In an era when female-fronted rock bands like Blondie, Heart, and the Pretenders began thriving, Ellen Foley went out on her own to perform as a successful solo artist while exploring other worlds. Foley not only beat the odds but also connected with some of the best in the business while making music, movies, and theatre stage magic after moving to New York the day after she turned 21.
Almost 50 years later, Foley is back in the forefront with the 6 August release of Fighting Words, her first solo studio album in eight years and only the second she’s made since the triumphant triumvirate she churned out from 1979-83. So the album title is appropriate for an artist who has fought many of her own battles since growing up in her hometown of St. Louis.
Happy to return to her New York apartment for a few days after spending most of the time since the pandemic at the upstate New York home she and her husband Doug Bernstein share with their two dogs, Foley doesn’t pull any punches during a nearly hourlong interview.
“I was a fighter as a kid because I was always pretty scrappy and grew up and went to Catholic school,” she offers. “There was always that, trying to crawl your way out. But I generally had a fun childhood. … Then you decide to go to New York and you’re gonna be an actor and you’re gonna be in a band and you want to do all that in a highly competitive world. So I had to be a fighter there. And I lived through some really crazy interpersonal relationships and times that ended up with having to fight, basically. (laughs) Fight or die. Fight or get out, you know. So you fight, then you get out.”
Foley covers it all here and presents the premiere of “I’ll Be True”, the latest single among the 11 songs on the album produced by longtime collaborator Paul Foglino, who also wrote most of the tunes. There also are two splendid covers — Wilson Pickett’s “I Found a Love” and Jim Steinman’s “Heaven Can Wait”, the latter a full-circle experience for Foley and her recognizable vibrato.
Check out the explosive “I’ll Be True” now, then read on to find out more about what Foley calls her “comeback album”, and the extraordinary Zelig-like life she’s led. Along the way, she’s been in the ring — and sometimes sparred — with musical heavyweights like Meat Loaf, Todd Rundgren, the Clash, and Barry Manilow, was directed by Academy Award-winning filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and Milos Forman, and acted with A-list movie stars Tom Cruise and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Welcome to the travels and travails of Ellen Foley, who shares, “For the most part it was” a real blast from the past.
Back in the Ring
On Fighting Words, Foley resumes her music-making relationship with Foglino, who wrote almost all the songs for 2013’s About Time, another appropriately titled album since it was released 30 years after Another Breath.
Acting, marriage (to Bernstein in 1990), and raising their two sons (Tim, working for a finance firm; Henry, a producer on MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson Reports) took precedence during that longest gap.
Foley met Foglino in 2005 and they worked together on an off-off-Broadway musical at the Mazer Theatre called Hercules in High Suburbia. He wrote the original songs and Foley was cast as leading lady Megara in a modern retelling of Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy. “It was goofy and fun, and Paul, who had never written for theatre before, was roped into it by our friend Mary Fulham, [the director] who wrote the script. It was really great music and I got to sing the music and then we got together after the show and decided to do something.”
“Something” turned out to be About Time, which “was sort of practice for this album,” notes Foley, adding, “for he and I to get to know each other, what we wanted to say together.”
Then while Foley was touring throughout Europe, Foglino wrote songs for this latest comeback she calls “a Big Bang”. They were recorded mostly in 2018-19, with About Time musicians such as Slim Simon (guitars) and Mark Ettinger (bass, keys), along with C.P. Roth (bass, keys, drums) and drummer Steve Goulding contributing their parts remotely, even before the pandemic. Backing vocalists included her friend Ula Hedwig and Rachelle Garniez. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in,” states Foley, thrilled to be able to work on vocals in her apartment. “It was really fun and relaxed. I think it sounds like a band. I think it sounds so good.”
Providing these quotes to PopMatters for the premiere of “I’ll Be True”, Foglino calls it “a grown-up love song. It factors in cynicism and still chooses love. I was envisioning the couple from the Shirelles’ ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ 30 years on. Musically, Ellen and I were going for equal parts Shirelles and Rolling Stones.”
In her take, Foley doesn’t totally agree, sharing, “I love the twist in the lyric when I say, ‘No matter what I do, or who I do it to, I’ll be true to you.’ That’s a really mature sentiment you would never hear in a Shirelles song.”
Of course, the Fighting Words song getting the most attention might be “I’m Just Happy to Be Here” because it brings together two performers who were pitted against each other for their parts in Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, the mega-hit from his 1977 debut album Bat Out of Hell.
The duet with Karla DeVito is “about female friendship”, asserts Foley, who told Foglino she wanted a song “almost kind of autobiographical for the both of us” after connecting with her while sharing the stage for a Steinman musical tribute at New York’s 54 Below in 2015. “Going back and looking at times in the past and stuff you’ve gone through, then realizing where you are now.”
Foley had never sung on a record before “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, so besides being “my first major break” she considers it one of her most impressive accomplishments as either a singer or actor.
Still, if the controversy about who sang what with Meat Loaf keeps burning after more than 40 years as a hot-stove topic, Foley wants to douse the flames — and DeVito is a willing partner.
Born in St. Louis on 5 June 1951, to John and Virginia B. Foley, Ellen Foley went to Catholic school for 12 years, the first eight in coed classes, the final four just with girls, which “was a really great experience,” she contends. “I think not having boys around for young girls is a good thing.”
Foley was in grade school when she “first fell in love with music” and “when really the girl groups came out. I remember buying the Chiffons’ ‘He’s So Fine’ and just having a huge emotional reaction to it.” Though that was long before all-female ‘80s acts like the Go-Go’s and the Bangles emerged, Foley never had a desire back then to be a part of one. “Those [‘60s] girl groups were from a very different socioeconomic demographic than I was. I don’t think they would want some skinny white chick in their group, so I never thought that was a possibility,” she admits with a laugh. “Though I would sing along with [those songs] constantly.”
Instead, after attending the Catholic institution then called Webster College, just outside St. Louis, Foley headed to New York to study acting at HB Studio, run by longtime thespians Herbert Berghof and his wife Uta Hagen. Multitasker that she still is, Foley formed a band called Big Jive with her then-boyfriend, New Yorker and ex-college classmate Doug Isaac, and other former St. Louis students, while performing in off-off-Broadway shows.
Cast in Tuxedo Junction (a “corny” musical-comedy review in the Catskills she calls “the biggest sort of schizophrenic thing”), Foley was soon fired but earned a role (and her actor’s equity card) in the National Lampoon show.
Its significance couldn’t compare to connecting with two players who would change her life — performer Meat Loaf and Steinman, the show’s musical director who ended up writing every song for Bat Out of Hell. “He wanted to have Meat around to sing the songs and then I was around and he liked my singing and wrote ‘Paradise’ around the two of us,” discloses Foley, who penned a moving tribute to Steinman on social media after his death in April at the age of 73.
Originating the “very complex role” of the Witch in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater also turned out to be a plum part. One of the show’s producers, according to Foley, told her, “You’re like a Female Mick Jagger,” but she also was getting branded by others as something she didn’t want to be.
“They tried to say I was a Broadway singer,” Foley recalls. “That really pissed me off because I do not sing rock ’n’ roll like a Broadway singer. If I had to say anything, I sang Broadway like a rock ’n’ roll singer.”
“Paradise by the Dashboard Light” removed any doubt about that.