When it comes to music, there's something mysterious and attractive about the sounds and soundmakers in Tucson. The remote and dusty southern Arizona city has a unique style. When it was time for Philly-based songwriter Amos Lee to record his latest batch of melodic tunes, Tucson turned out to be the ideal spot.
"There's a stillness out there that allows you to augment whatever energy you want to put into it — in a pretty heavy way," Lee says.
Traveling with a large backing band, he lands in Charleston this week in support of Mission Bell, his fourth album for EMI's Blue Note Records. Produced by Joey Burns of the acclaimed bands Calexico and Giant Sand, the 12-song collection veers away from the straight-ahead, soul-fused rock 'n' roll stylings of his previous albums in favor of a more spacious and airy texture.
"It's not only the environment in Tucson — it's the folks," says Lee. "With most of them, you always wonder how they wound up there. I dig it. For me, it was more about the people, and working with Joey and John [Convertino, also of Calexico and Giant Sand] more than the scenery.
"I'm not sure there's any particular genre this music falls into," Lee adds. "It always starts and finishes with me and a guitar, so there's that base to it."
Lee first met Burns and Convertino five years ago when their tours crossed paths in Vienna, Austria. He instantly became a fan of their subdued but effective playing style and musical chemistry.
"Joey and John sounded incredible, and I really loved what they were doing," remembers Lee. "Since then, I really got into their records and listened to everything they do. At WaveLab Studio [where they recorded], Joey, John, and Craig Schumacher really work as a great team. The thing I enjoyed as much as anything else was the camaraderie that exists amongst everybody there — that commonality and that common purpose they had. They're all music lovers. There was no bending to any whim other than to the art and the music. I responded to that a lot. We didn't belabor anything, so there was a nice balanced feeling."
Burns and Convertino already had a delicate but distinctive dynamic and chemistry that developed during their years with Giant Sand and Calexico. They are equally fluent in guitar-rock, folk, country, pop, and traditional Latin styles, and they play it all with a subtle and colorful Southwestern-ness (some critics describe it as "desert noir"). From the rattly drum kit sound and the echo-y piano to the extra organ and pedal steel, the Burns/Convertino touch is evident on Mission Bell's first single, "Windows Are Rolled Down," which broke the Top Ten on AAA radio over the winter.
Their laid-back approach and open-minded manner of collaboration suited Lee well during the making of Mission Bell.
"We really listened to the songs and cut most of it live," Lee says. "We were sensitive to each other as musicians —more than anything else. We were just in there with the common purpose of serving these songs and creating the best music we could. There was a lot of communication and a lot of compromise, and things turned out okay. The soup wound up being stirred just right, you know? There was good that came out of it. I grew a lot from the experience to where I listen to things differently now."
Most of the new tracks feature Burns and Convertino on the basic rhythm-section instruments.
"They're great at creating atmosphere. Sonically, they brought a beautiful dimension into a lot of the songs and helped them to expand and breathe more," says Lee.
The album also features an impressive set of guests — including country greats Lucinda Williams (on the ballad "Clear Blue Eyes") and Willie Nelson (on an alternate take of the lead-off track "El Camino"), as well as drummer James Gadson and singers Sam Beam (of Iron & Wine), Priscilla Ahn, and Pieta Brown.
"I enjoyed it greatly, and I never felt like there was ever anybody in the studio rooms who didn't care about what they were doing," remembers Lee. "Everything felt real to me — the folks in the rooms and the suggestions being made. There were no egos. It was really mellow. If something was hitting the wall, we took a step back. It's not like there weren't disagreements or contentious moments, but the overall feeling of the nights was positive."
Lee's touring band features longtime keyboardist Jaron Olevsky as well as pedal steel player/banjoist/guitarist Andy Kennan, guitarist Zach Djanikian, bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Fred Berman, and vocalist Mutlu Onaral.
"It's a pretty big band," says Lee. "It's a lot of folks, but they take these arrangements and put their heart and soul into it. I feel really good about the way they've been playing over the last few months. We try to keep the show as dynamic as possible. The show has a good curve to it."
While Lee's Tucson experience focused on the recording and production of his latest songs, it also affected his approach to working as a songwriter and performer in general.
"In the past, I think I wrote a lot more, but I may not have been as good of a listener as a I am now," he says. "My output was stronger, but my editing wasn't as good. It takes me longer to write now, but I feel more strongly about the songs that I'm finishing than I used to. But I'm always coming from the same place. You might get more refined or less refined as a writer, but wherever it came from in the beginning is where it's still coming from now."