Mike Viola is a mountain of talent. Singer, songwriter, performer, producer – he can do it all. And sometimes he does do everything – for himself and for others. Indeed, I seem to have left ‘collaborator’ off of the list. When Viola turns his hand to helping others the results a very Viola, in the most good way possible. Today we focus on just three examples of his production/song-writing oeuvre focusing on work he’s done with Kelly Jones, Mandy Moore and Lori McKenna. We could cover more, many more. But these three are pretty special examples of the ‘Viola’ effect.
I first discovered Kelly Jones via her collaboration with Teddy Thompson on 2016’s Little Windows, particularly the magical opening cut “I Never Knew You Loved Me Too.” By contrast, I only ran across her 2008 SheBang! album this past year (that’s ten years of special album goodness I’m never gonna get back). You can really see Mike’s ‘all in’ approach to project management on this record. He’s the producer, a good deal of the band (contributing guitar, bass, keyboards and backing vocals), and co-writes seven of the ten songs on the record. And what songs they are! “There Goes My Baby” kicks things off in full 1983 Tracy Ullman mode. “Same Songs” has solo-era Viola guitar all over it. “Fire Escape” has those signature Viola melodic hooks. And “The Girl With the Silver Lining” is just Go Go’s fun. Meanwhile Jones proves she not just a singer of sad country songs. Her energetic stand-out vocals balance perfectly with Mike’s power poprock production and performance. SheBang! got accolades from all the critics and deservedly so.
A year later Viola was back in the studio, this time with former teen pop princess Mandy Moore. The resulting album, Amanda Leigh, was more varied stylistically than the Jones record, with forays into country, pop, and what might best be described as ‘alternative’ American songbook. The Viola impact here was more subtle, perhaps stronger in the instrumentation than any song-writing stamp (despite co-writing nearly everything on the record). Opening cut “Merrimack River” is duet with Viola and does sound like something from one of his solo albums. “Love to Love Me Back” weaves classic Viola guitar sounds into a more country vein. But the unmistakeable mark of Viola is all over the should-have-been monster hit single, “I Could Break Your Heart Any Day of the Week.” Man, this one is a killer, practically a master class in how to write and produce an ear worm radio-ready single. The record helped solidify Moore as serious, mature artist, though curiously it’s rather hard to find these days. Things obviously went well as Moore brought Viola back to produce her 2022 release In Real Life.
Viola had less involvement with folk artist Lori McKenna’s 2013 record Massachusetts, other than co-writing and playing on a single track, the gorgeous “Love Can Put It Back Together.” The song has a classic Viola melodic arc, with sweeping highs and lows delivered in an intimate, almost 1970s soft rock sort of way. Listening to this song, I get now why Viola has participated in so many 1970s tribute albums. There’s a faint echo of the period in his work, suitably powered up for the 1990s and beyond.
You get it, I like Mike. If you can’t get enough Mike Viola you can live vicariously through the artists he collaborates with. Either these ones or the many, many other projects he’s worked on.