Apologies for quoting Dave Matthews in a story about Amos Lee, but it was Matthews who penned the line, "Somebody's broken heart becomes your favorite song." That sentiment could easily apply to "Windows Are Rolled Down," the single from Lee's 2011 release, Mission Bell. As musician/road warrior Lee has recounted in a number of interviews, the song came about after a serious girlfriend left him (in an ironic twist) to go on tour. But to the uninitiated listener, it's just a good, sweeping, open-road song. Landscapes, horizons, dusks and dawns: yes. Wrenching heartbreak: not so much.
"A lot of the songs that are written in that vein are songs that just couldn't be figured out any other way. They were still hanging in the balance," says Lee. "I wouldn't say it’s joyful to revisit stuff like that, but for the most part I feel really fortunate to be able to sift through my emotions in that way and give new meaning to it."
Mission is a gorgeously rendered (if somewhat moody) collection. Lee's fourth studio album, it's also his most fully realized to date. If the musician's heart is on his sleeve, it's his acoustic soul style that's laid bare, revealed over and over in nuanced expressions. This is perhaps most apparent on back-to-back tracks "Violin" (an achingly raw number featuring Iron & Wine's Sam Beam) and "Flower" (a warm, easy, "Melissa"-esque send-up of love's restorative powers). But there's a unifying force to Mission, namely producer Joey Burns, who anchored the album with members of his own band, Calexico.
"I think Joey and John [Convertino] and everybody who was involved in the recording — we all have that shared commonality of wanting to have a nice balance between the ebb and the flow of what's happening sonically," says Lee. "I've always enjoyed those bands and records that take you in different directions and there's no one forceful way about it. Joey and John particularly have this incredible understanding of space. Joey has a gift to be able to orchestrate and manipulate sound subtly that moves you in a big way."
He adds, "I like that idea of doing less and getting more."
Of course Lee doesn't really do less. Since his debut in 2005 (he got his start a year earlier when Norah Jones invited him to open for her) he's been steadily touring, playing the requisite late shows (The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show and Austin City Limits) and landing TV placements for his songs (Grey's Anatomy, ER and Brothers & Sisters). And he's accomplished this by writing the kind of songs that slice — with the total devastation of a Santoku blade — to the core of human emotion. ("You used to be so beautiful, but you lost it somewhere along the way. You used to be so beautiful, but it's easy now to walk away," he sings on "Hello Again.")
"I think it's part of my makeup at this point," says Lee. "I made a choice to open up that part of myself to the world." He does point out that there's a degree of vulnerability inherent in the performance which "makes you have to be pretty careful and cautious about how much stuff you let in. You want to keep as much of the the sanctity of your creative mind together as possible."
Beyond that admission, he's hard-pressed to find fault with his profession. He says that in the early years he often became rattled, which affected the way he approached shows. "Since then I've gotten on firmer ground," says Lee. "There's just too much to be grateful for. I've gotten to make a choice about what I want to do with my days. I don't know what more you can ask for in life."
On Mission, Lee has a couple of guests — Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson who lend their voices to "Clear Blue Eyes" and "El Camino (Reprise)" respectively — who've parlayed Lee's current trajectory into decades-long careers. So does Lee consider either to be role models? "Anybody's who's staying out there and making records and playing hard is somebody I consider a role model," he says. "I respect anybody who lasts out there on the road past a few years. I won't walk into a room ever, no matter if I like their music or not, and not have respect for somebody who's just gone through it. No matter what your arc is, it takes perseverance."
Lee says that there are many reasons to quit performing and really just one reason to keep going: "That you love to do it," he says. "The people who come out and help you to reconnect to these songs you've sung a million times — it's a continual resourcing of energy."
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Amos Lee (with Sonia Leigh)
where: The Orange Peel
when: Tuesday, May 17 (8 p.m., $33 advance/$35 doors. theorangepeel.net)