But once he got there, he knew he’d found the right place for his latest album.
BY ERIC SWEDLUND
The nights that change people’s lives don’t tend to unfold all at once.
Amos Lee, about to release what would become the country’s best-selling record, was invited to perform at one of Levon Helm’s storied Midnight Rambles. The record, Mission Bell, was a largely autobiographical one for the singer-songwriter, chronicling more than a little turmoil. And returning to the road with the new songs was an adjustment. But in Helm’s Woodstock barn, Lee found a new source of inspiration, one that grew as time passed.
“I knew going to the Ramble was monumental for all of us, but like many the things in my life I didn’t really appreciate it until afterwards,” Lee says.
“Levon wasn’t well when he did that show. What I loved is the way he showed us all what it means to be a lover, to love what he was doing and to give everything that he had that night and to sing through all the pain. He gave everything he was to music. It didn’t strike me ‘til afterwards how powerful that was to me.
“Everybody who was in that room was special, all the audience members, all the people playing. It’s the kind of thing where you’re all together and you know why you’re there and you know it’s real and he’s the anchor for all that.”
After Helm passed away, Lee found himself writing about that night, words that turned into the song “Mountains of Sorrow,” what he calls the essence of his fifth album, Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song, out this week on Blue Note.
“When I wrote that song, I didn’t think I was going to write a song to him, but I wrote it and it was. He really moved me a lot. It was a very emotional experience and it became something stronger as the days wore on in my mind about it, and when he passed,” Lee says.
Thinking about that night, about Helm all the contributions he made to music in his life and the spirit that existed as friends gathered in that old barn, Lee set down words that focused on what he was feeling about life in general.
“I think sometimes I try to focus in on the song that I feel is a place where maybe some of the essence of what was happening during the recording,” he says.
“I thought that song was a good centerpiece of where I was during the last couple of years while I was writing. The concept is a little wider than just a simple few words, but it speaks to the process of gathering up stuff and moving along with it and not worrying about what comes with you and what gets left behind.”
To record the new album, Lee set out for Nashville and producer Jay Joyce’s brand new studio, St. Charles, built in a converted church. It was a vastly different setting than Tucson’s WaveLab Studio, where Lee recorded Mission Bell with Calexico’s Joey Burns producing, but the goal was the same: to find the right collaborator.
“There’s no destination in mind before I start looking and talking to people,” Lee says. “Jay is a really talented dude. He hears things differently than I do and figures out how to switch things around. Jay had this new space that was opening and he’s made some great music, so we went down there.”
Mountains of Sorrow is the first album Lee recorded with his touring band – Freddie Berman, Zach Djanikian, Andy Keenan and Jaron Olevsky – and the first album brought to life at St. Charles. The Philadelphia-based band moved down to Nashville for about a month, hanging out in the down time, cooking breakfast together.
“It was one of those things you hear about where a band moves to a place and makes a record,” Lee says. “They’re the best. They’re a good hang. They’re good musicians and they really put their hearts into what they’re doing. It feels good to be with people who’re caring about what they do.”
Recording in Nashville also gave Lee access to an impressive cast of guest musicians. Alison Krauss sings on “Chill In The Air,” while Patty Griffin contributes vocals to “Mountains of Sorrow.” On the instrumental side, Jerry Douglas (Alison Krauss & Union Station), Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson) and Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band) all chipped in. Douglas and his Dobro especially stand out on Mountains of Sorrow.
“Jerry is amazing. He’s the best. He’s got ears and ways to contribute to your songs that are meaningful,” Lee says. “Some of the stuff he played is some of my favorite stuff on the record. He finds a way to do that. That’s the cool thing about his playing. He finds the right place to put the right thing and that’s pretty rare.”
The range of sounds on Mountains of Sorrow is the largest yet for Lee, representing a decade of musical growth and exploration since he first signed to Blue Note. And though he’s been referred to as folk, soul, rock and various hybrid terms, the 36-year-old Lee says he just considers it all music.
“With songwriting, I just take the songs that feel good to me, the songs that feel like they’re the right ones. I don’t really think about genre in general. I just check out what’s in my mind and whatever that is, is where it goes,” he says. “Since the very beginning, it’s kind of been that way: X, Y and Z, Q, W and P. Those are the all the kinds of music I make, but I don’t care what those are. Does it make me feel something? That’s it. That’s the kind of music I make.”
While the album’s sound is more expansive, Lee’s songwriting on Mountains of Sorrow is a little more direct than in the past.
“Mission Bell is a very cathartic, autobiographical stuff. This stuff was a little bit more objective,” he says. “As a songwriting process it isn’t that much different. I was sitting around writing songs and that’s the way I’ve always done it. I don’t go to a mountain top or anything. I sit down and write.
“I think I write less and I keep more as I get older, but it’s still really about volume and experience for me, not stopping ideas before they start,” he says. “People start thinking about the end product before they’ve written the first verse and that kills a song. You have to have fun with it.”
The fun for Lee comes with pen in hand, in the studio and on stage. Lee and his band toured heavily, including a return trip to Tucson to film an episode of Live From The Artists Den, after Mission Bell debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart.
“It was a surprise to me that it happened, but I wasn’t really surprised that people heard about it. The people I work with are really great and they had a plan to help people find the music and the songs resonated with folks,” he says.
“It was a good team effort and a bunch of people put their heart into it. I’m really lucky to have people who care enough to buy the records I make and come to the shows and so I’m able to stay out making music.”