Chris Mann has had three distinct waves of fame. Most first encountered him as a contestant on “The Voice” as a classical-crossover singer. His first major acting gig was touring as the lead in “The Phantom of the Opera.” And during this pandemic, Mann has become a viral success with his COVID-19-themed parodies of popular songs racking up tens of millions of views. Now he’s releasing “Noise,” an album that comes closest to representing the real him — the music he grew up loving, with lyrics reflecting what’s really on his mind.
You grew up in Wichita, Kan. Considering your musical ambitions, did you always hope to head for the big city?
I always knew I wanted to leave. However, Wichita is an incredible place to grow up. It has a thriving art scene and one of the best regional music theater companies in America: Music Theatre Wichita. I didn’t really know that I wanted to perform on stage, but my friends were doing it in school, so I joined because I didn’t want to miss out. One of my music teachers called my parents and said, “Chris has got a really talented voice. You should take this seriously.” I grew up playing football and basketball and baseball and I played very competitive tennis for the state of Kansas. And I also sang.
What kind of music did you grow up loving?
I’m from the boy band era. I wanted to be in NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, for sure. This summer, I worked with AJ [McLean of Backstreet Boys, on the parody song “I’m Friends With AJ!”] and that was nuts because I wanted so desperately to be in that group. I would go up into my bedroom and pretend to be in a music video with the Celine Dions, the Christina Aguileras — I had her poster in my college dorm room.
But in your first incarnation as a recording artist, you were in the Josh Groban, classical-crossover mold.
It was a hard thing for me because Josh already existed, and Michael Bublé already existed. I’m a fan of both of them and yet I always felt like I was dodging them in order to find my place.
Chris Mann on stage, singing “On a Night Like This” during his early classical-crossover phase.
You recorded an album for Sony just in time for the people who brought you in to be replaced. The label dropped you, the record didn’t come out, you started singing off-camera for things like “Glee” and “The Lego Movie.” But you recorded a “singer-songwriter forward,” 1980s pop-influenced indie album in 2010 — and didn’t release it. Why?
I didn’t want to do orchestral ballads and that stuff, so through my manager at the time, I was able to go to England and work with some people that I loved in the James Morrison, Jason Mraz world. Some of those songs on that 2010 album are some of my favorite things I’ve ever done. But a huge flaw of mine is that I worry about perception. I looked for external approval on this stuff. “I should make a Josh Groban-type record.” … It’s not better to be a chameleon in this business. Now, for the first time, it’s my strength [because of the parodies].
Chris Mann performs with Christina Aguilera on “The Voice.”
You were on Season 2 of “The Voice,” again in your classical-crossover guise. You were on Christina Aguilera’s team; was the feud between her and Adam Levine real?
There was definitely on-camera friction with them. As much as I like Adam, he was pushing Christina’s buttons intentionally. He had a guy on his team who used to be in the Mickey Mouse Club with Christina and the show exploited that; they really worked an angle that Christina was mean to him. Christina didn’t necessarily handle herself in the best possible way, and Adam totally exploited that. America turned on Christina and I. It was like a woman can’t say — if a man said what she said, it wouldn’t have been news. I like Adam, so it’s nothing against him. But it was real. They really did not like each other that year. We saw things go down off-camera that were real for sure.
You finished fourth, but the show launched you; you got a new record deal and finally got to release an album, “Roads.”
We went to Nashville and recorded strings — it was a dream. I actually had done it once before; on my Sony record I had an orchestra day at Capitol. ... I was in Studio B and Barbra Streisand was in Studio A. The hallways are very small and so I would be like, “I gotta go, I gotta pee,” hoping to run into Barbra. And I did. I didn’t even talk to her. But I did shimmy past her to pretend to go to the bathroom just so I could, you know, graze Barbra Streisand.
You auditioned for the supporting role of Raoul in “The Phantom of the Opera,” though you’d never acted in a large-scale production.
I thought “Raoul — a great part, he gets to sing ‘All I Ask of You.’ He’s not the lead; I don’t want that pressure.” So I audition in North Hollywood ... I start singing “All I Ask of You” and they stop me: “No, no, you’re a Phantom. Can you sing ‘Music of the Night?’ " I read it over the accompanist’s shoulder. I flew to New York and had the final casting session with the entire production team where they film it and send it to Andrew [Lloyd Webber] and Cameron [Mackintosh]. And I booked it. I was not ready to take on the lead of a musical of that level, but that’s what happened.
Chris Mann performs the signature song from “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Music of the Night.”
Why did that burn you out so much, you felt like you wanted to do something besides music?
I did 700 performances without a break. That was a dream. But every two weeks to two months I was traveling, new climate, new city. I was getting reviewed and having to deal with that. Not to mention eight shows a week; it’s physically taxing. More than that, it’s emotionally and mentally taxing. I was playing a character that had a full breakdown by the end of every show. I was so grateful to have that job, but I was just tired. So I started studying for the GMAT [Graduate Management Admission Test]. In my makeup, in between shows.
