Amos Lee: Respecting the Sanctity of the Song
With his fourth album, Mission Bell, folk-pop singer-songwriter Amos Lee has been propelled into the national consciousness. The album, defined by his raspy, soulful voice, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 earlier this month. It was an impressive feat for an artist who until this year hadn’t shed the journeyman tag despite his high-profile connections. Signed by Blue Note Records (musical home of Norah Jones) in 2004, he’s toured with an impressive cast of artists including Jones, Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard. Mission Bell, which features cameos from heroes Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams, further advances his reputation as one of the brightest talents in folk and Americana. More impressively, the album is comprised of 12 songs all solely written by Lee. In this interview with The 9513, the Philadelphia native and former schoolteacher speaks about his life as a musical troubadour and his love for a couple of Als.
What’s the biggest change in your life now that you’ve had a No. 1 album?
It was exciting for sure. It was so unexpected. I’ve never…if we’re talking about Billboard placement, I don’t think we’ve ever had a record in the Top 20. (Editor’s note: Lee’s last album, 2008’s Last Days at the Lodge, peaked at No. 29). We just wanted to do the best we could during the first week and just get the songs out there. Everybody worked really hard. I’ve been running since, well, we really started a year ago. I was super happy to, you know, get these songs out to the most people without defying the sanctity of these songs.
Because the core of your craft has been there for years, but now it’s getting national exposure.
Right. That was always the sort of thing with me. When I first started with Blue Note, I was drawn to them and the philosophy that they had. It wasn’t about hit songs. It was important for me to grow as an artist and songwriter and stay grounded in some sense.
When listening back to the album, how do you feel about the finished product?
I’ve always found there’s an incessant relationship (during the sessions). At first you’re still feeling the songs, but then it becomes an intellectual trip when you’re running through everything and keeping a steady eye on it. I need to take some time and get away from the record. My favorite way to hear a record that I made is to wander into somebody’s house party or a bar or a music venue where a song of mine is being played. At that point I’m just sort of in the room with the tune. When my friends are sitting there listening to me or my parents are listening, that’s different. When you walk into the room, there’s a casual relationship and not that added pressure. When I play it for a friend, I’m like ‘(expletive), man! This is going to be uncomfortable. (laughs) And you won’t see me listening to it when I’m pulling up to a red light or something like that. But it’s been really cool in the past to walk in the room and be a casual observer and remember all the things that went into the music. It’s always ultimately been fond memories and good times because it’s all about just making music.
When an artist is termed as a singer-songwriter, so much of the emphasis is placed on the second half of that equation. I’m curious to know how you feel your vocal performances have developed.
The centerpiece is the song. There are times when i stretch out a little more vocally, but my job is to serve the song the best and bring the song to a better place. It could be Luther Vandross, Jimi Hendrix… the song lives through them and lives in their soul. As a vocalist, if I’m serving the song, if there’s no interruption (between song and audience), it comes to life. Norah Jones is a great singer; Frank Sinatra is a great singer. With songs they revitalize them just the way they sing. Another singer like that is Willie Nelson. Even the “El Camino” song we did, I love the version that we did with the band, but when I separate myself from it, his voice takes the song to a better place. It’s not about chops; it’s not how ferocious you can be. It’s not even how much skill you have as long as you respect the sanctity of the song. I think there are two ways of singing: above ground and underground. And I prefer the underground.
Another of your collaborators on the new album is Lucinda Williams. Tell me about the experience of working with her.
She’s somebody I’ve loved for a long time. When I first started writing, I was listening to how she’s singing. I love the way she sings and she’s an incredibly soulful person. When I had an opportunity to reach out and see if she’d be interested in singing, I was obviously overwhelmed and super excited. When she came back with her vocals—and all the vocalists on this album are great–it took the road in a different direction. She can just tear you up. I’ve had many a day sitting on a plane or a train and one of her songs comes on and I can’t stop listening to it for an hour. It’s very meditative; it’s like listening to a monk chant. (laughs)
The biggest relationship a musician often has is to the music itself, though this album suggest there’s more to life–“Stay” and “Out of the Cold” for starters. How is it building a life around your career as a traveling artist?
I’m always seeing things through the song. I’m always living life through a lyric. I’m not always writing stuff, but there’s such a direct relationship there. Some of the things have changed as I’ve gotten older. These songs are just the people I’ve met in the past that are incredibly inspiring to me. I just think I’ve become a little less concerned with my scene and I’ve opened my eyes to what goes on around the world. Not that I wasn’t doing that before, I was just in a better place to be open to it. There are a lot of things I have to sacrifice (by being on the road). There are a lot of habitual things that you can’t do as much as a lot of people–the comforts and routines. For me every day is different and I’m playing different rooms, different crowds. I still want to be present for every show and be in that moment. I sort of live vicariously through people and I admire people that live beautiful lives for themselves and are living lives conducive to their values. I dig people that make those choices for themselves.
A number of these songs have an undercurrent of spirituality, and you’ve been inspired recently by gospel. The most overt entry is “Jesus,” which you wrote about your grandfather’s funeral. Tell me about the experience behind that song.
Well, for instance the song “Jesus” was written about people that I’ve known in my life, who I’ve loved a lot, that have faith or have a strong connection to religion spirituality or faith or whatever you want to call it. For them it was such a practicality that needed to be a part of their lives. That tune is about reaching out into the darkness. I think there’s gotta be some in between. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re reaching for, but you’re reaching from the darkness to the light, and I think that’s faithful enough.
What’s your music of choice right now?
I’ve been listening to three records lately. The Al Anderson album, Al Green’s The Belle Album, which is my favorite of his, and an Arthur Russell compilation that I’ve been listening to it nonstop. It’s got a lot of really cool performances on it. Let me find the name of it…Love Is Overtaking Me. He’s such a conceptual musician.
One last note: you’re playing a solo show at the Ryman this spring.
I’m almost shocked that there’s been such a good response. I’ve always wanted to play the Ryman. I got a chance to play there once with Bob (Dylan) and Elvis (Costello). It’s one of the great rooms in the world and such a huge honor to perform there.
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