Read our exclusive chat with the renowned singer, songwriter and actress, and listen to the world premiere of the latest single off her new solo album Fighting Words
Singer/actress Ellen Foley settles on the sofa in her lovely apartment in New York’s elegant Upper West Side neighborhood. “They call this area the Gold Coast,” she says of this area that she’s long called home. “I’ve been in this apartment since 1982.”
Foley has invited Rock & Roll Globe over to talk about her fifth studio album, Fighting Words, which will be released on August 6. (She is also exclusively premiering her song “This Won’t Last Forever” with us).
AUDIO: Ellen Foley “This Won’t Last Forever”
As its title suggests, Fighting Words is full of powerful tracks that prove Foley is far from mellowing, even as she enters her fifth decade in the entertainment business. There was, she says, never any question that she would continue to push herself creatively, choosing songs that showcase her emotive vocals: “This is what I do best, and so there’s no choice,” she says.
Themes of empowerment and empathy run through these tracks, which Foley said had been done in deliberate protest. “This [album] was all done pre-pandemic, but it was done during the reign of Voldemort,” she says, referring to ex-President Trump, “so it all has that theme of survival and friendship and putting a hand out.”
Even so, there’s a certain lightheartedness to much of this material, which Foley credits to Paul Foglino (formerly of the band 5 Five Chinese Brothers), who wrote these songs for her. “There’s a lot of humor – he’s very funny and very witty,” she says of Foglino. As for how he manages to capture the female perspective so well, Foley says, “He lives with three women, his wife and his daughters. And he’s got me. So he feels like he’s overrun with hormones!”
Foley and Foglino first met in 2005, when “He wrote the music for a show I was in called Hercules in High Suburbia. It was at La MaMa, the experimental theater down on the Lower East Side, which is the premier Off Off Broadway [New York theater] since the ‘60s,” Foley says. When that show ended, Foglino suggested they work together on more music, resulting in her last studio album, 2013’s About Time.
Foglino brought other accomplished musicians on board to record Fighting Words, including C.P. Roth (bass, keyboards, drums), Steve Goulding (drums), Stephen B. Antonakos (guitar), and Ula Hedwig (backing vocals).
Once that was done, Foglino came to Foley’s apartment to help her record her parts. “We did the vocals in this room,” she says of the living room in which she’s sitting. “You have your ProTools on your laptop, but then he brings in a really good mic so you might as well be in a studio.” Doing things this way, she says, made her feel “So comfortable, and I think that’s really reflected in the album. It was a very cool, relaxed way to do it.”
This album is the latest installment in a storied career that began when Foley moved from her native St. Louis, Missouri to New York in 1972 (the day after she turned 21 years old) with her boyfriend. They lived in a spartan place in the city’s Upper East Side neighborhood: “It was a railroad apartment and the bathtub was in the living room,” Foley says.
Even though New York was notorious for high crime and urban blight at that time, Foley still felt immediately at home. “I loved it,” she says. “I thought it was the greatest place in the world. It always felt comfortable. Even in the dirty ‘70s, I thought it was beautiful.”
In fact, Foley says there was never anything that caused her to doubt her decision to come to New York to follow her dream of becoming a performer. “It was one of those things, what else am I going to do? This is what I’m good at, and I really had confidence,” she says. “I never thought I would go back to St. Louis with my tail between my legs. I knew something was going to happen, and it did.”
Foley certainly put in the work necessary to make things happen: she threw herself into the New York scene, studying with Uta Hagen (an actress famed for originating the role of Martha in Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf). Simultaneously, she performed in a band with her boyfriend, playing gigs around the region.
In the mid-‘70s, Foley’s big break came when she was cast in That National Lampoon Show, a comedic musical theater production. “That’s where I got my equity card, it was my first union gig, and it really paid off in spades,” she says. In that show, her castmates included Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman. Steinman then wrote the songs for Meat Loaf ’s 1977 album Bat Out of Hell, which went on to become one of the best-selling rock albums of all time. Foley sang a duet with Meat Loaf on the biggest single, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”
VIDEO: “Black Boys” from Hair (1979)
Foley followed up that success by landing a role in a Broadway revival of Hair. She also starred in the 1979 Milos Forman-directed film version of it, for which she worked with the legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp for a showstopping rendition of the song “Black Boys.”
Also in 1979, Foley launched her own solo career, releasing her debut album, Night Out. Ex-David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson and former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter were co-producers and also performed on the tracks, though Foley admits that she didn’t quite realize just how impressive this was when it was happening.
“I tell ya, I was ignorant at the time,” Foley says of the Night Out recording sessions. “I don’t think I knew who Mott the Hoople was! I was just stupid enough not to be intimidated.” As for Ronson, she recalls thinking that “He was so cute. But of course, I just had a fan girl crush on him, and once I got over that, I was pretty relaxed about the whole thing.”
Still, Foley recalls having to prove herself to Ronson and Hunter during these sessions: “I think it took me a little while to convince them that I was for real, because these guys who pretty much only knew rock and roll labeled me as some Broadway girl, and I had to convince them that I wasn’t.”
Night Out, with its intense, soaring debut single “We Belong to the Night,” became a charting hit in several countries, including reaching the #1 spot in The Netherlands, #7 in South Africa, and #15 in Australia.
Next, Foley released the album Spirit of St. Louis (1981). This time, she worked with her then-boyfriend, Mick Jones of The Clash, as well as his bandmate Joe Strummer. However, she recalls these sessions weren’t quite the easiest, either: “I was in England for a lot of the time, so a little bit of fish out of water.”
The rest of the 1980s found Foley again alternating between acting and singing. She released her third album, Another Breath, in 1983, then took a starring role in the popular sitcom Night Court from 1984 to 1985. In 1989, she originated the character of “The Witch” in Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical Into the Woods, eventually playing the part on Broadway. While other actresses played the part, Sondheim made it known that Foley was his personal favorite in it. “Stephen Sondheim gave us all copies of the score on closing night and he wrote in it, ‘You are my Alpha and Omega,” she says. Gesturing around at the crammed bookshelves lining the walls, she adds, “It’s here somewhere…”
After that, Foley married and became a mother. While she did take occasional acting roles or do concerts through the 1990s and 2000s, she was content to mostly stay out of the spotlight until her two sons were grown. In 2013, she ventured into public life again with her fourth album, About Time, though she says that, looking back, she realizes she wasn’t yet totally prepared to relaunch her music career then.
Now, with Fighting Words, Foley says she finally feels ready to truly revive her recording and performing work. She’s grateful to discover that critics and fans have received this new work with enthusiasm and positive reviews.
“I mean, I’m kind of stunned by the amazing reaction it’s gotten,” she says. Beaming, she adds: “When I listen to it, I love it, too.”
VIDEO: Ellen Foley “We Belong To The Night”