For Amos Lee, the key to his fourth album, Mission Bell, was time—taking the time to reflect, to write, and to record songs that lived up to his own expectations.
“My last two records were a little rushed, because I was touring so much and running around a lot,” he says. “On this one, I took a year and a half and I just sat at home and wrote. I spent more time alone with these songs than I ever did in the past,” he continues, “which I think was really helpful. It was like going to a yard sale or a thrift store—you go through the first time and you might see something, but then you have to keep going back and forth because you always find something else there.”
The result is Lee’s richest and most fully formed album to date. Mission Bell, which was produced by Joey Burns of the acclaimed band Calexico, displays both range and cohesion, an array of emotions unified by Lee’s eclectic taste and distinctive vocals. With a remarkable set of guests—including Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), James Gadson, Priscilla Ahn, and Pieta Brown—and the musical backing of Calexico, the album marks the arrival of Amos Lee as a mature artist who continues to explore his musical and thematic interests.
Songs like “Windows are Rolled Down” and “Flower” capture moments that are achingly personal, while “Stay” and “Out of the Cold” speak to Lee’s own confrontations with mortality, growing out of experiences with his own fans and performing at hospitals as part of the Musicians On Call program.
“There's a real spirituality and searching element to a lot of these songs,” says Lee, who has evolved into one of the most important and prolific songwriters of our time, a point that’s driven home by the presence of legends such as Williams and Nelson, who were eager to interpret Lee’s songs.
“Great songwriters don’t come around that often,” states Nelson. “Amos is an exceptional artist, a true story teller, unique to his generation.” Williams was similarly impressed: “Amos Lee knows how to use his voice to tell a story with a hint of mystery as he does so beautifully in the compelling ‘Clear Blue Eyes.’”
However, the most obvious change on Mission Bell is the album’s intimate yet expansive sound, which Lee credits to Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico. After a chance meeting in Vienna, Austria, a few years ago, the idea came up for Lee to go out to the band’s Wavelab studio in Tucson and try some recording.
“The musicality that those guys bring is amazing,” says Lee. “It was especially nice to work with John and get a very different texture rhythmically. They’re great at creating atmosphere—sonically, they brought a beautiful dimension into a lot of the songs, and helped them to expand and breathe more.”
The singer notes that the arrangements and instrumentation had a dramatic effect on some of the songs. “On ‘Hello Again,’ they built the bed of the song out of nylon guitars, vibes, strings and all this other stuff. It’s a grouping of instruments that’s sort of all over the place, but Wavelab is nice for that because there are instruments everywhere, so nothing ever seems impossible. ‘Clear Blue Eyes’ started out as a real straight, country gospel kind of thing, but when they got ahold of it, it got very atmospheric.”
Also on for the ride on about half of Mission Bell’s songs is the great R&B drummer James Gadson, who has recorded with Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock, Beck, and countless others. “I’ve worked with James on three out of my four records,” says Lee. “He’s always a steady, positive influence.” In addition, Gadson added a powerful vocal to the song “Jesus” after Lee heard him singing along to a playback. “I was like ‘Man, you gotta lay that down!’ He’s a strong, real singer, and I wanted to represent that.”
Since the release of the Amos Lee album in 2005, the Philadelphia-born and –based former schoolteacher has been one of his generation’s most celebrated songwriters. After being named one of Rolling Stone’s “Top 10 Artists to Watch,” Lee quickly went on to tour with such giants as Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Paul Simon, and Elvis Costello.
His next two albums—Supply and Demand (2006) and Last Days at the Lodge (2008)—continued to extend his audience and his reputation, and his songs appeared in numerous films and television shows. With a sound that’s rooted in both folk and soul, Lee has often been compared to artists like James Taylor and Bill Withers, though he says that his own sensibility is shaped by an ever-widening range of influences.
“As a songwriter, you have to be singular, you have to listen to your own voice,” he says. “But I listen to a lot of different music, and a lot of stuff really inspires me, and I want to do it all. There are fundamental records that I always go back, like Bonnie Raitt's Taking My Time. But I’m way more into Primus and Ween now. I’m open to everything—we just did a show where Hatebreed was playing in the other room, and the energy that was happening in there was amazing.”
Mission Bell is a dramatic leap forward for Amos Lee’s music, but it also feels like the first step in a new creative journey. The collaborations on the album have clearly opened up new horizons for the singer-songwriter. “The idea of playing and singing with other people is really interesting to me at this point in my career,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time focused on just doing this thing with my guitar, and there’s no reason not to open it up.”