Singer-songwriter Amos Lee

Singer-songwriter discusses his latest CD and the painful experience that inspired the song ‘Jesus;’ he also performs a track from the new project.

In February '04, Amos Lee was tending bar at a club in his native Philly. Six months later, he was playing to a sold-out crowd at the same spot and has opened shows for Bob Dylan, B.B. King and Norah Jones. The elementary schoolteacher-turned-singer-songwriter began playing acoustic guitar and writing songs while attending the University of South Carolina. Since his self-titled debut CD in '05, his work has also been heard on numerous TV shows, including Grey's Anatomy and Brothers & Sisters, and his recent release, "Mission Bell," is his fourth album.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Amos Lee back to this program. The talented musician has just released his latest CD. The new disc is called “Mission Bell” and features artists like Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams. 
In a moment he’ll perform a track from the project, but first, some of the video for the song, “Jesus.”
Tavis: That’s a cold piece, Amos, that’s a cold piece.
Amos Lee: (Laughs) Thanks, man.
Tavis: “I have never felt so alone, Jesus, can you help me now.”
Lee: Yeah. Yeah. I wrote that the day my grandfather died. It’s really about him, more than anything else. I don’t even know if that’s how he was feeling at the time, but that’s sure how I was feeling for him.
Tavis: Does one ever struggle, does Amos Lee ever struggle with being so open about that kind of lyrical content? We live in a world where nobody wants to be preached to. There’s always that line between being daring and proselytizing. I love the track. Did you have any second thoughts about it once you put it down?
Lee: To me, it’s just all storytelling. It’s a character and a feeling, there’s nothing more to it than that for me, other than, like, somebody lives with conviction. That, to me, is – that’s what I want to write about. Those are the people that I want to be around.
Tavis: This is the fourth project.
Lee: It is.
Tavis: Number four.
Lee: Yeah.
Tavis: How do you distinguish the fourth one from the first, the second and the third, or is there a groove that you’re in now and you’re comfortable there?
Lee: No, there’s a distinction for sure. The first record’s kind of always like a magical thing because first of all, you don’t really know what you’re doing. Nobody’s told you anything good, bad, or indifferent, really, about it, you know what I mean? (Laughter) So you’re just kind of going with it.
The second and third, really, for me was finding my feet. I look back on them and there’s some stuff I really love on them and there’s some stuff I’m not as crazy about, and this time I went in and I wanted to make sure I had this song, so I feel like this time, the songs are more – it’s a better idea from the beginning to the end. There’s consistency there.
I think the songwriting has grown in a lot of ways, and as a performer I feel more comfortable in the studio than I did the second and third records, for sure.
Tavis: What is it that you are hearing that you’re not so happy about, and how does it feel to process your way through that?
Lee: Yeah. Well, for the second and third records especially, there were some songs that I wrote that weren’t really done. They were kind of done but they weren’t really done, and there was sort of a want to follow up a record with a record, and I always want to put recordings out, I always want to put the music out there for people, but there were songs that weren’t ready, and I put them out there when they weren’t ready.
Tavis: When you say a song is not ready or it’s not done, I know what that means in the kitchen – you put something in the oven, you pull it out, you can check it and see whether it’s done. How does one do that with a record, with a song?
Lee: I don’t really know that there’s any real rules for songwriting. For me, it’s just that when I go back and listen to it I can hear there are places in songs where the lyric wasn’t quite formed yet or maybe the bridge wasn’t quite right or whatever it might have been.
But it helped me on this record to really sit down with these songs and to get in the studio with an eye for not only lyrical content but also arrangement, because the arrangement ultimately helps the lyric. So, yeah.
Tavis: Can you, can Amos Lee hear Amos Lee getting better on project number four?
Lee: It feels better to me. The record itself feels solid. I feel like there’s never a moment when I’m listening to the album where I’m straying off into negative-land, where I’m going, like, “Oh, man, I can’t believe that happened.” But ultimately, I think it was because of the sort of preparation I made with the songs more than anything else.
I’m not sure if you can watch yourself on TV or if you go back and watch old episodes and kind of –
Tavis: I try not to.
