Amos Lee Interview: Singer-Songwriter Talks New Album, Working With Alison Krauss, Patty Griffin + More
An interview with Amos Lee is unlike an interview with most recording artists. A seemingly simple question can yield several minutes of rumination on tangential topics before he winds his way back to the original question. It is obvious in even a brief conversation that he is a person who thinks about things more deeply than most others, and examines ideas from many different angles.
Ask most musicians about their goals for a new record, and they’ll probably tell you they want to go Platinum this time. Lee uses the same question as a springboard for a discussion about “renewing the cycle of song” between himself and his audience. That unique sensibility is everywhere in evidence on his highly-anticipated new album, ‘Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song,’ which Blue Note Records released on Tuesday (Oct. 8).
The follow-up to 2011′s ‘Mission Bell,’ which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and Billboard Rock Albums charts, Lee’s new album is a diverse collection of songs — but they’re all informed by an underlying artistry and individuality that are a refreshing contrast to much of the music that currently dominates the scene.
Tell me about ‘Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song.’ What does that title mean?
It’s supposed to signify a journey. Sort of an homage to some of the folks who came before me, and have persevered through lifetimes, and continue to create music.
Like my friend James Gadson, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with him. He’s a drummer; he was Bill Withers’ drummer, and he’s one of my favorite people, and sort of like my spiritual adviser of sorts. He told me, the first record I made, he said, “Listen, man, don’t ever let them break your spirit.” And then the last record I made with him, I saw him again after not seeing him for about three years, and he said, “You know what, man, you’re doing all right. You didn’t let them break you. You’ve just got to keep on walking down the road.” And it’s kind of an homage to that kind of ideal.
It was based around being at the Barn with Levon [Helm] and the Ramble, and seeing somebody who had been playing music his whole life, and had given so much, still giving and still being cared for by that muse and by that spirit.
When you talk about not letting them break you, are you talking about the inherent difficulties of the music business, just in getting art created?
Yeah, I think so. I think, I mean his definition for “them” is probably pretty wide, but you know, James at that point had been through the business. He’s been playing since — you know, Bill Withers, and he’d been in the Motown house band when they were in L.A., and he’d been through the wringer. And I think that his advice to me was based on his lifetime of experience, and just being around tons of people who maybe make you want to second-guess yourself, and maybe are more interested in grasping power than they are in inspiring art.
What is your goal going into each new record?
There’s really not a whole lot of big-time goals that I have with them. I set smaller, moment-to-moment goals. Like this record I wanted to work with my touring band, and I also wanted to — for me, my goal is always to write a bunch of songs, and put them out to people who are really my fans, and try to communicate with them through these tunes, and keep renewing the cycle of song between the listener and me. So that it keeps growing in some way and we keep on communicating with each other, and growing a catalog of songs. And hopefully be able to keep touring and playing live shows, and have that light keep burning.
Do you write all of the songs for a record before you go in, or do you write some of them while you are working on other songs? What’s your process?
Mostly I write them before we go in. There are times when I’ll be tweaking something while we’re recording it, or maybe thinking about it in a different way and re-considering what some of the structure is, but for the most part the material is all finished by the time we start recording it.
Do you write extra songs and cull down to the best work, or do you write exactly what you need?
I write a lot. We tend to whittle down the song list before we go into the studio, because I’ve found by making records that when I go in there with 30 or 40 songs, we get way off track. So I think it’s better to get with the producer beforehand and play them everything you’ve got, and then sort of as a team go, “This song feels good to me. This one’s really important to me. This one’s not as important to me.” Whittle it down to maybe 15 or so, and then record those.
You worked in Nashville on this record. It’s the first time you’ve worked here, is that correct?
It’s the first time I’ve recorded here, yeah. I’ve played shows here a bunch of times.
What brought you to that choice this time?
We talked about producers and who we liked, and Jay Joyce’s name came up, and we had a powwow with him. We sat down and we had dinner with him, and we really liked the vibe, and he works down here. So it was kinda just as simple as that. And to top it all off, I have friends down here like Jerry Douglas and Alison Krauss and Mickey Raphael, who have all been really great and beautiful supporters of the work. So we also wanted to involve them in the project, and it made it so much easier just being here.
You worked in a converted church in East Nashville. What was that like, working there? Was it a pretty different environment?
For me, there’s only a couple of different kinds of places — places that feel good making music, and places that don’t. And this one felt good. It was still sort of in transit, which works for me, because I’m always sort of in transit. I’m always a limbo lover. And they were just sort of working out all of the edges to it, but the room itself is beautiful. I thought we did a pretty good job of being there with each other, everybody in the room. And the room itself offers a lot; it’s a pretty diverse place.
Now he probably has even more, because in the basement, he has even more chambers to go down and play with. But most of the stuff we did was live, and all we really need is a room big enough to fit us, and microphones right enough to record us.
I was going to ask if you live tracked, because that’s certainly what it seems like you’d have to do to get that organic sound that you really gravitate toward.
Yeah, I don’t really like comping vocals. I like to just sing. [Note: "Comping" vocals is a recording process in which individual words or phrases are drawn from numerous different performances and edited together to create one perfect studio performance.] So I like to record live as much as possible.
Do you record to click tracks, or do you just get in there and let it go?
We like to get a template, but we don’t do a whole hell of a lot of straight click stuff. I don’t like clicks in my ears when I’m singing if I don’t have to. The only time we’ll do that is if we find ourselves wandering too much during a take. I don’t mind ebbs and flows in the tempo. That’s never really bothered me. Some of my favorite records are like that. But if there’s a particularly challenging tune with a tempo that can make itself drag, or we keep on pushing it, a click is a nice thing to have just to maybe even out a feel for everyone, to be able to have a meeting place. But generally I find it pretty distracting, so I prefer not.
How long a process is making an album for you?
It really depends. This one took about three weeks. I think we cut live for maybe two weeks, ten days to two weeks, and then did overdubs for about another week and a half or so. And then mixed. But I think generally speaking, anywhere between three weeks and month.
You know, we could have made the record in two days, if we had to, but we had the luxury of being able to take our time. Everybody was pretty much there together and ready to work, and it’s a luxury to be able to have a budget to make a record with, which I feel very fortunate to have. So we took our time and just tried to do the best we could with it.
This is the first time you’ve recorded with your road band?
They’ve been on other recordings with me, but they’ve never been on a straight record together. It was a real collaborative effort in that way.
That’s going to make it a different experience to go out and play these songs live, just because everybody’s already in on it.
Yeah, I think it’s a better connection for everyone to be able to listen to yourself on the record, and to be able to grow from there. It’s a good starting place for sure.
Is that something you’re interested in continuing to do in the future, working with your band like that?
As long as it feels good, I think it’s always a good idea. It’s pretty straightforward. If we’re together in a room and it feels good, then yeah, definitely. But I like to branch out and work with other people, too. This was something that I really wanted to do because I felt like it was the right time. It felt like the right time to do it. So in the future, I don’t know, maybe? I’m not hung up on it one way or the other. If it feels right next time to record with these guys, then yeah, I’ll do it. If not, I’ll do something else.
Tell me about Alison Krauss. What is she like to work with?
I have the utmost respect for her. She was really gracious. I met her actually, during the Transatlantic Sessions out in Scotland with Jerry Douglas, and I heard her sing two songs. I’m pretty sure she did ‘I Believe in You,’ and then she did ‘Dimming of the Day.’ She’s just mesmerizing, man. Her tone and her pitch is so beautiful, and right, and she really cares about what she’s singing. That was something that I was really honored by — she was putting energy and thoughtfulness into the work that she was doing, and to me she comes across as really down-to-earth and kind. Those are the feelings that I come away with when I work with her.
What about Patty Griffin?
I didn’t really get a chance to hang out with Patty, but I hung out with her when she played in Philly, and she’s awesome, man. The way she sang on this is beautiful. She emotes like nobody else. There are certain times when I listen to Patty Griffin songs that, my day is over. I’m done for the day, man, I’m just gonna sit here and think about this sh– for a little while. It’s powerful. She’s like a powerhouse, she seems like her take on the songs she writes, and the way she sings them, there’s such a deep conviction there. And that she lent her passion and her conviction to my song — again, it’s an honor.
There’s a mainstream country radio that’s mostly dominated by kind of poppy, put-together songs, and there’s a really vigorous alternative that is more acoustic-based and more organic-based. What’s your theory as to why those are so sharply apart right now? Because it seems like the same natural fan base would enjoy both of them.
I have a pretty unique take on it, because I’m not really a part of either of them, in a way. I don’t have any songs on mainstream radio. I’ve been embraced by certain people I think who have songs on mainstream country radio, but also have a real vested interest in growing as artists and musicians and songwriters.
For me it’s like, does the music bring joy to people, or not? I can’t really speak to the industry of it, because I’m not really that familiar, but I’ve gone to a few shows because I’ve been befriended by some of the artists. I’ve been to a Sugarland show, I’ve been to a Lady Antebellum show, I’ve been to a Kacey Musgraves show recently, I’ve been to a Zac Brown Band show.
I’ve sort of been able to look around from the edges and the backstage and the sides, and honestly, what I walk away with … recently I went to a Kacey Musgraves show where Kenny Chesney and Eric Church played in Philly, I went to a big stadium show. And I don’t really have a deep take on it, because I’m not part of it, but I see people enjoying themselves in the crowd, and singing along, and I can’t really put a value on what songs are worthy and what songs aren’t.
Me personally as a songwriter, I try to work from a place that’s personal. But it seems like those songs are connecting with people. As far as what the value of it is, or why there’s opposition between two camps, I think that’s just human nature. [Laughs.] I think people are just constantly trying to define and re-define themselves, and we need others to define what our own personal take is. We need an “other” to define the self. I think that’s kind of what that’s about.
For me, I kinda see it as, if people are paying money and they just left a show feeling like they just got something, and their lives are a little better than when they came in, I have no issue with that.
What is the most important thing to say about your new album, to tell your fans what it’s about?
A lot of the songs are based on trying to empathize with people, trying to connect with them during their struggles, or maybe their joys, or maybe it’s a simple thing of wanting to kick it with somebody. There’s a bunch of different tunes on this record. I don’t know … if they listen to it and they feel something, then I hope that I did something good for them.
When I put a record on as a listener, as a fan, if I feel moved by something, I feel really fortunate. It’s like sitting down at a table and having a good meal, and then afterward feeling that afterglow. For me, music is like that. We’re so lucky to live in age where music can be such a huge part of our daily lives. It’s always been a huge part, down throughout humanity, and maybe even more so, culturally, depending on where you lived in the world. Maybe it was even more essential to certain cultures than it is today. But I do feel like music is so prevalent and it’s everywhere, and we have such a possibility to be exposed to everything.
It’s kind of why there are less genres today, there’s less of an interest in certain genres, because we all grew up listening to everything. How can you not be influenced by James Jamerson, or whoever it is — Randy Travis, or the Beatles, or whoever it might be? How can that not get in under your skin? It’s sort of undeniable beauty, and I think more so than ever in the world, we’ve been privy to some undeniable beauty.