Soul on Nice

Billy Mann figures he's lost more day jobs than the average person will hold in a lifetime. He's delivered pizzas, hawked futons, worked as a photocopier, and during an early-Nineties stay in Miami he sold classified ads for this newspaper. Despite the crushing realities of the nine-to-five work week, Mann has always written songs -- forthright confessions of love and doubt, romance and escape -- eleven of which have been collected on his self-titled debut album, an intimate and low-key disc issued earlier this month on DV8, a new subsidiary of A&M Records.

Speaking by phone from his apartment in New York City -- his home for the past two years -- Mann says the album is the culmination of his patience, hard work, and dedication. "I've always wanted to take everything slow and not rush anything," Mann states. "My mom's a published poet and she taught me a lot about perseverance. She's in her fifties and had her first book of poetry published after waiting a long time and having a lot of ups and downs as a writer. That she's hung in for so long is just an amazing thing to me. I'm not afraid of hard work, though, because I've been very intense about all this since I was a little kid."

Mann was a little kid back in the early Seventies, which the Philadelphia-born 26-year-old spent with one ear tuned in to the radio and the other directed toward the city's vast and eclectic music scene. He soaked up as much of it as he could, especially the Philly soul grooves crafted by the production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the R&B knockoffs by poppy white boys such as Todd Rundgren and Hall and Oates, and the folkie creations of singer/songwriter Jim Croce. In true Philly fashion he sang for spare change in a street-corner doo-wop group and wrote songs as he learned his away around the guitar.

"I was just immersed in all this music," he recalls of his Philadelphia youth. "You can't grow up there and not be into music. It was like you couldn't get enough. It was a Motown type of place, but even more influential for me because there were all kinds of styles of music in your face all the time, like a goulash. I was this very intense musical kid who listened to the Who but also liked the Spinners and Pattie Labelle and the Doobie Brothers."

He played in Philadelphia clubs as a solo artist and with various bands before moving in 1992 to Miami, where his father still resides. "Miami was a big part of my growth as an artist," he notes. "I played at Washington Square and the Cactus Cantina and Tobacco Road, did some shows with the Mavericks and Forget the Name. I'd put together a band sometimes, and sometimes I'd play solo. There are just so many talented musicians there -- just this whole posse of unbelievable talent. I met the producer Rob Freeman there, who was a great resource for me and someone who always told me to keep writing songs. So I made that my decree."

Mann left Miami in mid-1994 for New York City, where he worked the club circuit and hashed out his songs in the stairwells of apartment buildings -- an acoustically sound environment, perhaps, but also the last place Mann expected to run into a hotshot producer. "I'd always practice in the stairwell of this midtown Manhattan apartment building where some friends of mine lived," he explains. "The acoustics are great and no one bothers you because they're all at work. So I'm playing and this big guy comes in wearing a T-shirt and jeans and he has this long hair. I ask him if he's in a band, and he says, 'Kinda,' and asks if he can listen. So he hangs around a bit while I'm playing and it turns out the guy's Ric Wake. I mean, you can never underestimate the power of having a stranger in the audience."

Wake, the man behind numerous hits for artists such as Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Hall and Oates, liked what he heard and took Mann into the studio. The results A captured on his DV8 debut A establish Mann as a soul vocalist with a hard-core fixation on singer/songwriters such as Carole King and Jackson Browne. Although he worries that his songs are sometimes too personal, Mann favors heart-on-sleeve confessional lyrics, which he wraps around subtle hooks that unfold with sly grace. Songs such as "Ain't Gonna Keep Me Hangin' On," "Will I Ever," and "Let's Start Over Again" are straightforward vignettes from the heart of heartbreak city, while "Killed by a Flower" and "Tossing Pennies (In a Well)" are much better than their titles suggest. Musically, he strikes a balance between the groove-based Philly soul of his youth and the folkie acoustic moves he's picked up during years of coffeehouse gigs and songwriter showcases.

"Ric pretty much let me navigate my own course," Mann claims. "I just wanted to make a record that people would want to listen to from start to finish. You want people to grow into the album and appreciate it as a whole. That means a lot to me, because so many people base their whole act on one single. They have to rush through production to pound out an album just so they have something to match the single. I don't think that anyone at the label is looking at me as just an artist with a single or as a flash in the pan, but as someone they're willing to bet on for the future."

Although his album hasn't even been out a month, Mann has already toured twice overseas, opening some European shows in March for Sting and performing this past summer on several dates with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Sting was so taken with Mann's pipes that he featured the vocalist on his nightly version of "Lithium Sunset" and has invited Mann to return to Europe for some upcoming dates this summer. "I was shocked to be playing with him," Mann admits. "I mean, this is Sting! He's got such a vast musical vocabulary, and for me he represents my definition of a real musician, so to get a vote of confidence from someone like that is a pretty big deal. If you forget about everything else, and if the music business were a utopia where there were no Grammy Awards or anything, and everything was just about the music, all you'd really want is to be acknowledged by the masters of your field.

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John Floyd