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Amos Lee: From Tucson to Nashville

Following his chart breakthrough, the singer-songwriter returns with a more playful full-length cut with his touring band

By Alanna Nash
Special to MSN Music

Willie Nelson calls him "an exceptional artist, unique to his generation." His last album, 2011's "Mission Bell," spurred by its Triple A radio hit "Windows Are Rolled Down," debuted at No.1 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums and Rock Albums charts. And for a Philly kid, he's been embraced by Nashville in a big way, with Americana and mainstream country acts such as Zac Brown Band, Lady Antebellum and the Band Perry singing his praises and inviting him onstage. And yet in the following interview, Amos Lee (born Ryan Anthony Massaro), 36, seems to think nobody much knows who he is. His fifth album, "Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song," out Oct. 8, typically filled with portraits of characters with their backs up against the wall, may change all that.

MSN Music: You have a new producer, Jay Joyce, and you recorded in Nashville using your touring band. Why did you want to fix what wasn't broken?

Amos Lee: Well, I love all the folks that I worked with in Tucson on the last album, but Nashville is a pretty great place with a lot of good studios. My record budgets aren't huge, so it's nice to be able to go there and work with a quality guy like Jay. And I really wanted to use my touring band because I never got a chance to make a record with them, and I knew they would do a great job. From the moment we stepped in, it was just about, "Let's get good takes. Let's not let anything get in between the moment and the mix."

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Is that why you cut everything live?

I also sing better live. I don't really do well with overdubbing. It feels slightly unnatural to me. And I've learned to scale back and not over-sing as much. I've never really been a crazy, acrobatic vocalist. But I've learned to settle in the song a little better. I can get a one-take vocal. Or if it's not one take, it's two takes.

How does this album differ sonically from the last?

Some of the arrangement ideas are a little more playful, especially in "Plain View," or "Scamps," where we used instrumentation like the banjitar. Some of these more odd instruments, like a mandocello, bring out different flavors and colors in the songs.

Patty Griffin and Alison Krauss make guest appearances. How did you choose them?

Well, they're two of my favorite singers around. I was in the studio with Alison, but not Patty. I'd left already, and she was in Austin, so we just sent her the music. Alison is just such a pure singer. If Mother Earth had a voice, that would be it. It's so rich and beautiful, like clear water. I wonder sometimes about singers who play stringed instruments, if their pitch is so good because they have such training. Because there are no frets on a fiddle, and you have to be right on with it. Your voice might become a little bit more focused because of that. Either way, she's magical.

Since "Mission Bell" debuted at number one, was it daunting going into this one?

Let's start with the whole chart thing. First of all, I was super-surprised that that happened. I don't even know what to make of it. I've never had a big radio hit or commercial success, and I'm not a hugely popular artist. So it's not really about chasing that down. The vision that I've always had is to just try to put out good music and facilitate a catalogue so I could keep touring.

There aren't as many autobiographical songs on the new record.

No, not really. "Mission Bell" was almost purely an autobiographical record. I'm writing more about other people on this one, and looking at things from an outside perspective. But I guess they're all autobiographical in their own way. It's like Charlie Parker said: "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." None of the songs are really about me, but I always felt outside of stuff in my own way, so I certainly have always been drawn to outcasts -- people who just don't fit quite right. The person in the room who you see is really cool but doesn't know how to communicate with other people.

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Levon Helm and his Midnight Ramble sessions inspired the title song, "Mountains of Sorrow."

Yeah. I spent a lot of time touring in 2011, and I got into a place of real self-loathing, and didn't feel like I was deserving. I wasn't enjoying it at all, and I just wasn't feeling it. And so we went to do the Ramble in Woodstock with Levon, and he wasn't well at the time. We sat right behind his [drum] kit, and I walked around watching him, and it was like a light switch turned on. I went, "Holy, s---, I'm missing the whole point of this thing! This dude is playing with so much joy and love. It's all selfless." That's the kind of artist I aspire to be. Just stick with music and never forget the spirit of it. Levon never gave up on music. When you listen to his solo albums, you realize how deep all that stuff ran with him.

You started out as a second-grade teacher.

Yeah, I wanted to give back, because I have been given so much love in my life. But teaching was running me down. I'd get up at 6 in the morning, put on a suit and tie, drive an hour each way, and work eight- or ten-hour days. And my paycheck was like, nothin'! I could barely afford rent. I respect teachers a lot. If you show me a teacher who's lasted more than two or three years, I'll show you a strong and awesome human being. But it just wasn't my thing.

You initially wanted to be a basketball player.

Hell, yeah. Definitely! The problem is, I just wasn't good at it. It's funny, because music was never really a dream for me. But basketball was something that struck me pretty hard, and I loved it. I would play eight or 10 hours a day, every day. And the thing that was frustrating about it is I never got better. It was pretty sad, because it's my first love. Not being good enough for your first love ain't a good feeling.

So music is your fallback?

Well, music is just the thing I was good at. I fell in love with music, too. But if I had been decent enough to play ball, I probably would have just gone into that, and coached.

You seem so melancholy on your records, and yet in real life, you seem anything but.

Sometimes the songs are sadder because they're just the moments that come through. I write other music, too. Funny stuff. Silly things. You just don't hear it. (Laugh) It's more personal stuff for me. But I felt like this record had a little bit less of a serious tone. Now, "Mission Bell" is a serious record. There was a lot of melancholy there. I'm drawn to other people's sorrows. I like to reach out to people through my songs, and a lot of times people need comforting. Most musicians are just trying to lend a hand -- ease up people's suffering, and maybe their own at the same time.

Alanna Nash is a New York Times best-selling ghostwriter and author. She has also written scores of magazine articles for Vanity Fair, People, Rolling Stone, USA Weekend, and Entertainment Weekly. Her office is lit by two lamps that once adorned the living room of Graceland, and she saw the Beatles live in concert three times.

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