Amos Lee is all over the map. Born and based in Philadelphia, the singer-songwriter recorded his last album, the surprise chart-topper Mission Bell, in Tucson, Ariz., with members of Calexico. For his new follow-up, Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song, he headed to East Nashville, where he took his touring band into producer Jay Joyce’s brand new studio.
The places matter less than the feel.
“I like recording in bedrooms,” Lee says. “I like recording in basements. I like recording in churches or old warehouses. It doesn’t really matter to me as long as the vibe is good.”
That wanderlust infects his music, which is distinguished by its blend of disparate styles and sounds — from gentle folk to galloping rock, twangy country to smooth Philly soul.
CMT Edge: This is the first album you’ve recorded with your touring band. Why did you want to work with them in this setting?
Lee: There are quite a few reasons. First, we made a lot of strides together on the Mission Bell tour. We started to really make music together, and I started thinking, “Who knows how many more records I’ll make or if I’ll even have a chance to make a record with these guys?”
A couple of those guys have been with me for a long time, and they’ve been real patient. I wanted to give them the opportunity to show their musicianship. I thought a) they deserved it, and b) it would be fun. I knew they would do great, and I knew we would have a good time doing it. And that’s all I really want from my life — to have fun and do something that feels right.
How did their presence make these sessions different from previous ones?
Making records is … they’re all different and similar at the same time. I go in there with a bunch of songs, and I collaborate with the people I’m in the studio with. This time, the thing was for me to say less. Just play and not tell people what I thought was right or wrong. Let the music unfold naturally. I was able to offer something constructive instead of fishing around for something that’s not there. I was more open to being there and being with the music.
There are a lot of different and unexpected sounds on here, like the mouth harp on “Scamps” and the talk box on “Stranger.” Were you trying to expand or redefine your palette with this album?
I don’t really have any agenda with this record. For me, it was about what ideas we can come up with in the studio. Whatever happens, man. Here I am, and here y’all are. Let’s just make this shit happen. It’s that kind of mentality that breeds beauty.
It’s not really a moody record. I know a lot of people like records that have one pervasive mood, where the whole record has basically one quality — like fog. The way we went about making this record is, we just sat in a room and had fun playing these songs together.
It sounds like you’re writing more in character, especially on a song like “Indonesia.”
A lot of these songs are more third-person. Sometimes you just get bored of yourself. I don’t really need to write about my problems anymore, but I am interested in what other people are going through. I want to contribute in some way to the things that I feel and to the things that other people feel. Sometimes that’s a good way to illuminate stuff.
“Indonesia” is about … well, I know what it’s about, and if you listen to it, you can figure it out. But I don’t want to specify because it might take away from somebody else’s experience with the song. It all comes from Quantum Leap.
No, I’m kidding. But it’s true. The concept of Quantum Leap is really cool. You get to walk in someone else’s shoes. I get to see what it’s like to broaden my own perspective by imagining what your life is like. That helps me appreciate my own experience, knowing how you feel and how you suffer and how you’re happy. Music lets you slip into someone else’s skin. It’s not as literal as Quantum Leap or as long a moment as something like acting would be. But it’s the same concept to me.
That diverse approach lends the album a cohesive quality that ties together all these different sounds. Are you thinking about themes when you’re writing or recording?
Here’s the thing. … I don’t even know why I get into these things, but I was sitting at a bar with a friend, and we’re talking about albums. He’s a songwriter dude who’s committed to his craft, and he said, “What’s the point of making albums anymore?” We got into this debate … well, not a debate, a conversation.
To me, people don’t seem to think albums are really that important to anyone anymore as a full piece of art. But I fell in love with the format. You can live with an album and really experience it. It’s not a superficial thing. You buy a record, and you go, man, songs three and four really get me. So you listen to those songs. And the more you listen to the record, the more you maybe think song seven is great. Then, you know what, three and four and seven are cool, but 10’s my favorite!
We don’t really live with records anymore. … I used to live with records. When I was living in New York, I put on [Hall & Oates’] Abandoned Luncheonette. Because I like that album and because I’m lazy, I listened to nothing but side A for three weeks. And it really made me understand and appreciate those recordings on a deeper level.
I’m complicating your questions a whole hell of a lot. But the answer is in there somewhere. You can listen to the record and feel those underlying themes.