Feeling the Heart of This Is Lorelei in Spades

We caught up with Nate Amos about Box For Buddy, Box For Star, the Brooklyn singer, songwriter, producer and instrumentalist's wondrous, multi-dimensional musical exercise flirting with every corner of the Great American Songbook.

Music Features This is Lorelei
Feeling the Heart of This Is Lorelei in Spades

Nate Amos can be hard to pin down. Geographically, he’s currently at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas—the pecan orchard-turned recording compound that musicians like Waxahatchee, Faye Webster and Big Thief’s Buck Meek have recently flocked to to make the best albums of their careers—with Water From Your Eyes, the band he co-leads with vocalist Rachel Brown, in-between gigs. But musically, Amos is a wild card in the best way. When he’s not pulling multi-instrumentalist and producer duties in one of the best experimental pop groups in America, he’s uploading EPs and LPs to streaming under the name This Is Lorelei. There’s almost no continuity between releases; the songs are often short in length and immense in quantity; for every glitchy, poppy outing like Falls Like Water Falls, there’s something like Haystacks!, a seven-track ambient exercise with snippet songs titled “Organ Study No. 18” and “Trains Nos. 1, 4, 5” not too far away in the catalog. This Is Lorelei is like Guided By Voices but for those of us living with unmedicated ADHD.

Some may consider This Is Lorelei to be Amos’s side-project, a quick escape from the innovative scrapbook he’s building with Brown, but he’s not so sure. “It’s like a ‘complimentary’ project,” Amos tells me over the phone while wandering through a field, just narrowly avoiding an army of sprinklers turning on for their morning report. “If I didn’t have Lorelei to do all the Lorelei stuff, I would be stuck trying to collision-melt that with Water From Your Eyes, and vice-versa. They have a mutually beneficial relationship with each other; the existence of each project allows the other to be what it wants to be.” After Water From Your Eyes’ recent show opening for Interpol in Mexico City with over 100,000 people in attendance, it would be easy to assign tiers in the hierarchy of Amos’s creative life. And with the critical successes of the duo’s last album, Everyone’s Crushed, Amos admits that the pressure has been ratcheted up, in terms of making This Is Lorelei a more formalized outlet. “There is, in a weird way, almost a little bit of competition between them,” Amos admits. “If I’m making a new album and it’s for Lorelei or Water From Your Eyes, regardless of what the deal is, I’m trying to top the last thing I made.” Having Water From Your Eyes be his touring priority, as Amos puts it, “frees up This Is Lorelei to just exist.”

This Is Lorelei originated in 2013, when Amos, now 33, moved to Chicago from Burlington, Vermont. He was still in his high school band, Opposites, with Ryan Murphy and Marc Drake. Around that time, the work of Flying Lotus and Daedelus had hit a popularity peak and left an imprint on Amos, who was learning how to write, record and produce. “When I was really figuring out how to do production stuff, I was mainly doing beat-making for rappers and in an experimental, Brainfeeder thing,” he says. “That was how I figured out how to put things together, and especially in the context of Water From Your Eyes—a project entirely built in a beat-making fashion, where the source material that’s being sampled is not native to that sort of music.” The Lorelei sound, despite its guitar-forward focus, grew out of all of that—though Amos sees Opposites being closer related to Water From Your Eyes, musically. “That period of time had a significant impact on my general workflow and the idea of thinking about the computer itself as the primary instrument, rather than any of the individually recorded components,” he continues. The last Opposites release, a seven-track EP called Joon II and Got My Cough, came out in late 2015, around the same time Amos released his 13-minute Lorelei debut: I You I I You You I.

Though his tunes as This Is Lorelei are just as twist-of-fate and off-the-beaten path as those of Water From Your Eyes, Amos revels in the kind of traditionalism you might find in his dad Bob Amos’s bluegrass compositions. The catchiness of “Fire Liar” or the jittery pop-punk riffs of “Sleeping Little” might seem like contradicting sonic forces, but they’re just two examples of the grip Amos has on music’s disorienting crossword puzzle. This is the guy who claims to have been “saved by blink-182” and was once banned from DistroKid once for making a noise album so illegible and skronking that it sounds like a fable. And, not even a year after Everyone’s Crushed nabbed universal acclaim for featuring some of the most bonkers, anti-capitalistic, incomprehensible and delicious art-pop of this decade, Amos took the stage at our East Austin Block Party and kicked day two off with the hazy, country lament “Angels Eyes,” the opening track from his latest LP, Box For Buddy, Box For Star—the best pop record of the year so far.

Box For Buddy, Box For Star is Amos’s most carefully-built world yet. It’s not so much a detour from his previous cravings, like the dream-pop and noise-rock-tinged albums of This Is Lorelei’s yesteryear, but a narrowed, homogenous focus on his strengths and bedrocks. Tapping into childhood influences, like bluegrass and the Beatles, and not being too worried about wearing his deeply-ingrained influences openly, Amos wrote a pocket album full of standard-format songs—straddling the line between the dialed-in consistencies of Interpol or Tool and the chameleonic, album-to-album identity shifts of Ween. “I feel like I would probably get bored really quickly if either I or Water From Your Eyes began to settle into a very consistent sound,” Amos says. “My attention span doesn’t really allow for that. [This Is Lorelei] may get weirder, it may get more center of the lane. I have no idea.” It’s that flexibility, that scattered, bouncing around, where Amos’s muscles start to flex. It’s how you get songs like the Elliott Smith progeny “Two Legs,” the Auto-Tuned, Steely Dan-referencing “Dancing in the Club” and the nostalgic “Perfect Hand,” which bears a drum machine that recalls the sampling splendors of Amos’s Chicago days.

After finishing a Water From Your Eyes tour, Amos found himself lying on the ground at Stonehenge for 40 minutes. It was there that he made the decision to stop smoking pot. “Part of the album was, at first, an experiment,” he says. “I was trying to write without smoking weed, which I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do. But then I tried and it turned out it was actually easier and that the problem was, all of a sudden, these songs had 1,000-plus words. They were all six, seven minutes long.” Amos being so dialed-in was a result of getting sober and finding a new sense of clarity. Box For Buddy, Box For Star isn’t your prototypical “recovery album,” and Amos avoids tokenizing his addiction for the sake of songwriting. Instead, he calls the summer of the record’s inception a “big emotional and physical purge.” “I stopped drinking anything other than water and I was eating a very consistent thing every day and working out and not socializing at all,” he explains. “I was fully focused on making this album.”

Likewise, Amos was cutting full verses from nearly every track that made the final master. For a musician who hasn’t gone more than a year without releasing an album since 2016, the prolific writing and recording world he entered to make his full-length label debut is a brilliant and uncharted apex—a world completely detached from how projects like Did You Dream It or Did You See It in a Photograph and The Dirt, The Dancing came together. “Normally, my strategy when I’m hunting for the identity of an album is to try and think about it as little as possible and just do stuff until there’s some sort of happy accident that becomes an idea and then chase that down,” Amos says. Perhaps someday down the line, we’ll hear the “lost verses” of the “I’m All Fucked Up,” a track so packed to the brim with vignettes of nosebleeds that taste like God, haircuts, gasoline fires, car stains and chasing dogs that it could be a novella.

Clarity isn’t usually a big part of the picture when Amos is working on music, a statement backed up by his own admissions of skipping school and getting high while listening to heavy metal. For Box For Buddy, Box For Star, Amos chose to abandon his methods of working and releasing quickly, forgoing his “any idea becomes a part of it” approach to songwriting. “[I was] leaning into these more directly applicable or relatable ideas and trying to communicate them in a way so that they’re still flexible but potentially not irrelevant to the listener,” he says. “There’s more of a sense of actually being like, ‘Okay, this is a song about this thing that I’m thinking about,’ rather than a song just being a full-on experiment.” But Box For Buddy, Box For Star isn’t an experimental album, it’s a modern translation of the Great American Songbook, as twisted and mangled as any son of a bluegrass musician, whose Rolodex of influences include Slipknot and Danny Brown, can possibly muster. “It’s about as normal an album as I can make,” Amos concedes. “To me, this is the more experimental thing to try at this point.”

