Mandy Moore is living out her music dreams
By ALLISON STEWART | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 20, 2020
SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- There was a time not too long ago when Mandy Moore thought the best part of her life might be behind her. Though she once had dreams of being a serious singer-songwriter, she hadn’t made music in years. Her acting career, once thriving, had been left for dead. The unending rejection of an actor’s life had annihilated much of her spirit, and an unhappy marriage had taken care of the rest. She felt unseen. Disposable. She was past 30. She figured her time was up.
She thought she might go back to school, or return to Florida, where she was raised and where her father still lived. "I felt really lost for a while, and so crushed by any sort of lack of momentum," says Moore, 35. She’s sitting in the lobby restaurant of a boutique hotel in Santa Monica, dissecting her lost years. She’s as nice as everybody says and speaks with the animated cheerfulness of the theater kid she once was. Unlike most famous people, she’s actually taller in person and radiant. Even her eyebrows are perfect.
Her years-long losing streak "had me questioning, am I cut out for any of this? Not like in a ’woe is me’ sort of fashion, but has that chapter of my life really passed me by? Have I experienced this success and these thrilling moments, and now am I left to look for what I’m going to do with the rest of my life?"
Once good things started happening again, they happened fast: She met her now-husband, Taylor Goldsmith, lead singer of the rock band Dawes; she was cast in the NBC drama "This Is Us." And she began writing the songs that make up "Silver Landings," her first album in more than a decade. "There was no one beating down my door, saying, ’Where’s the record?’ It’s been 11 years. The last few records I had out were not successful. But it’s in me. Music is in me. I have to sing, I have to be onstage."
Moore was, quite famously, discovered by a FedEx delivery man who happened to hear her singing one day and passed on the tip to a connection at Epic Records. Unlike Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson, her newly minted peers, she hadn’t come up through the ranks, wasn’t a veteran of "The Mickey Mouse Club" or "Star Search." She was 15, and being a pop star was her first real job.
Once the star-making machinery rumbled to life, there was no stopping it, even if Moore had known enough to want to try. She showed up at the studio when they told her to and tried hard to re-create the demos the adults made for her, even as she quietly doubted their taste level.
"Sometimes I really wrestled with songs," she recalls. "I didn’t like ’Candy’ initially. I think I recorded it several times. But I remember thinking, I don’t connect to this song in a way I had with other songs that I was recording for that first album."
She released three albums in 18 months and had a few modest hit singles circa 2000, including "Candy" and "I Wanna Be With You." Moore opened tour dates for the Backstreet Boys but otherwise didn’t spend much time on the road. She was so bad at dancing, a key component of her job as a pop diva, that her label actually suggested she stop.
Moore spent years apologizing for her confectionery beginnings, at one point even promising to refund the money of anyone who bought her old albums (she can’t remember if anybody took her up on it). On her new single, "Fifteen," she faces her past head on ("She thought she was making music / But she was only filling seats") for the first time, without judgment.
It’s a common theme threading through the album, the idea of making peace with the person you are and the person you were. "I love her," says Moore of her teenage self. "I had to come to find affection for her and recognize that I carry her around with me, and she’s the reason I’m here, and not just admonish her for the position that she was in at 15, singing those songs that she didn’t necessarily love."
Although it didn’t seem like it back then, being in teen pop’s second tier proved fortunate. She was famous enough that people who were kids back then remember her with a vague fondness she can now draw upon as an adult. But she wasn’t so famous that anyone’s opinion of her was fixed, or that anyone in power particularly cared what she did.
Moore diversified early. She was, briefly, an MTV VJ and a fashion designer, and soon segued into acting. She played a cheerleader in "The Princess Diaries," a doomed, virtuous teen in "A Walk to Remember" and a fundamentalist mean girl in "Saved!"
In 2003, she released "Coverage," a covers album that re-envisioned songs from the likes of Joan Armatrading, XTC and Joni Mitchell. It was meant to serve as a bridge between her old career as a pop princess and her new one as a grown-up who really liked ’70s folk. In 2007, she released "Wild Hope," a confessional folk-pop album with a retro feel. She co-wrote every song on it with a small group of songwriters who included Rachael Yamagata and Lori McKenna.
"I realized right away that even though she had come from that teen pop thing of other people writing your songs, she’s just a writer," says McKenna, who remembers Moore coming to their sessions with armfuls of songwriting journals. "She had done her work on the craft of songwriting, even back then."
Mike Viola, a songwriter and producer who once played in the band Candy Butchers, forged a similarly close bond with Moore. "When I met her, she was quite famous," he recalls. "I just didn’t know, would she be really into ’N Sync or something? I had no idea." They bonded over their shared love of Paul McCartney’s solo albums and Todd Rundgren, and collaborated on Moore’s next album, "Amanda Leigh." It had a memorable single ("I Could Break Your Heart Any Day of the Week"), but, like "Wild Hope," it underperformed.
