Ask Amos Lee a simple question and he’ll give you a poetic answer. What prompted his new songs, heard to rich relief on his fourth album, Mission Bell?
“Through the hardship,” Lee muses, “through the travel, through the commitment, and through the compromise, there are relics that survive. Like the mission bell, that’s what rings out to ensure people to be present in the moment and to understand what they are. These songs are what remained after some of the hardships that created these songs.”
Amos Lee speaks often of being “in the moment,” but Mission Bell evokes feelings of reflection, travel, and epic circumstances. Produced by Calexico’s Joey Burns, engineered by Craig Schultz, and mixed by Craig Schumacher at his WaveLab Studios in Tucson, Mission Bell recalls ’70s folk stylists Eric Anderson, Jesse Winchester, and seminal country rock icon Tracy Nelson. As always, Lee’s high tenor is key to his rangy songs.
“Always, I am just trying to be present,” Lee says. “Not thinking too much. In the studio, you can get real ahead of yourself. Or behind yourself. What you’re supposed to be doing, all that stuff. I’ve learned that the less focused I am on what the end part is supposed to be, the better off I am. We record a lot live; I don’t do a lot of overdubbing. I don’t like to comp too much; it’s tedious. I’m fine with imperfection some of the time. Especially if it’s for the performance.”
Recording vocal and guitar tracks live with Calexico, treating different takes as versions to be improved upon or dismissed, Lee didn’t really bother with preparation; he has prepared all his life. “I never warm up,” Lee says. “I probably should; I just don’t do it. Warming up to record vocals is just part of what you do every day. If we start at noon, I am not going to sit in a room and make all those funny sounds. Not going to do it. If we have to sing through a song a couple times and then take a break, maybe that’s what it is. It’s more of getting into the moment of the music.
“Half of the record we recorded, I was pretty sick with a virus,” Lee adds. “I was sneezing and coughing all over everybody. But I just sang through it. I hate to sound simplistic, but I didn’t care. I knew the songs would come through. I don’t shout in the studio, I just want to serve the songs. We wanted to capture performances so that everything had its place in the music, and the vocal was just part of that. The song is the instrument.”