Mike Viola has spent a large part of his career making music with others and for others. His newest single, “Ordinary Girl,” off his forthcoming album, Godmuffin, is one of a handful of new tracks the pop-rock musician wrote by himself and for himself. Well, actually, he wrote it for his daughters, who both sing background vocals on the track. It’s one of two songs on his new album that’s dedicated to them.
“It’s a girl power song,” he tells American Songwriter. “We all have superpowers. For me, the scariest thing out there in the world is blending in, disappearing into the status quo. This is like a John Hughes version of that concept.”
Viola has used his own superpowers to help bring the music of others to life. Over the years, the Grammy-nominated producer, musician, songwriter and singer has worked with the likes of Jenny Lewis, Andrew McMahon, New Politics, and Fall Out Boy. More recently, he helped Mandy Moore find her music feet again, producing her album, Silver Landings, earlier this year, after her high-profile fallout with her former husband.
“She is one of the strongest, smartest people I know,” he says. “Deeply informed about the world, curious about herself – which must be really difficult when you’re a celebrity, I would think. The song idea was always hers to begin with, then I’d help her find the rest of it along with a real family of songwriters I’ve worked with over the years: Taylor Goldsmith, Sean Douglas, Lori McKenna, Natalie Hemby, Jason Boesel, and Chris Walla.”
Being around true collaborators is Viola’s jam. “People I can learn from and people wanting to learn from me. It’s really simple,” he says. “If I get a call to write a song for something, I usually know within the first 5 minutes if it’s something that I want to do. I’m driven by the mystery engine, the thing that pulls me to the next song; the next song that always has something to teach me. That is, if it’s telling the truth.”
It’s this ethos that’s driven most of Viola’s career. From his days in the mid-90s with the New York-based Candy Butchers, to his work on soundtracks like Get Him to the Greek and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, as well as the Oscar-nominated title track from That Thing You Do!, which saw him team up with his friend, the late Adam Schlesinger, for the Tom Hanks-directed hit film. Viola, like fans around the world, is still mourning the passing of the singer-songwriter and Fountains of Wayne frontman, who died of coronavirus complications in April this year.
The song, “Creeper,” the first single off Godmuffin, is a kind of tribute to Schlesinger. It’s been almost 25 years since That Thing You Do!, when the two created pop rock perfection together.
“[‘Creeper’] isn’t about Adam as much as he is inside the song itself, in the subtext,” says Viola. “He was at the forefront of my mind since December 2019, when we started playing shows in LA.” Schlesinger had a karaoke piano night at a club called Gold-Diggers, and he’d asked Viola to play a set, culminating in a night of revelry among old friends. “One of the last things we said to each other was on Valentine’s Day this year. The basic gist of it was this deep realization that was mutual, something like, ‘I love you, dude…where the f*** have you been?’ ‘I don’t know, but we gotta do this all the time; we should be making music together all the time.’ It felt like we would. It really did.”
Although Viola has fond memories of That Thing You Do!, he resisted doing it at the time.
“[Adam] literally dragged me out of bed to do it,” says Viola. “I was mourning the death of my childhood sweetheart, mourning deeply. The last thing I wanted to do was knock off a Beatles song for a movie. Maybe he thought spending a day in the studio cranking this out would be good for me. I don’t know. But we did it on a hot New York Saturday afternoon, and people still love it all these years later. So do I.”
“Creeper,” like the other songs on the album, was written by Viola on his own. With his previous records, like The American Egypt, which he’d also recorded himself, he had friends to bounce ideas off of. “Godmuffin was me by myself,” he says. “That was new for me. It’s recorded on ½ inch tape through a console so I had to play full takes; couldn’t really punch in at all. That was hard! Especially for the drums.”
The album — its title made Viola’s wife of 20 years laugh so he figured he’d keep it —opens with strings, as if to signal the introspection that’s to come from him over the course of the 11 songs. Viola says he strives to make music that gives fans time to do their own reflecting too. “I try to make songs that leave enough room for the listener to climb inside them, to nest in and make their own — live off the land of a good idea,” he says. “A good song lets the listener be creative with it, in his or her own way.”