The slowdown in Moore’s music career happened to roughly coincide with her 2009 marriage to singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, from whom she was separated in 2015, and divorced the following year. She had a hard time finding any kind of traction as either an actor or musician. "She was just in a bad spot, you could say and wasn’t making music," recalls Viola. "We wrote a few things here and there, but she wasn’t really doing it."
In a 2019 New York Times expose, Moore came forward as one of several women accusing Adams of varying levels of harassment, psychological abuse, and in one case, inappropriate communication with an underage girl. "Music was a point of control for him," Moore told the Times. Adams was reluctant to collaborate with her or to let anyone else do so, Moore said. He would tell her she wasn’t a true musician because she didn’t play an instrument, an accusation that haunted her for years.
"There was a lot wrapped up for me in, ’Am I songwriter if I don’t have my hands on a guitar?,’ " she says now. " ’Am I a songwriter if I’m not sitting at the piano?’ Because I was told that I wasn’t for a long time, and that burrows deep in you, you know?"
Even now, as Moore discusses her marriage in as minimal detail as possible, she does so without ever mentioning Adams by name, although it’s clear enough who she means.
She was also determined that the introspective, optimistic "Silver Landings" bear as little trace of her ex-husband as possible. She made an album partly so she would have something to play live, and who wanted to sing about Ryan Adams every night? Songwriting can be therapeutic, she knows, but there are limits. If she had written a song about Adams and it had become a hit, she would have to tote it around forever. "I would know sometimes after writing a song, I’m not interested in actually singing that and putting it out in the world. That was for me. I needed to say that, but the world doesn’t need to hear it."
After she and Adams separated, Moore’s luck began to turn. She landed a role on the NBC drama "This Is Us" as Rebecca Pearson, mother of triplets. The show’s astounding success has made Moore, after more than half her life spent in show business, more famous than she has ever been. It has made everything that has happened since possible: her Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, even "Silver Landings." Moore’s character is a frustrated singer, something she hadn’t known when she signed on, and performing on the show made her realize how much she missed music.
Before landing the series, Moore met Goldsmith after she fangirled Dawes on Instagram; they married in the fall of 2018. Watching Dawes perform live solidified her desire to perform again. "There would be pangs of jealousy that would bubble up when I would watch them, like, ’I want to do that so badly.’ "
Moore wanted to make music with Goldsmith -- they were both singer-songwriters with similar tastes, it seemed like the logical thing -- but she still bore the scars of her years with Adams and her past life as a never-quite-good-enough pop star. The first time they wrote a song together, "He was just playing at the house, and I was like, ’What is that? I like that,’ " she recalls. "And he was like" -- she mimics someone carefully addressing a skittish animal -- " ’Well, sit down. Let’s see what comes of this.’ "
It took a few attempts before Moore felt comfortable enough to proceed. "I was so scared," she remembers. "I have my own full set of issues that I have to contend with when it comes to self-doubt. ... I’m scared to tiptoe back into that territory, and with my person, because I’ve been down that road before, and our relationship is the most important thing in the world to me. I don’t want anything to supersede that, I don’t want anything to confuse that. I don’t want him to think I suck. I don’t want him to feel like he’s obligated to work with me."
"That’s hilarious," says Goldsmith, when Moore’s quote is read back to him during a phone interview a few days later. "That sort of thinking would never even cross my mind. I want to be able to share anything and everything, and the idea of writing a song together is as cool as marriage can get."
Moore made "Silver Landings" with the people who made her feel safest; Viola, Goldsmith and a small circle of co-writers who included McKenna. "Mandy wanted to make a quintessentially California singer-songwriter rock record," Viola says. Some of the songs have a lightly ’80s vibe, but "the year is pretty much 1974 sonically."
Now that the world has opened back up for her, Moore has plans. She has her own production company, hopes to buy a space that will serve as a recording studio/headquarters where her friends can gather and Dawes can rehearse, and she wants to direct an episode of "This Is Us" sometime during its final two seasons. In her fleeting spare time, she climbs mountains: She has summited Mount Kilimanjaro and last year made it to Mount Everest base camp.
Goldsmith says he can envision a future where he and Moore continue to record together, in between his work with Dawes and her various projects. He went to high school with Haley Giraldo, the daughter of Pat Benatar, and Benatar’s husband and longtime collaborator, Neil Giraldo. "They always had such a beautiful dynamic, where it was always Neil and Pat, and they always wrote the songs together, they always toured together," Goldsmith says. "I know that’s a strange thing to bring up. But the idea of that is so romantic to me."
Moore hopes to make a record over the summer with the same group of people. Even though she lost much of the valuable real estate of her 20s to forces she didn’t feel she could control, there is nothing about that time that she would change. "I’m exactly where I should be, and I don’t want to negate that experience, because it made me the person I am today," she says. "We all have our baggage and our trauma. It also led me to Taylor. It led me to ’This Is Us,’ it led me to knowing who I am, what I want, what I deserve. And on the opposite end, what I don’t want, what I don’t deserve. I never have to learn those lessons again."