By Samantha Highfill
February 12, 2020 at 07:30 AM EST
Carter Smith

The year was 1999. TRL was starting to take off, every closet contained at least one pair of flared jeans, and a new 15-year- old artist named Mandy Moore debuted a music video for her first single, “Candy.” In it she drove a lime green Volkswagen Beetle past perfectly manicured Los Angeles lawns while singing that she missed a cute boy… like candy. It was the kind of dangerously catchy bubblegum pop song that would land Moore on the cover of magazines and earn her the title of “pop princess” alongside the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

It’s been more than 20 years since Moore sat in that VW, and though she now has mixed feelings about her earliest music — “Sometimes I liked the songs, other times I said, ‘I don’t get this, but okay,’” she tells EW — at least one thing she sang then still resonates: “Show me who you are.” At 35, she’s finally ready to do just that, on her new album Silver Landings, her first in 11 years. It’s a deeply personal project for Moore, one that dives into the lessons she’s learned about life, love, and what it was like to find success before she was old enough to vote.

Mandy Moore/YouTube

Moore’s music career dates back to an Orlando Magic game, where a girl roughly her age sang the national anthem. Watching from the stands, Moore, around 11, had what she calls a “lightbulb moment.”

“I didn’t know you could do that!” she recalls while sitting at her local coffee shop in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. “So I begged my mom to record me singing a cappella with my little pitch pipe. My mom then hand-delivered it [to the arena], and I think she brought cookies.” With baked goods to quite literally sweeten the deal, Moore landed the gig and began singing the anthem at a handful of sporting events until a couple of producers invited her to record at their local studio. Moore says she was around 13 at the time.

By 15 she’d release So Real, a sugar rush of an album that blended innocent ballads with cheesy pop synths. Suddenly she found herself in the middle of the cultural hurricane that was the TRL era. She became an MTV VJ. She opened for both *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys. She even did an episode of MTV’s Diary.

“You think you know, but you have no idea!” Moore can barely contain her excitement remembering the tagline for the series. “I got to make a Diary and I was like, ‘I peaked, there’s never going to be anything as cool as this.’” But that was only the beginning for Moore, whose inherent sweetness made her perfect for acting roles, like her breakout in 2002’s A Walk to Remember. By 2009 she had amassed multiple film credits and released a total of six albums with no intention of slowing down. But suddenly, the music stopped.

Instead, Moore became best known for her onscreen work. In 2010 she voiced Rapunzel in Disney’s Tangled, and in 2016 landed the role of Rebecca Pearson, the lovingly overbearing matriarch on the NBC hit This Is Us. Her character on the show sang, but Moore no longer did. It wasn’t clear why until, in February 2019, she gave an interview to The New York Times calling her ex-husband, musician Ryan Adams, psychologically abusive and claiming that he blocked her ability to make new connections in the music industry. (He has denied the allegations.) Before she knew it, it had been a decade since she’d released a song.

“I missed it,” she says, a simple statement weighed down by heavy emotion, adding, “I’m not going to get emotional,” as if saying it out loud means it will come true. (It doesn’t.) “I had a lot to unpack about my feelings toward music and my sense of worth in what I brought to the table,” she continues. But with her current husband, Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith, and Mike Viola, who produced her last record, 2009’s Amanda Leigh, by her side, she was able to find her way back into the studio. And this time, she was going to do things differently.

Rachel Luna/Getty Images

“It was a mandate of: I want to make a pop record on my own terms,” Moore says. Long gone were the days she sings about on Silver Landings, when, as a 15-year-old, “she thought she was making music but she was only filling seats.” Now armed with a live band, Moore was ready for her sound to grow, much in the way that she has.

“I find that so many people, when they have success at a young age, they tend to want to figure out a way to stay in that space because that’s the sound and the version of themselves that the world approved at the time,” says Goldsmith, who serves as a co-writer and guitarist on Landings. “I think it’s so bold and impressive that she’s growing with her music. Her going out there and making a singer-songwriter record is indicative of how confident the record is.”

Viola remembers the moment Moore came to him after years away and said, “It’s time to make a record.” As he puts it, “She was in a place of empowerment. She felt like she has lived more of a life. She had a lot to say.” And a lot of what she had to say was very personal. On Silver Landings, she sings about her struggle to get back to music in “When I Wasn’t Watching” (“My favorite version of me disappeared through longer days and shorter years”) and learning to put herself first in “Forgiveness” (“I wanted to be good enough for you until I wasn’t good enough for me”).

“To me it was like, ‘What’s the point of making this record if I’m not going to be honest?’” Moore says. “Selfishly I need to come to terms with my own life and choices and find some catharsis. It’s really finding the silver linings in what has happened in the last 10 years of my life since I’ve made music.”

Sitting across from her, it’s easy to see the 15-year-old who arrived on the music scene more than 20 years ago. She still has a smile that can make anyone feel like she’s their best friend, and the kind of general optimism that’s expected of a teen but refreshing in an adult. And if her sparkly pink eye shadow says anything, it’s that she’s still Mandy, just a different Mandy.

“I needed to go through all that s— to get to where I am today,” she says. “It informs everything.” But this isn’t an album about how rough life can be. That’s the opposite of what she wants to sing about. “I wrote plenty of songs about some of the more tumultuous years, but I was hesitant to put anything out because this record was a means to go on the road again, and I don’t want to get on stage every night and sing about s— that I don’t want to think about anymore. That is in the rearview mirror. I am in the driver’s seat and I’m only looking forward.” Just don’t expect her to be riding around in a lime green Beetle.

A version of this article appears in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday or buy it here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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