It was mostly recorded pre-pandemic, and the whole process from songwriting to recording took several years, with some of that done in her living room.
“My first record some 25 years ago was about personal relationships and pain. In this one we had something else to say,” Foley says via Zoom from her home. She notes that the record’s title was at least partially inspired by a certain previous Presidential administration.
“I call him Voldemort because he’s the name that dare not be spoken. You’re in Houston, and when I talk to people in different parts, I’m not sure if I should open my big mouth!” she laughs. “You just woke up every day and there was always some sort of new struggle. I had to remove myself and not watch it and get worked up. You could really heighten your blood pressure with all the destruction and nonsense that was going on.”
Outside of two cover songs, the other nine tracks on Fighting Words were either written solely by or collaboratively with Paul Foglino, who has become Foley’s go-to songwriter. “He had a feminine side that understands women as people. He lives with his wife and two daughters! And we’ve gotten to know each other,” she says. “We’ll just sit in our living room and share things about our lives that we might not with others.”
“Be Nice” is a song of advice to young men on how to treat women, and “Leave Him Janie” has a similar theme, but with an older woman in a longstanding relationship. “Are You Good Enough” finds Foley trying to come to terms with someone who has substance abuse issues and “Fill Your Cup” a more socially aware song about homelessness and loneliness.
“On the streets, you see people who are just lost and have mental or financial problems and have just been forgotten,” she says. “And there’s this image of this long table with food and water and wine and just inviting people in.”
The record’s first single was the upbeat “I’m Just Happy to Be Here.” It’s a duet between Foley and Karla DeVito, with whom she shares an interesting history. The pair have only in recent years become friends.
Both also sang on the Steinman-penned “Going All the Way (A Song in 6 Movements)” from Meat Loaf’s 2016 record Braver Than We Are. They plan on making a video for “I’m Just Happy to Be Here.”
Foley originally met Meat Loaf in the mid-’70s while both were performing in a National Lampoon’s Lemmings stage show. He and Steinman invited her to sing on Meat Loaf’s debut album, 1977’s Bat Out of Hell (which in itself had a laborious birth).
Foley’s place in pop culture was cemented in the 8+ minute “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” In the epic duet with Meat Loaf, the pair sing from the perspective of a hot and horny teenage couple engaging in some car backseat sexual negotiation (complete with a “play by play” from actual New York Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto), and a twist ending on the words spoken.
“I knew it was big when people started doing it at weddings and bar mitzvahs and karaoke. But being in those sessions with Jim and Meat and [producer] Todd Rundgren, it felt like something other than anything I’d ever heard,” Foley says. “The best part is that some people have told me they had sex for the first time to it. And that’s a big moment in someone’s life!”
Foley also ended up contributing vocals to “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night),” “All Revved Up with No Place to Go,” and the title cut. On the first, she memorably offers to give her throat to “the wolf with the red, red rose” as intoned by a dramatic Steinman on the track.
Foley’s official bio notes she was busy performing the musical Hair on Broadway. In other interviews, she noted a desire to use the time to jumpstart her own solo career and record her first album. Others note personal and/or professional disagreements with Meat Loaf.
In his own autobiography, Meat Loaf indicates that he was looking for more of an actress, nominally to get pawed every night on stage by him while acting out the “Paradise” narrative. Bat Out of Hell has gone on to sell more than 50 million copies worldwide.
Fighting Words concludes with Foley’s own take on the Bat Out of Hell ballad “Heaven Can Wait.” She had recorded it for a film she appeared in, Lies I Told My Little Sister. But today the wistful-yet-steely take has extra meaning given the recent death of Steinman this past April after a long illness.
“That song means so much to me, and it’s so beautiful,” Foley—who sang it pre-Meat Loaf days in Steinman’s Peter Pan-inspired Neverland rock musical—says. When Steinman passed, she heard the news from Joe Stefko, who drummed for both she and Meat Loaf. She had last seen Steinman in person about five years ago at that New York tribute show.
Foley took to social media to address her sorrow: “Stop. Right. There. Three words that changed my life forever. Three words that Jim Steinman gave me. Three words that gave me a career in music. And three words that exploded worldwide. Three words penned by the most brilliant, hilarious and unique human being I have ever known. Jim, ‘I will love you forever.’”
Reflecting today, Foley still gets emotional when remembering it. “It was expected but it was rough. This is someone who is always part of you.”
As for her current relationship with Meat Loaf, she hasn’t seen him since that Braver Than We Are recording session. “It was really nice. We were grown-ups. Some of the behaviors were the same, and some were different,” she says. “I was going to call him after Jim died, but he seemed to be in quite a state. So I just left him alone. As much as Jim meant to me, Meat probably felt that his right arm had been cut off.”
As for now, the often overlooked and underrated Foley says she would love to do some live shows to support Fighting Words, and is in the process of working on a single gig livestream. “I’d love to be in front of a real audience. Because I’m in love with these songs,” she says. “But things are changing every day with [the pandemic]. You just don’t know anymore.”
For more on Ellen Foley, visit EllenFoley.com