When Mike Viola performs, live — as he will at Café Du Nord this week — and on disc, you can hear the heart he wears on his sleeve, and its true and irresistible pulse.
The 44-year-old Viola (pronounced with a hard “i”) has been a go-to singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist for a variety of other artists, some of them actors with musical aspirations.
They include Kelly Jones (her and Viola’s EP “Melon” was digitally released last week); Adam Schlesinger (sharing the bill at the Du Nord and producing credit for the title track to the film “That Thing You Do”); John C. Reilly (with whom Viola worked as chief soundtrack songwriter and promotional tour bandmate) and Mandy Moore, for whom he served as musical director last year.
But Viola’s heart is perhaps most palpable on “Hang On Mike,” which was released by Columbia Records as a CD in 2004, under the Candy Butchers band name, and recently rereleased in vinyl format.
The album’s dozen tracks form a thrillingly honest autobiography, some of it conveyed in achingly lovely ballads, pulling the listener in close to Viola’s vulnerable reedy tenor voice and acoustic guitar and keyboards.
“I didn’t conceptualize it, I lived it,” says Viola, discussing some of “Hang On Mike’s” songs during a vacation-time e-mail interview.
“‘Superkid’ was a shout-out to my lost childhood self. I started playing professionally [in Stoughton, Mass.] when I was 13, so I never really had a childhood. ‘Painkillers’ is way more than a song about my first wife, Kim, who became quadriplegic, then eventually died of cancer. ‘Charlie’ was my mom, Charlene, who was sick when I started writing the song, so she was on my mind a lot.”
There are bursts of power rock too, with addictive hooks and musical and lyrical homages to some of Viola’s influences, including Randy Newman, Elton John, Roy Orbison and Paul McCartney, the latter two of whom he got to meet.
After “Hang On Mike,” Viola left Columbia and formed his own independent label, he says, “out of necessity, because I move too fast and I can’t wait for permission to make music or play music.”
His film work prompted a relocation to Angeleno Heights, a Los Angeles neighborhood evocative of his native New England, where he lives with his second wife, Audrey, and their young daughter Izzy.
Some of his recent songs, fanciful even when sardonic and purposefully off-kilter, have attracted the attention of kids as well as European audiences.
At Cafe Du Nord, Viola and Schlesinger will showcase music from their various groups, including the latter’s Fountains of Wayne.
“But if you have a good song title or topic,” says Viola, “maybe shout it out, and we can write something on the spot.”
IF YOU GO
Mike Viola, Adam Schlesinger
Where: Cafe Du Nord, 2170 Market St., San Francisco
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Contact: (415) 861-5016; www.cafedunord.com