If you don’t count her decade-defining, though simultaneously hidden debut on Meat Loaf’s huge-in-every-way Bat Out Of Hell – that’s the one where she sang on a handful of florid pop hits like Paradise By The Dashboard Light, but wasn’t available for the film clips or tours so most people thought the voice was that of live vocalist Karla DeVito - Ellen Foley had a brisk start to her career.
There were three albums in four years from 1979, recorded on both sides of the Atlantic with big-name/big ego collaborators like Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter, Bowie sideman Mick Ronson and Mick Jones of The Clash. There were hits of her own, like We Belong To The Night, and contributions to albums by Joe Jackson and The Clash.
Then, as she focused on Broadway productions such as Hair and Steven Sondheim’s Into The Woods and TV, nothing on disc for 30 years, until Foley’s fourth, in 2013. And now here she is about to release her fifth record in August, a mere eight years further on. Sheesh, what’s the rush?
Foley chuckles, chewing vigorously on some gum, her eyes darting to the window outside where a huge storm is about to hit her upstate rural getaway and likely plunge her into darkness. Is this some crack about her age, she asks, her mortality?
Oh hell no. Even if one were keen to risk the ire of this long-term New Yorker not afraid to call out bullshit – the album’s title, Fighting Words, is a bit of a giveaway; her printable thoughts on the former president, or “Voldemort”, seal the deal - the sheer power and splendour of her 70-year-old voice on rousing rock and pop songs that rarely ease up would shut that down pretty quickly.
It turns out the connection she made with her younger songwriting partner on both of these recent albums, Paul Foglino, was the fuel for the (relatively) quick return – which incidentally features a very catchy duet with DeVito.
“It’s funny with [Foglino] and me. Neither of us are the most socially adept individuals, especially him I must say,” she says with a wicked smile. “He’s a weird kid. But somehow we managed to be so comfortable and just talk. It’s just very, very open – to a degree. You know, we’re not talking about our sex lives or anything like that, that’s for sure I wouldn’t want to hear that, and neither would he.”
Well, no, and we’re probably good too on that front, thanks.
But with Foglino the albums’ principal writer, except for a Wilson Pickett track and a Meat Loaf cover written by the king of hyper-dramatic pop rock, Jim Steinman, is Foley just The Voice, imperially coming in at the end of the process?
“He writes the songs but you know I think I help tailor them, what works what doesn’t work for me, and meantime we are having this honest communication,” she says. “This relationship is so much better [than other writer and singer ones she’s had] because when I was young I would be in situations where I was insecure and I could be intimidated. Paul is not an egotist, there is never a problem, and that’s why it’s so comfortable and it so much fun, because I can say no. I can say, no, fuck no, get outta here, this is stupid, this is bad, I don’t like it, go away.”
She may not be writing them, but Foley knows what she wants – and as Foglino can attest, what she doesn’t want - and it seems there’s been a little bit of mellowing over the years. Fighting Words captures more of the variety in Foley’s musical life, incorporating more nuanced pop alongside thundering rock, elements of theatre, and even some country.
“My tastes have changed. I remember when I was young, it had to be a very dramatic statement, it had to be very much a theatrical storytelling,” she says, singling out Thunder And Rain, from her 1979 album Nightout, a tremulous bit of dramatic pop, as an example.
“I look back with those choices I made and I was young and inexperienced in terms of life. I chose I guess the most dramatic and the most theatrical stuff that perhaps didn’t reflect my life experience yet, because everything was new in my life.”
She remembers moving to New York from St Louis in 1972, playing the clubs as well as the musical theatres – in fact, meeting Steinman and DeVito when they were in a production of his musical, Neverland - and how after a Midwest upbringing “everything felt so dramatic and powerful”. And of course there was that voice which seemed capable of rocking stadiums not just theatres.
“You know, rock ‘n’ roll just satisfies my soul and at this point I think would rather do that than anything else because I have a unique voice, literally and figuratively, for rock ‘n’ roll, says Foley. “I’ve been away from Broadway for a little while and it’s a little too straight for me.”
And this New Yorker isn’t kidding around, even if any kind of performance right now would be a godsend, with her last show back in March 2020, a week before the city’s venues went dark.
“I had one of these conversations recently with someone who said ‘rock ‘n’ roll people, if they haven’t been recording for a long time when they come back they come back with American songbook clichés, maybe a jazz album …,” at which point Foley interrupts herself to mutter “I mean, God forbid a jazz album: I hate jazz. I don’t understand it. Maybe I’m not smart enough”, before resuming her story.
“’But [he said to her] you really came back with a rock ‘n’ roll record’. I said, well I have no choice, it’s what we do.”
Ellen Foley’s Fighting Words is out August 6.
A version of this story was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.