Amos Lee on Levon Helm: "Levon's Got the Truth Here, and You Need to Understand It"
Amos Lee oozes passion. The singer-songwriter's enthusiasm for life really comes through in his new album Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song. While Mountains might not have reached the lofty status of landing on the top of Billboard's charts as his previous release, Mission Bell, the new record takes bigger risks experimenting with different musical genres while landing gracefully on its feet.
New Times had a chance to speak with Amos about the new album and tour which brings him to Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse on April 4. During the interview, it quickly became evident that music was not the only topic Lee was passionate about as the conversation veered toward his love for his hometown of Philadelphia and showering praise on people he's worked alongside.
While Lee mentioned several times the travelling required to tour could bring him down, he just as often verbalized his appreciation that he can make a living from his music, and thus tries to give back to those less fortunate. One dollar from every ticket sold will go toward Musicians on Call, a charity which brings live and recorded music to the bedsides of patients in healthcare facilities.
New Times: What can audiences expect on your new tour?
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Amos Lee: We're trying to incorporate a pretty good balance between all five records. Mostly we're trying to vary up instrumentation and play some covers. I think it will be a lot different from the last time we went on tour.
You got your start playing open mic nights. How did that shape your skills as a performer?
It was a fun way for me to experiment with stuff. It was a great way for me to try out songs. I try to keep that spirit of wonder that open mics usually have.
And that was in Philadelphia. Are the open mic audiences as harsh as the city's sports fans are known to be?
Why do we get such a bad rap, man? (laughs) We're hard on our teams, but if you win in Philly, you're a god. Philly's a tough town, but it's got a big heart. It's a beautiful place to be from, and that's not just me shooting my lip off, I think it's a great town. Our sports fans get a bad rap. The national media likes to talk about how they threw batteries at Santa Claus one time or whatever. People do crazy stuff.
I can relate. South Florida sports fans also get a bad rap.
My friend who's a Miami Heat fan explained that to me. The lower bowl is empty because there's crazy traffic getting to the games.
I saw on your website you had a way to get fans to go early to your shows on your last tour with a contest that if they won, they could hang out with you during soundcheck.
It's fun. We try to find interesting ways to get our fans involved to show them that we're really committed to the process and offering them things that they might not be able to get. We had a contest a couple years ago where if you signed up online you could play whiffle ball with us. I think it's cool to give people a glimpse of the insides of a band, how they work on arrangements and the minutia of working out sound.
How is touring for you?
I kind of like it. I love playing music. The travelling can be tiresome at times because it's constant. I feel very lucky to be in the position I'm in and I sacrificed a lot in my life to play music. I sacrificed a lot for a few years to this music thing to try to stay committed and keep it on this level.
You've worked in the past with some legends who have spent a lifetime committed to music. Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson and on the new album Allison Krauss, what have you learned from them?
I'm just more in awe of them, than learning from them. You sit in a room and listen to them and you're like, "Oh, my God, there's people out there that are just so damn good." I wouldn't say I could learn from them because they're geniuses, you just appreciate them.
What inspired the new album, Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song?
The title track is a song about appreciating what Levon Helm brought to us when he did his Ramble. There's been a lot of people along the way that really inspired me as a writer and as a performer. The night we did the Midnight Rambles at Levon's home was as important a performance as I ever caught. He wasn't that well, but he was just killing it (the former drummer from The Band died soon after). He was playing old Band songs, Grateful Dead songs, old blues, and drumming and singing his ass off. It slapped me in the face. Wake up! Levon's got the truth here, and you need to understand it. Because I think I was a little bit lost.
That night was a flashlight in my eyes. All that travelling just got to me. It got my mind all messed up. I got a little numb. I shut down a little bit as a person. Being around Levon and that scene invigorated me. This music is a blessing, not a burden.
On the new album one of the songs that brings out that joy is "Plain View."
I had this song I wrote in 2006 ("Sweet Pea"). It was popular and in a commercial and a lot of people really loved that song. That song was on a ukulele when I went down to Hawaii a guy gave me a ukulele. I was sitting around a lot with it on my lap and I wrote a bunch of songs one of which was "Plain View." It's a fun song. From a lyrical standpoint it tells a story about living in an age where information is so fast. I think we grasp the speed, but I don't think we grasp how it's wildfire. The recording and the arrangement is mostly Jay Joyce. His manipulating of the sound is amazing. He's a genius dude.
As the album continues things get more eclectic. Besides "Plain View," you have "Charles St"'s old time country and the classic rock of "Lowdown Life."
Yeah, I always do that. I listen to a lot of music. I don't really think of songwriting in terms of genre, more in terms of writing and playing a song that feels good to me.
So what are you listening to these days?
I listen to everything from Blackberry Smoke to Warren Zevon to Childish Gambino. I love music. It all fascinates me.
And what shaped you? What was the first album you ever bought?
Beastie Boy's License to Ill. I bought it on cassette. I was a little kid. I was going camping with my aunt and her boyfriend and I had this little cassette player and I was playing it and there were cuss words and that was a big deal back then. That was thrilling.
Amos Lee with Special Guest Artist Adrien Reju. 8 p.m., April 4, Parker Playhouse, 707 NE 8th St., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $37 to $47. Visit parkerplayhouse.com.
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