The former schoolteacher talks about the experience of recording his latest album, “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song.”
Singer-songwriter Amos Lee
Tavis: For 10 years, Amos Lee has been bringing his blend of folk, rock, and soul to audiences eager to break down musical barriers.
His latest CD, titled “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song,” was recorded in Nashville in just three weeks, and features collaborations with the likes of Alison Krause, Patty Griffin, and Jeff Coffin of the Dave Matthews Band.
We’ll take a look first at a cut from that album. Take a look at this clip.
[Video clip Amos Lee performing]
Tavis: You still got it, Amos. (Laughter) You still got it. Do you ever worry when you go into the studio whether or not you still have it?
Amos Lee: Honestly, man, at this point I just try to have fun. It’s like we work hard all year, and you just try to, you write all these songs. I went in with my touring band this time. We just want to have fun, man, basically, yeah.
Tavis: You have as loyal a fan base as any artist I know, and every time you put something out people pack these clubs to come hear you and to see you do what you do.
What strikes me as fascinating about that over all the years we’ve been talking – I’ve been at this 11 seasons now, just here on PBS, and you’ve been here more times than I can count, more times than I can count. We’re always happy to have you come back.
Lee: Thanks, man.
Tavis: But it occurred to me for this conversation that you don’t really have a “signature song.”
Lee: Right. It’s true.
Tavis: Yet they keep coming, they keep coming, they keep coming. Does that concern you? Does it bother you? Is it never a thought in your mind?
Lee: I just feel lucky. I’m just grateful for, like, just so many things, man. I started out with Blue Note in 2003 or ’04, I signed with them, and with Bruce Lundvall, who signed Stanley Jordan, too.
Like, awesome artists, man, like, the first artist he ever signed. So man, I have the, work with best people, family work environment like your work environment is, and that’s the way it is for us, man.
Like, it’s just a family business, and we’ve just been running it since the very beginning, and that’s the way we’re going to run it until the very end. The more people come along, we’re happy to have.
But for us, it’s about the values of like this is our business, this is our love. I would love to have a signature song, I’d love to have something that, like, brings more people to the party, but man, it’s been growing slow because that’s what it is, it’s just a family business for us.
Tavis: So speaking of signature songs, tell me about your songwriting process, and when you sit down to put together a new project, and obviously every project is different, but I’m just trying to get a sense of what you’re after on any given project when it comes to the actual songwriting.
Lee: Yeah, I don’t really have much of an agenda with it. Like, it’s kind of whatever I’m feeling or thinking about during that time frame. That’s the kind of thing like doing the work that I do, it’s sort of not specific. Like if you’re a novelist, you have sort of themes that run throughout novels.
You start a novel and you finish a novel. Or a film, it’s kind of the same thing. With record-making in the singer-songwriter world or whatever it is that I do, it’s a little different because there is no, like, there’s no specific arc that is necessarily, like it’s not a concept record.
It’s just like these are snapshots of three minutes to four minutes of emotional stuff that I went through at a period, and I’m putting them all together. So if you look at the record, basically what we try to do, man, is just create a cool listening experience for people and put songs that are going to, when we play our show, people are going to want to hear them. That’s kind of it.
Tavis: Does a cool listening experience, to use your phrase, is that enough these days, or does it have to be a concept project? I raise that, since you raised it first, because I’ve talked to so many artists over the years, over the last few years, and it seems that these concept records are the things that everybody’s doing.
Tavis: So can you just put out a track, an album with 12 tracks on it that gives the audience a great listening experience and have that work?
Lee: I think that it is, it does seem like people are interested in, like it’s weird because it’s like there’s a dichotomy there. People love these, like, very cohesive, beautifully structured albums that really kind of sound together.
Then there’s the singles thing, where people just really want a song or two or three off of a record. I grew up working at a record store and listening to vinyl. Even if it’s side A and B, there’s always this continuity that really turned me on about music.
So I think it’s, like, weird, because you listen to records that are like these just beautiful streams, man. They start and it just flows, and when it ends, it’s almost like it never started.
But it’s also like the market stuff you hear, like, people buying music, it almost seems like singles, and the concept of an album doesn’t even interest people that much anymore. So it’s kind of weird.
Tavis: I followed everything you just said except for one thing. You lost me when you referred to something called a “record store.” (Laughter) What is a record store?
Lee: Yeah, man, I know, man, it’s such a drag. That place changed me, man. It’s like it was a vintage jazz record store, and people, it was –
Tavis: I really don’t know what that is.
Lee: I know, man. I know.
Tavis: A record store is one thing, but a vintage jazz record store?
Lee: I know.
Tavis: Like, what is that?
Lee: I know, it’s such a drag. Like, I mean, it’s cool that we have these devices that have every album ever made at our fingertips at all times, but I remember a couple times in particular going to get, going to buy “Voodoo” when it first came out, the “D’Angelo” record.
I was being excited to go to the record store, like I’m going to get up early, make sure it’s not sold out. There was something, like, cool about that, man, particular. Now it’s like you have the record before it comes out, or then you just stream it, and it’s like, it almost like – I hate to say it because it’s like a grand statement, but it almost devalues the experience a little bit.
Because there’s no, like, courting. You don’t have to court the record at all. You’re just, yeah, whatever, just stream it. It’s cool, you fall love with records still, but there’s no courting phase for albums.
Like there’s no, it’s like a show. Like I know, for instance, you love James Taylor, right? So you went to that Troubadour show. Tavis, you were excited, you know what I’m saying, man?
Tavis: Oh, yeah.
Lee: It was so cool.
Tavis: Too excited, yeah.
Tavis: “Sit down, Tavis, sit down.”
