The Education of Mandy Moore

Photo: Marcus Mâm

If one could really cook emotion into food (or “stir in the love,” as Carla of Top Chef would say), the ball of cheese Mandy Moore is rolling in her hands would become one timid, self-doubting sheep’s-milk ricotta gnudi. “I can make eggs. I can slice off the cookie dough and make cookies. But beyond that, I’ve been petrified of knives,” says Moore, explaining her limitations to Spotted Pig chefs Peter Cho and Nate Smith, who have offered to teach her how to cook—and specifically their signature dish for butter addicts. (Moore is pals with the restaurant’s owner.)

It is a big year for the 25-year-old—a quiet wedding to alt-country singer Ryan Adams in March after a monthlong engagement, and a new album, Amanda Leigh (out May 26), the second she’s written on her own, after years of indentured servitude to bubblegum-pop producers. Now she’s determined to add “ace cook” to her list of accomplishments. But just a few moments of watching Moore’s painfully tentative approach to a saucepan and stove indicate that she’s going to need a hell of a pep talk before her first dinner party. Then again, she employed a hypnotist to calm her nerves before a recent gig to preview her new CD in Los Angeles—and she’s been in the biz since she was 15. Maybe petrifying anxiety is part of the package.

Mandy Moore was born Amanda Leigh, and the heartwarming story of her career goes like this: She saw Guys and Dolls at age 6 and knew she wanted to sing. When she was a teenager, it was her idea—not her parents’—to record a demo, which (unbelievable as it sounds) a FedEx guy heard and passed along to Epic Records. “There was a sense of someone almost too young to have such a realistic vision of who she was, especially compared to her peers—Britney [Spears], Christina [Aguilera], and Jessica [Simpson],” says Jon Leshay, who has managed Moore for her entire career. “It was clear to me there was a very mature person there, regardless of her age. She already understood she was a different breed.”

Moore never knew her fellow nineties pop princesses. “We got grouped together for obvious reasons, but I was slightly younger than all of them, and I felt like the nerdy outcast, the little sister, if you will,” she says. “Like, ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys—I got to open up for them. But still, I was a kid. I went from watching them on TRL to six months later being on the road opening up for them in front of, you know, tens of thousands of people. I doubt they even remember I was on the road with them, seriously!”

Moore and Leshay talk about those early years—when she hosted a giggly eponymous MTV talk show, starred as a pastor’s daughter in the gooey film A Walk to Remember, and churned out catchy, fluffy hit singles like “Candy” and “Crush”—as necessary, incremental steps to get her in the position to make a more ambitious, grown-up album. “I’m not trying to consciously get away from it,” Moore says of her early work. “I’m just … it was ten years ago. I’ve grown up. When I think back on that time, it’s like, Ack! I was a kid. I had no say creatively in anything that was going on. I was just happy to be along for the ride.”

Much to Epic’s disappointment, Moore did grow up, some time around 2003. “I wasn’t happy, and I don’t think they were particularly happy. I wasn’t interested in going into the studio and singing about shoes and boys and, you know, dealing with whatever hot producer-of-the-week they wanted to have me work with,” she says. So she used her own money to make her next album, Coverage, a surprising collection including versions of XTC’s “Working Overtime” and Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” (Moore’s dog is named Joni). Epic put out the record, it sold poorly, and Moore and the label amicably split. She’s now the sole artist on Storefront Records, an independent label started by Leshay.

When I briefly surveyed my friends about Moore, the responses were split between “She’s still around?” and “She was really good on Entourage!” Moore played a version of herself on the HBO series, the girl the actor Vinny Chase can’t get over. And you could see why: She was unaffected and charming. Her role also mirrored, not uncoincidentally, Moore’s dating history, which featured an array of L.A. scenesters: actors Wilmer Valderrama and Zach Braff, tennis star Andy Roddick, and D.J. AM. But, if anything, her unexpected marriage to Adams has only made her more of a tabloid curiosity, which is understandable: There’s the age difference (he’s 34); her squeaky-clean image versus his recent sobriety after a debauched stretch of doing “speedballs every day for years”; the contrasting musical pedigrees (her factory-made pop, his critically lauded roots rock). “I guess I can understand the interest. It’s a really exciting time. I still can’t get over it,” she says of Adams. “It’s lovely. It’s just … lovely.”

If you can believe celebrity blogs and Twitter feeds, the two have a positively idyllic relationship: Star Trek double date, long hikes, flea-market shopping, eating peanut-butter pretzels in bed with their puppy at their house in L.A. “My husband put so many jalapeños on his burger that he is literally sweating from a few bites. Nerd!! :) love him,” reads one of her tweets. “My wife, my hero—halfway across the world saving lives—XOXOXO,” he wrote of her recent trip to the Sudan for child-malaria prevention.

Moore, who is now learning to play the bass, says Adams had nothing to do with Amanda Leigh—sweet, melodic, sixties-nostalgic pop about lost love and searching for home, laid over piano, acoustic guitar, French horn, string quartet, harpsichord, and even Clavinet. One can see the album fitting in nicely on college radio alongside previous collaborator Rachel Yamagata and current writing partners Inara George of the Bird and the Bee and the album’s producer, indie rocker Mike Viola. Viola admits he had a hard time pinpointing Moore’s musical raison d’être. “I asked her the day I met her, ‘Why would anyone want to buy a Mandy Moore album?’ And her answer was, ‘I don’t know,’ ” he says. “As an artist, she’s in flux. She’s just trying things. She doesn’t know where she’s going to land.”

She does have the goods, however. Viola was immediately struck by her voice. “It’s not the voice on any of her recordings. She’s like a soul singer. She really has it—great pitch, great tone, real range, incredible stamina.” It was Viola’s idea to use Moore’s birth name as the title, “because it’s almost like starting from scratch. She’s trying to make a real artistic record. Good for her! Good for fucking her!”

In the video for the first single, a fun alt-country track called “I Could Break Your Heart Any Day of the Week,” Moore, a mixed-martial-arts fan, kicks her friend, UFC star Chuck Liddell, in the nuts. That feisty young woman seems worlds away from the one bustling around the Spotted Pig kitchen, apologizing profusely. On lifting up a pan: “This is where I become uncoordinated.” On flipping the gnudi: “I’m not ready for that. I’ll burn everyone!” On the horrifying notion that the waiter is going to serve the deviled eggs she’s prepared: “Oh, no, somebody is going to have to eat this?” (They tasted fine, by the way.) “Cooking is nerve-racking. It’s very vulnerable, because it’s just a matter of people’s tastes and what they like and don’t like,” she says after the lesson. She might as well be talking about her music. “I’m a timid person, and I’m also a perfectionist, so I really like to take my time with things,” Moore adds. “But sometimes you’ve just got to … I don’t know, put yourself out there and be a little bit uncomfortable and get over it. Even if you fall on your face.”

The Education of Mandy Moore