When Amos Lee visited a hospital in his hometown of Philadelphia recently to check on a friend’s ailing mother, something unusual happened. The singer/songwriter, who entertains patients through nonprofit Musicians on Call, walked by the room of an elderly woman named Dora, who didn’t want visitors. “The nuns said she didn’t want anyone going in there and singing to her,” he recalls. “She wanted to keep to herself.”
Lee is still not sure what motivated him, but he decided to serenade Dora anyway. But instead of entering her room, he pulled up a chair just outside her door and began strumming “Cup of Sorrow,” completely unsure of how she’d react. Would she slam her door? Tell him to get lost? Call security? “About halfway through the first verse, she turned to me and started nodding her head a little bit,” Lee says. “And by the second verse, she was out of her chair and dancing. It was a real revelation for the nuns, and I guess for Dora, too, because up until that point she hadn’t really left her room or talked to anybody. Given the right person, the power of music can overwhelm anything.”
That was, he says, one of the most moving musical experiences of his life, one that motivates his work with Musicians on Call and drives the songs on his new album, Mission Bell. Inspired by recent breakups and departures, lost friends and wrecked relationships, these dozen songs—including “Cup of Sorrow”—balance loneliness with hope, and despair with catharsis. The result is perhaps his most conflicted and soulful album to date, brimming with a sense of hard-won contentment—even something like wisdom. “These songs were inspired by real people, and I’m grateful to them for everything they gave me. I feel so lucky to have music to lean on in those hard times, though.”
To record Mission Bell, Lee took himself out of the comfort zone he’d established with his first three soul-rock records. Instead, he sojourned to Tucson, Ariz., where he worked with Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino. He had met them years before at a show in Austria and had always admired their work, so the decision to record at their WaveLab Studios was an easy one. “It’s like walking into somebody’s house where you’re not afraid to sit on the furniture,” Lee says. “There’s tons of old gear on the walls—vintage keyboards, glockenspiels, marimbas, toy pianos, all kinds of crazy stuff everywhere.”
The unique atmosphere inspired Lee to create a grittier, more sophisticated sound that incorporates a range of influences and supports a more nuanced emotional palette. “Because you have so many different instruments at your disposal at all times, it adds a note of possibility to everything,” he explains. “If you’re smart and subtle about it, it really helps to make the arrangements more complex.” First single “Windows Are Rolled Down” zips by with breezy momentum, and opener “El Camino”—with its delicate melody and nylon string guitars—has the atmosphere of a deserted dusty road.
Mission Bell is also the first of Lee’s albums to feature so many prominent collaborators, including Pieta Brown, Priscilla Ahn and Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam. “I’ve done the singing on everything, even the background,” Lee says. “This time I just wanted to hear some different vocal textures. I wanted to hear different people singing.” Lucinda Williams shares lead on the downcast “Clear Blue Eyes,” and Willie Nelson delivers one of his finest performances in years on “El Camino Reprise.” Lee was thrilled to have two of his musical heroes on the record. “I was really just grateful that they took the time to put some beautiful performances together. They take the album to a whole new level.”
For Lee, writing these songs for himself and others to sing was a means of working through hard times and raw emotions: “When I write a song about something, I finally understand it. Otherwise, it’s just this abstract feeling that’s floating around.” It makes Lee’s live performances less of an exorcism and more of a séance, a chance to commune with all these ghosts. “The people who are no longer with us gave great spirit to these songs, and I feel them with me when I’m singing. It’s a way to bring them back to me.”