Lee: Right. So, like, how long ahead of time were you, like, just so psyched for that night? So it’s like the build-up for records is cool, but when it comes to the experience, it’s so immediate and it’s like just, you type something in and then you hit it, and it’s there.
It’s almost too easy or something. It’s not like it takes away from the love of music. People love music, they’re always going to love music, it’s our job to, like, consistently push ourselves as artists to keep delivering stuff for people to stay engaged with.
But as an experience, as a listener, for me, I miss the record store. I miss going in and knowing the guy at the counter and being like, “Hey,” knowing that he was going to hate the record I put on the counter, and still buying it. You know what I mean? That takes some guts.
Tavis: You’ve said two or three things now that I want to pick up on, and three things that make me, have my mind going in a bunch of different directions. In no particular order, number one –
Lee: Welcome to my ADD, Tavis.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, I got ADD too. (Laughter) You were talking about you don’t have to court the record anymore, but that’s a sign of our times. You ain’t got to court nobody no more.
Lee: I know, man.
Tavis: You can go online and download the record; you can go online and get a date. There’s no –
Lee: Yeah, the courting is over.
Tavis: The courting in America, the courtship of anything or anybody is over now.
Tavis: So that, I guess, is consistent in relationships, so why should it not be that way for music?
Tavis: The second thing I thought about was that you’re right, I do love James Taylor, but I also love Amos Lee, and I was in a conversation just the other day, even before I knew you were coming on the show.
A friend of mine is working on, finally Willie Nelson is doing his autobiography. A friend of mine, David Ritz – this may not even be public knowledge yet, but a friend of mine named David Ritz is doing the book with Willie Nelson.
I was saying to David just the other day that one of the great joys of my life, I will remember it and revel in it for as long as I live, was being asked to be the host of the 25th anniversary of Farm Aid.
Lee: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Tavis: You were on the bill that night
Tavis: Just standing in the shadows that night and watching all these great acts, from Willie to Neil Young to Mellencamp to Dave Matthews to Norah Jones – everybody was there – and to watch you that night on that stage in Milwaukee – do you remember this?
Lee: That was – man, I loved it.
Tavis: You killed that night. (Laughter) It was amazing. You killed it, just standing in the shadows watching you was one of the great joys of my life that night.
Lee: Thanks man. Right on.
Tavis: Just to watch you do your thing –
Lee: Thanks man.
Tavis: – at this stadium in Milwaukee. It was a great evening, and I’ll remember it as long as I live. Since we’re talking about the record store, what were your takeaways – you talked about being inside to go to the store to buy albums.
But what was your takeaway as a young man from having the experience of working inside of a records tore? I ask that because some of the coolest people I know are folk – Donnie Simpson, who was the guy on BET for years –
Lee: Yeah, I totally remember, yeah.
Tavis: – when I was on BET years ago, Donnie used to work at a record store in Detroit, and he became a great DJ, became a great radio host, a great TV guy. But it all started for Donnie Simpson working in this record store in Detroit. So what’s your takeaway from working in a record store?
Lee: It all started for me in that record store. It’s called Papa Jazz Records in Columbia, South Carolina, and I was just walking by one day and I saw a “help wanted” sign.
I was like, “I’ll never work there because I’m not cool enough.” But they hired me, and I started working six-hour shifts, and I was working five days a week. The coolest, man, the coolest part about it was Tim, the owner, would just let us bring records home, whatever we wanted.
So that was kind of where I first became acquainted with “Donny Hathaway Live” or Coltrane “Live at the Vanguard,” Eric Dolphy, just so much music that took me, as a young writer, it was very discouraging, but it also took me to a place where I was like, this is the power that music has.
Like when you listen to Dolphy or you listen to that “Donny Hathaway Live” record, you can’t help – for me, I couldn’t help but be blown apart a little bit.
Tavis: If “Donny Hathaway Live” doesn’t move your soul, you are soulless.
Lee: Yeah, pretty much.
Tavis: God help you.
Tavis: If you listen to that and it doesn’t touch your spirit, then –
Lee: Pretty much.
Tavis: – yeah, you can’t be helped.
Lee: That’s true. (Laughter)
Tavis: Before I let you go, tell me about – we’ve talked about everything except the album in particular. Tell me about “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song.”
Lee: Yeah, it’s a collection of songs that we went – I really wanted to work with my band, my life band, because during the “Mission Bell” record and touring cycle, they put in so much good work, and we really came together as a unit.
They’re great to work with, man, so my idea was just to go to Nashville and work with Jay Joyce and record with those guys. The title song is written about Levon Helm, who – did you ever get a chance to have Levon on?
Tavis: I don’t think so.
Lee: Yeah –
Tavis: Maybe on my radio show, I think, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Lee: Yeah, a huge inspiration, man. Like I went, we did a show at the Ramble that he had, and he wasn’t well. He had a serious illness, and he kept giving it, you know what I mean?
Kept giving it in a real way, like there was no fade about him. So it was just a beautiful thing to be around, and an inspiration to me as, like, a dude who’s a little bit younger, going like, all right, man, well, that’s the mission. You’re going to be giving your whole life, so just get used to it.
Tavis: I love that. I was about to ask what the takeaway was from that experience, but you just told me, and there couldn’t be a greater lesson, I think, to learn from watching somebody giving it up all the way to the end, as I suspect you’ll be doing.
Lee: I hope.
Tavis: Yeah. He’s doing it now. His name is Amos Lee, of course. The new project is called “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song.” Wonderful project. I think you will love it.
And if you ever, trust me, if you ever get a chance to see Amos Lee in concert, do yourself a favorite and go check this brother out. Amos, always good to have you on.
Lee: Love. Thanks, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to see you, man. Love you back. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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