Photo: Paul NatkinGiven the number of country luminaries singer-songwriter Amos Lee has befriended or worked with the years -- Willie Nelson, Zac Brown and Alison Krauss among them -- one thing about his latest album, Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song, comes as a surprise. It's the very first set he's recorded in Nashville.
"Yeah, this is the first time," Lee says with a smile. He explains that it was a key member of his recording team that ultimately brought him to Music City. "What drew us to Nashville first was Jay Joyce, the producer. We had spoken to a bunch of people about producing the record. I’d always had a bunch of friends in Nashville and a bunch of people that were helpful and fun to be around, and fun to play with," he notes. "So it seemed kinda logical, it was like a natural thing. "
"Jay’s pretty eclectic," he says regarding his choice of producer -- a modern-country powerhouse whose recent work includes Little Big Town's Tornado and Eric Church's Chief. "He works with a lot of different bands...rock bands and country bands and singer-songwriters. I don’t think there’s a real genre thing that he’s more typified to. We just sorta connected through people that I knew and that he knew. It was sorta a random/not random thing. But it wound up being a real nice working relationship."
Despite all of this, the Nashville center of the album may come as an unusual choice for an artist best-known for an adult alternative No. 1 hit ("Windows Are Rolled Down," from his last album, the chart-topping Mission Bell). Lee is nonchalant: "The only time I ever deal with genre is at a record store," he explains. "I don’t care what kind of music anything is, i just wanna hear it." He adds that he is well aware of the massive reach country music currently has: "I’m from Philly and it's huge there. You go to country shows and it’s like 70,000 people there. It’s amazing."
"There have been some real kind people to me in the Nashville world," Lee concludes. Don't look for a real country direction on this particular album, however. It's Lee's own particular sound, which true to his word doesn't really "deal with genre." What the record does deliver is a richly lush vibe, partially due to the unusual history of the studio in which it was recorded: It previously served as an old church in East Nashville before producer Joyce converted it.
When asked if that setting added a bit of supernatural vibe to the recording sessions, Lee shrugs. "You know, I always feel weird, eerie supernatural stuff happening," he admits. "I don’t have to be in a church to feel like that. I just felt like it was a real nice place to play music. The [set-up] is beautiful sound-wise -- the sounds are getting the vibes of the place, it’s good. It’s sort of amazing that we were the first record that really was recorded there because it feels like it’s been lived in. That’s the best thing about that studio –- it doesn’t feel like a new place. It feels like a place that people have been recording in for awhile."
Speaking of recording for a while, Lee is no stranger to the business (he's put out four previous albums). However, he thinks that with this particular set, he's finally hit his zone. "By the fifth record, I felt comfortable in the studio. I felt good on the fourth record in the studio too, [but] I think i felt most comfortable here. I wasn’t trying too hard, I wasn’t thinking too much. My problem in the past is that I was thinking too much."
Some might argue that Lee hit the ultimate zone when 2011's Mission Bell debuted on top of the Billboard 200, but Lee says that sales aren't a goal for him this time around. "I think it was amazing how that happened on the last record -- I think everybody who worked on that album worked really hard and really smart and really helped my career move a little bit further than it was," he says, adding, "Yeah, it was commercially successful for me. For this record, my goal is not necessarily sales-oriented or anything like that. Obviously I’d like the music to get out to as many people as would like to hear that. That’s my main thing. But it’s mostly about, can I make a statement that I feel good about? Or that I’ll feel good about if I live 30 years? Or that somebody could buy in 25 years and say 'hey, that’s a pretty good record'?"
"That to me is the test of time, not sales. It’s the legacy of the songs, and how they move people."
Lee isn't just giving this concept lip service. The singer, who says he still wanders around his hometown peacefully unnoticed for the most part, claims he will refuse outright fame if it begins to interfere with his work and everyday doings. "If it ever gets out of control for me, I’ll step off. I really don’t want it to get out of control where I can’t live a normal life. I think the goal that I've set forth for myself is to continue to write and to be able to continue to grow as a writer if possible, and that’s all I really want. If fame came my way and asked me to ride on that magic carpet I probably wouldn’t do it. I’d probably step back a little bit."
Fame or fortune notwithstanding, Lee exudes a low-key but still glowing pride over his latest effort. "I’m pleased with the way everybody played. I’m most proud of my band for coming in and giving it such a beautiful effort on everything just being so present and willing to play as a team."