The last three times we caught up with the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter Amos Lee, the focus was on whom he was working with at the moment. On 2011’s Mission Bells, it was Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico, as well as Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson. In 2008, in support of Last Days at the Lodge, it was Doyle Bramhall Jr. and Spooner Oldham. But now, Lee is venturing out on his own.
Well, in one sense, anyway, for “alone” is such a subjective term. Lee’s still surrounded by talented musicians, experienced collaborators, and label and management teams that support him. But Spirit, released just last month, is the first he produced by himself.
To many music fans, the producer either holds some mythical role or goes largely unnoticed. Unless they’re the Fifth Beatle-George Martin, bearded Jesus-like Rick Rubin, or sonic manipulation wizard-Phil Spector, their work seems more like a behind-the-scenes part of the overall production. Yet, within the industry, producers hold vital responsibilities. They oversee the entire recording process and serve as the chief for sound designs.
But art, even created in a vacuum, so rarely emerges without outside input and assistance. So even though Lee assumed this producer role for Spirit, he’s never really alone in the process.
Calling from his home in Philly, Lee recalls that he’s been considering producing for years. “It’s sort of been building in me for the past couple records that I did. I just thought I could do it, honestly. I’d taken a lot of lessons from folks who I’d worked with before,” he says. “I just found it to be an incredibly energizing and inspiring experience. It’s funny, not even as a producer or an artist, but just as one who is involved in helping to put the pieces together.”
Spirit manages to combine these personnel puzzle piece as well as many disparate musical influences. Over the course of his decade-plus-long career, Lee has flitted between alternative rock and folk designations, carving out a clear path among the likes of Ray LaMontagne, Drew Holcomb (with whom he’s currently touring), Damian Rice, and Ben Harper.
Yet, Spirit marks an effort to challenge those boxes by combining sounds and styles that wouldn’t necessarily go together. You can hear it on songs like “Vaporize,” which balances electronic percussion with drummer Mark Colenburg’s contemporary R&B swing. You can hear it in the falsetto on “Walls” and “Till You Come Back Through,” which could fit on any contemporary R&B record. And it’s especially apparent on single “Spirit,” which brims with gospel-influenced vocal arrangements and the groovy, upbeat “Running Out of Time,” which opens with a spiritual plea, “Lord, have mercy!”
In fact, gospel music has continued to impact Lee ever since he worked with the Mobile, Alabama Community Gospel Choir in 2014. The next year, he sang with Nashville’s Fairfield Four. With each successive experience, he dove deeper into the genre, citing work by The Reverend James Cleveland and Thomas Dorsey as influences on this record.
But these musical pairings never sound forced of for the sake of contradiction. And that’s a testament to the quality of Lee’s collaborators and the devotion of the team around him. Notably, after six studio albums—five of which on the jazzy Blue Note Records—Lee moved to John Varvatos Records/Republic Records for Spirit. It’s another pairing that seems unconventional at first, considering the bespectacled singer with his causal clothes and often-shaggy locks.
Fashion mogul Varvatos officially launched his collaborative label with the Universal Music Group imprint in 2014. The John Varvatos’ clothing seems primed for classic rockers who have both expensive taste and the means to indulge it and in a parallel move, according to the initial announcement release, “The imprint’s focus is genuine music in the spirit of legends.”
While Lee notes with a guffaw that he does, in fact, “get sweet threads,” his relationship with the label is more than thread-deep. “The best thing that I’ve gotten from John is his heart. He’s such a big-hearted dude! He’ll send me emails and encourages me. He’s a leader. That’s what he does. He’s a connector and so are Monte and Avery [Lipman, the brothers who run Republic Records], says Lee. “Those guys together are a powerful team. As a musician, you need champions and I can’t think of any better champions than those guys.”
As maudlin and idealistic as that sounds, however, it sounds like the feeling is mutual. For his part, Varvatos writes (with an overabundance of exclamation points), “Working with Amos on Spirit has been an incredible journey. He’s a master at songwriting—one of the greats of this generation—and his production of this album is groundbreaking. Getting to know each other has been a blast. [There’s] amazing music, guitars, stories, and even a little fashion. I’m in heaven!!!”
Throughout conversation, no matter the topic, Lee remains quick to emphasize how much those around him contributed to the seamlessness Spirit. Especially as a first time producer, he maintains, “I was lucky because the musicians on this record were so good. The engineering was so good. The people who were supporting me from the label side and management side were so good. And I needed it all, honestly. I need that support because you do question yourself sometimes.”