The Weekly interview: Singer-songwriter Amos Lee

Chris Bitonti

Listening to the new record, one of the first things I noticed was what seemed to be a more prevalent bluegrass influence. I think having my touring band around put that in there, but I’m trying to think why that would be. I think you’re probably right, there is definitely more banjos and ukuleles and mandolins—not that the ukulele is a bluegrass instrument, but it’s something other than guitar, bass, electric guitar, drums. I wouldn’t necessarily call it bluegrass, because to me bluegrass is a genre that you really need to know how to play to call yourself that, and I definitely don’t think we’re that. I think we have elements of it for sure, and I think we respect that music a lot. A lot of the guys in the band are very traditional-minded—they love the old songs, old Irish music, old English ballads, lots of Appalachian songs, and I think just being around that type of music and having those folks in the band really influences the outcome of the records.

This was the first time you invited your touring band into the studio with you to record an album, October’s Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song. Why? I just love playing with them. We’re having fun, and I think that the musicianship level is really high. We spent the large part of 2011 touring together and developing a camaraderie and a musical understanding of each other that I really thought would translate to the studio.

Is switching up your studio approach a key to keeping your process from getting stale? Recording for me is all experimentation and learning. It’s kind of interesting to get in there with different people every time and walk away with different perspectives. I loved working with the Calexico guys a lot, and I probably would have done the record with them again, but they were busy. I just really have a lot of respect for [Calexico’s] Joey [Burns’] musicality—the way that he hears arrangements and the way that he approaches songs from a really sensitive place. He actually gives a sh*t about what he’s doing, and John [Convertino] is the same way. I just love playing music with them.

I think consistency is something everybody wants. If you’re going to develop a career where you have longevity, it is a pretty hard battle for some of us. I’m not saying I’ve been some orphan child out in the middle of the road and nobody loves me, but I’ve had my set of battles within keeping music available to people and pushing myself in ways that I may not have before. But it’s a grind, man. I gotta stay on the road, I gotta stay making records. I love the process of it, and I love the people I work with, so the bottom line to all of this is I feel really lucky for all these opportunities.

You really started breaking out during a singer-songwriter revival, and over the years a lot of those artists have dropped off while you’ve been able to maintain and grow your audience. To what do you attribute that? I think first and foremost, my fans are amazing. They’re really earnest about saying, “Hey man, I love the music you make.” They are always telling me that they’re telling people. And the people that I work with on the other side of the wall are incredibly passionate and committed people—I give a lot of credit to them for trying to keep me visible and out of the shadows that I like to lurk in.

Trying to stay committed to putting out music that feels right and real to me, that is kind of all I’ve done the whole time. I just tried to approach things from an angle of respect for music. That’s kind of what it comes down to for me: I love making music. You know how some people fall in love with people and love them forever? That’s kind of what happened to me with music, so I’m just trying to stay committed to that relationship and stay honest to it.

You’ll be playing the Smith Center here. How does a performing arts center compare to a normal rock venue for you? I’m happy to sit in somebody’s living room or in the corner of a bar somewhere, but from an experience standpoint I think those performing arts centers are really beautiful. It’s built for that experience, to direct vibrational acoustic transmission. Here’s what we’re doing—we want to give it to you in the purest way possible. It’s kind of like a palace of sound.

Collaboration seems to play a big role in your music. The new album has guest appearances from Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin, among others, and you mentioned the Calexico guys you worked with on the previous record. What is about collaborating in the studio that you’re drawn to? I think, because so much of my creative experience as a songwriter has been so singular, being able to go outward and experience music with people who are kind of in the same mind-set is a release. It’s like being on a mountain by yourself for a long time and then walking down to the valley and going, “Oh, there are other people too that enjoy this same thing that I do.”

Amos Lee February 25, 7:30 p.m., $29-$48. Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall, 749-2000.

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