That was clearly a knee-jerk reaction. I don’t like business. It made no sense for me. My thought was, “I’m going to run a music label. Who better to run a label than somebody who’s been through it?” I guess I’ll always feel injured from being dropped twice or getting a bad review when I didn’t feel like I deserved it, so I was almost trying to remove myself from that situation a little bit.
But you’re offered a “Voice” show in Vegas (“The Voice: Neon Dreams”) in 2017, you put business school on hold, and the show doesn’t happen. Meanwhile, you have a kid.
It was the worst period of my entire career. You were so unsure of what was coming next and how you’re going to be able to pay the bills. I was dead set and committed and had gotten into UCLA and USC and I was very excited about it. And then here comes “The Voice”: “Please come open this big show for us in Las Vegas.” My wife was pregnant. And then the show went away. I had a non-compete clause. So I was technically off the market for any bookings. I am having a child, I support my family with music and … that broke me. I was so angry, I had to get help. After having been resilient … I was unable to get up. That was really not great.
Cut to COVID: So all of my concerts are canceled. I did that shopping trip that we all did in the beginning. I put on a mask for the first time. Everyone was freaking out. Toilet paper was gone. It was panic and I came home and wrote “My Corona.” I’d never done a parody. I recorded it in my bathroom during my son’s nap and it changed my life. It got 20 million views in four days.
Chris Mann’s coronavirus-themed parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona”: “My Corona”
It was certainly a new direction for you.
I was kind of mortified when that went viral. I wasn’t singing that great. It was the first time that I hadn’t totally thought out, like, the way I was going to be perceived. This was like the big revelation for me in this year. [In the past] I couldn’t post something because, without approval from the label, what if I offend somebody? For the first time that went out the window and I started connecting with an audience.
From Neil Diamond’s updated “Sweet Caroline” to spoofs of “Kokomo” and “Stayin’ Alive,” here are the best song parodies to keep you company in quarantine.
The Adele one [“Hello (From the Inside),” more than 13 million views], I was like, this would be so funny if I just tweaked it this way. I’m recording, I’m shooting everything as fast as I can in a very short window ‘cause it’s only when my son can nap — in like a two-hour window. I have been running around this house trying to get as much footage as I can before he wakes up. That’s what my quarantine has been.
Lyric video for Chris Mann’s “Gentleman” from his 2020 album “Noise.”
In the new album, “Noise,” I hear ‘90s R&B, stuff from your childhood.
That’s exactly right. I got with Willy Beaman, my good friend and music director, and I set out to write songs that embody all that made me love music in the first place, because at [that] point I don’t really love it anymore. So I friggin’ love horn stacks. That’s gotta be in here. India.Arie has always been a massive influence to me. I want lots of thick harmonies. Justin Timberlake is a big influence. I love his use of falsetto. I love John Legend and his swag and how romantic it is. I’m almost 20 years older than when I started and I have a child and I’m married ... I’m also a grown-ass man. So that’s when “Gentleman” was written. “We can do grown things” is like, “I don’t have to be 18 to feel cool and sexy.”
Something else that has been very different for you lately is the sociopolitical bent of your messaging.
So this was, you know, we’re deep into the presidency at this point — it wasn’t even nearly as bad as it is now, but it was bad and we had the #MeToo movement. It’s irresponsible, especially if I’m making a record that nobody is asking for, to not say something that I think is important. So I wrote “Noise” about not being silent and standing up for yourself and yelling back.
Chris Mann uses songs from “Hamilton” to criticize President Trump in “He’ll Be Back!”
Your parody “He’ll Be Back (‘Hamilton’ Trolls Trump)” was surprising because you didn’t have a history of making political statements. You also dedicated an a cappella version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to Black Lives Matter and include scenes of protest in your upcoming video for “Good Days.” Is there a relaxation that comes with just saying what you want to say, a kind of exhale?
There is, but there was also a major bracing for that. The “Hamilton” one, I was so terrified. I am so proud of that video. But I talked to so many friends, my parents, my wife: “Should I really do this?” It shows very clearly that I have a certain fan base on a certain platform and I have a different fan base on another platform. People hated me on one and celebrated me on another. I knew I was gonna lose fans; I was hoping I wasn’t gonna lose hundreds of thousands of fans. My whole life you try to get those following numbers as high as you can, and people look to that for your worth. Is he castable? Is he signable? What are his social figures?
I decided that if you fundamentally disagree that Black lives matter or that a candidate who has been such a tragedy and travesty ... then you probably don’t need to be my fan, and I had to be OK with that. I’ve spent my whole career making music that I wanted to be loved by everyone and [found] that doesn’t really work. So for the first time I’m making something that is genuinely me. And that means that some people aren’t gonna like it. And that’s OK.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Chris Mann
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