Lee: Right, exactly, right. (Laughter) Exactly, so it’s kind of like that for me, too. So hopefully in a year or two if I see you I’m not like, “Oh, man, that fourth record.” (Laughter)
Tavis: I don’t know when and where we’ll see each other a couple of years from now, but I know where we saw each other last.
Lee: Yeah.
Tavis: It was at Farm-Aid.
Lee: Yeah, man.
Tavis: Big Farm-Aid. It’s always a great event, but last year, 2010, the 25th anniversary of Farm-Aid. I was honored to – had been asked by John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Dave Matthews to host it, so I was honored to be the host of it last year, and of course we saw each other there and you killed it at Farm-Aid last year.
Lee: Thanks, man.
Tavis: You killed that performance. I see that you got your friend Willie Nelson on this project.
Lee: Yeah, yeah. I got lucky. What happened was I wrote these songs and had – I did a lot of singing on my records before that was just kind of me doing the backgrounds, and this time I wanted to incorporate some other voices just to sort of vary it up a little bit. I just had a wishlist of people, and everybody said yes so it worked out great for me.
But then they asked me to play Farm-Aid and he came out and did “El Camino” with me, and what can you say?
Tavis: Well, what I can say is you killed it. (Laughter) It was a great performance.
Lee: Thanks, man.
Tavis: Speaking of legends, you spent some time with one of my friends, Bill Withers, one of your idols, and what did Withers tell you about songwriting, since he’s awfully good at it?
Lee: Oh, boy. We talked about a lot of things. It was a long, it was a great talk. He’s just a great dude. He didn’t really say much about songwriting, because at the end he basically was just like, “I’ve heard what you do, and it’s cool,” basically. (Laughter) That’s it.
I don’t know that as a songwriter you really ever want to be telling another person what they’re supposed to be doing anyway. There’s this whole culture now that’s all about weighing in on everything, and I don’t know, you’ve just got to trust that people are going to learn on their own, I guess, sometimes, and if you have something real meaningful to say, maybe then.
Tavis: Yeah, but when folk, as is the case with you, when folk like Willie Nelson weigh in, when folk like Bob Dylan weigh in and say that you’re one of the great songwriters of your generation, that’s the kind of weigh-in you want if you’re going to have a weigh-in.
Lee: Well, if you’re going to weigh in, yeah, you should weigh in there.
Tavis: Yeah. If you’re going to weigh in, you’re going to want it from Dylan and Nelson.
Lee: Yeah.
Tavis: So I have in my hand, I got the regular version, the CD, and I’ve got the – bam – I got the LP. So you did the LP thing this time.
Lee: Yeah, just for the DJs, for the party kids out there that want to mix it up. I love vinyl, man. I started really listening on vinyl. I like getting it out and putting it on and turning it over. I have a friend of mine who’s a little bit older than me who said that back in the day, he was doing his business and sometimes that broke the moment a little bit, turning the record over, but I like it. I like the idea. I love it.
Tavis: So have you heard Amos Lee remixed, to your point, and actually liked it?
Lee: No, I want to, I want to. No, I would love for people to remix some songs of mine. I’ve been waiting for that. But I’m sure I’d like it. I used to – I don’t do it as much anymore. I used to go on YouTube all the time and watch people cover the songs, because it’s like sometimes for me, it’s like when you sit around too much and you’re too dwelling on what you’re doing, it’s real refreshing to go on and listen to other people take on your songs and sing them. It revives the joy in them for me.
Tavis: What’s funny about your point about going on YouTube now is that you go on YouTube right now – this thing is just dropping and there are already folk on YouTube covering your stuff already. How is that possible? The record is just dropping.
Lee: Well, it’s a different age, man. They probably had my record before I had it. (Laughter)
Tavis: You go on YouTube, literally, you can see people – there are a couple folk covering Amos Lee’s stuff already, and the project is just coming out.  So I suspect that means in the months and years to come, a whole lot of folk will be covering stuff on this project.
It’s the fourth one, it’s a good one. From Amos Lee, it’s called “Mission Bell.” Glad to have Amos back on this program. Up next, a special performance from Amos Lee. Amos, good to have you here.
Lee: Thanks, Tavis, always a pleasure.
Tavis: My pleasure.
From his critically acclaimed new CD “Mission Bell,” here is Amos Lee performing “Windows are Rolled Down.” Enjoy.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm