were credited as Street Scum.
Ellen Foley: Street Scum! Yeah! But it was with the group The Clash and all their guys and girls, because Scorsese was a big Clash fan. And he was actually a big fan of mine, I was thrilled to find out. So he said, “Just come and be in it!” So we were the Street Scum — we stood in front of Colony Records, which was a huge New York institution. And it had every kind of genre — I went there when I first came to town and bought sheet music. So anyway, we were standing in front of there and DeNiro and Sandra Bernhardt were doing a scene, and we just harassed them, all day long. That was pretty much what the scene was, so that was fun.
Rock Cellar: How did you fall in with The Clash?
Ellen Foley: Well, I met Mick Jones out there, and we started dating, and that was for two and a half years. So I was in that group out there, and that’s just how it was.
Rock Cellar: How do you work with your songwriting partner Paul Foglino today? Do you tell him what you want?
Ellen Foley: No, it’s not like that. It’s more like just hanging out, and him bringing ideas, and a lot of times him bringing whole songs. And then it’s sitting there, and me learning to sing it, and then just crafting it together to make it what we both want, you know?
Rock Cellar: Was there ever an assignment you were given, vocally, that you just couldn’t complete?
Ellen Foley: No, but I auditioned for things back in the day. And actually the biggest disappointment was the fact that I created the role of the witch in Into the Woods out in San Diego, and then when it came to Broadway, they gave it to Bernadette Peters. And then, at the end of the run, they gave it back to me, and Sondheim called me his Alpha and his Omega, because I was there at the beginning and the end. So I’d heard that I was his favorite witch because I really had a dark take on it, you know?
Rock Cellar: And through all this, you never lost your amazing voice. Or did you?
Ellen Foley: No. No, I never did. I’ve tried to keep it together — I work on it, vocalize, sing my songs. And I don’t know about things like drinking special tea or honey, and I hate honey, and I really hate tea. Blech! I’m all about coffee with light cream, so nobody would say that was gonna help my voice.
But it’s just something I have to have. But I’ve been bad these past sixteen months — I hadn’t been singing since our show ended in March. But then I started really working again, and I found that after not a terribly long time I can get it back in shape. So that’s where I am right now.