By Brent Thompson
With a style incorporating elements of folk, rock and soul, Amos Lee offers a timeless sound that also rings fresh and unique. In 2018, the singer/songwriter released My New Moon (Dualtone Records), a 10-track collection produced by Tony Berg (Andrew Bird, Joshua Radin). Featuring appearances by Benmont Tench and Greg Leisz among others, the album has been described as Lee’s most personal body of work. On Friday, March 15, Lee will perform at the Alabama Theatre. Recently, he spoke with us by phone from Los Angeles.
Birmingham Stages: Amos, thanks for your time. Has the current leg of the tour started yet?
Amos Lee: We start on March 8 in Nashville at The Ryman. I’m in Los Angeles – I’m out here working on some new music.
Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about the creation of My New Moon. Were the songs newer compositions, older ones or a mixture of both?
Lee: Let me think about that for a second. Most of it was pretty new. I think that – as an artist who has gotten on in the stage of my career – I don’t have that 50 or 60-song suitcase that I can pull out of the closet that’s still in there from my early days. So, you have to regenerate your ideas more quickly which I think is interesting as a writer because everybody talks about the first album and how you have a lifetime to write that and then the next album is more of a challenge. I’ve definitely had ups and downs in my process, but a great thing about this record for me was working with Tony Berg who produced the album. We spent a lot of time beforehand working on the songs and arrangements. Plus, I’m a dog – I work. I’m always writing and I’m always trying to create and collaborate with people. It’s not something that I have to try to do – I’m just always doing it. Those are things that have kept me inspired and motivated – I love what I do. It really helps to get in front of crowd like Birmingham and have the feedback from people that says, “We feel the same way you do about it.”
Birmingham Stages: With the catalog of material you’ve amassed, how do you comprise your set lists these days?
Lee: Honestly, I’m still working that out after all these years because what I find happens is I’m continuously falling back on the songs I know people really want to hear, but at the same time I want to make it more diverse. I don’t always know what songs I don’t play that people really want to hear and I want to keep the set dynamic and up-tempo as much as we can but I have so many mid-tempo and down-tempo songs. I don’t want it to get too morose. I have to balance all that stuff out.
Birmingham Stages: My New Moon has been called your most personal album to date. You also speak to the current political climate on it. Do you feel exposed or anxious when releasing material that hits close to home or do you feel a sense of relief in getting it out in the open?
Lee: My interest artistically is to be as straightforward and honest as I can with whatever songs are coming to me. The reason that [these] songs are about what they’re about is because that’s what I was living through at the time. I think that every batch of songs will hopefully be the same way. The problems are universal and our journey as a country – forging a complete identity – has always been a challenge in the United States. It’s a country that was born from many different places. I have a lot of faith that things are going to get better, but we started from a place that needed a lot of work. I think politically whatever allows you to look into yourself and forge forward and create a more cohesive country interests me. I try to come from a place of connection. Everyone has their own angle and everyone’s ideology is their own for a very specific reason.
The thing about music is that you can connect people and you can unite people [in a manner] that maybe you can’t approach outside of music. I sing about something that conversationally might not be appealing to you. From a musical standpoint, there’s rhythm, there’s melody, there’s harmony – there’s a way for these messages to be more connected than in a simple conversation. That’s my hope at least – when you leave the show, we’re more connected than when we came. That’s my whole interest as an artist. I’m there to serve the music every night.
Birmingham Stages: You’re cover version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” made a real impact. It was originally released nearly 50 years ago but remains relevant to these times. Stylistically, the song’s a good fit for you as your sound has always had a soulful element.
Lee: It’s funny because I was doing a Sirius XM show and they were like, “Do you know any covers?” and I was like, “I really only know one; I might know two.” I don’t know a lot of covers so it worked out pretty well. That whole era – there was a forging of new ideas into what was part of a genre before and Marvin Gaye embodied that as well as anybody, especially because there was resistance to his ideas from Berry Gordy. Marvin was like, “This is what I’m doing.” The business side had to accept it and it changed the culture and it changed the way music is appreciated.
Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process typically work? Do you write on the road?
Lee: I find it harder to write on the road because I’m putting so much energy into the shows. My whole day is about trying to make that hour and a half show the best show it can be. I try to give myself up completely to the performance.
Amos Lee will perform at the Alabama Theatre on Friday, March 15. Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. show are $37.50 – $57.50 and can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com.