Amos wrote and recorded all of Box For Buddy, Box For Star between May and August 2022. “It started off like it was going to be another Lorelei album,” he says, “and it was gonna be everything I could make in a week. There was a 12-song album that existed, but I tried harder—instead of just being like, ‘Okay, this is the thing. I’m putting it on Spotify.’” A lot of the material from that period of time has already come out, on EPs #31, #32 and #33 and singles like “My Good Luck,” “The New Booze” and “Gold and Red and Laughing.” At one point, there was a 36-song version of Box For Buddy, Box For Star. “I remember trying to make it work,” Amos continues, “and one of the things I tried was a voice memo-recorded apology at the halfway point explaining why the album is so long. Then I was like, ‘This is way too much.’ I started cutting things out of it.” The first track written that made the album was “A Song That Sings About You,” and the title-track brought up the rear of the sessions. Somewhere in-between, Amos made “Perfect Hand” and “Dancing in the Club” on the same day. He wrote “I’m All Fucked Up,” “Where’s Your Love Now,” “A Song That Sings About You” and “An Extra Beat for You and Me” during a prolific, vibrant streak of creativity at the end of May. “Angels Eye,” according to Amos, “went from not existing to being fully recorded in an hour-and-a-half.”

Double-albums might be a trend right now in the pop world, but it’s an art form that’s difficult to pull off. Amos knows this, and he’s pretty candid about his hesitations to enter that world himself. “It’s such a different medium to have an album that’s that long,” he says. “With a normal album, you’re not asking for that much. You’re asking for a half-an-hour to 45 minutes—whereas, with a double-album, that’s like a movie-length commitment most of the time. It’s just a very different listening experience. And I like it, but I do get bored. I think, in general, it feels like the shorter albums that have been coming out recently are the ones that are hitting harder.” Amos has double-albums that he likes, but he also has double-albums that he, like many of us, thinks would be better-served existing as single LPs. “I don’t know what makes the difference between those two results, but I know that I would need someone else to bounce ideas off of to have any sort of rational idea of whether the double-album that’s being made is good or bad,” he continues. “I wanted to play it safe and not put that pressure on myself.”

Box For Buddy, Box For Star is one of Amos’s longest projects yet, though he’s openly transparent about his wrestling with whether or not the record’s runtime is still too much—something many artists would be reluctant to admit just weeks before release day. “Honestly, by having an album that is 43 minutes long, I almost felt like that was pushing it a little bit,” he says. “In the context of how music is being made and released right now, it still feels like a long album to me.” I’m reminded of a recent tweet from Paste contributor Devon Chodzin. “The 35-to-38 minute album,” he wrote. “Whatever happened to that?” “There’s something right about that,” Amos says. “That’s the best length for a show, too—as a show-goer, unless it’s a band that I’ve always dreamed of seeing.” I mention Neil Young playing nearly three-hour sets on his recent Crazy Horse tour. “With Neil, it’s almost like you’re just paying to be in the same space as that guy for a while, just him and all his weird glory,” Amos replies.

In the past, especially in regards to the stoner pop and industrial anti-nostalgia of the Water From Your Eyes canon, Amos has been vocal about music’s Achilles heel being that it often takes itself too seriously. He approaches songs for This Is Lorelei with that same latitude—and Box For Buddy, Box For Star’s humor comes from it being such a straight lean into the archetype of a singer-songwriter working in a very deadpan, traditional medium. “This album, I was laughing through making most of it,” Amos says. “There is a lot of earnesty in the album, but it is all within this character that’s a hyper-specific version of one mood. And, to me, that’s why I can make it through listening to this album—because it is heavy and confessional, but that’s also part of the bit.” He cites the fake, 1970s soft-rock breakup songs from Tim Heidecker’s 2019 record What the Brokenhearted Do… as references for his own work. “They blew my mind, because they’re almost Randy Newman songs,” Amos says. “The line between comedy and it just being a good song is so blurred that you don’t even really know what he’s doing. The idea of [Box For Buddy, Box For Star] being such a serious album was a very goofy idea to me.”

While Amos isn’t sure if listeners will buy into the humor of Box For Buddy, Box For Star, the goofiness is alive and well from the jump—“Angels Eye” is a “forbidden love ballad duet” between an alien and a cowboy” that finds Amos pitching his vocal up and down so he can perform both the falsetto and the baritone parts. He got inspired to write the track while watching Ancient Aliens, hoping to investigate a “weird sense of mythology and the relationship of humans to the cosmos in a longterm way and how that applies to art that’s very much of its time.” Pillowing the “So long, my lonely friend / Goodbye, my only love” earnestness is one of Amos’s best arrangements: a true Western lament, packed with cowboy chords, fiddle pulls and muted guitar riffs that nearly sound like ambient cattle calls. A line like “Who’s singing those tender words about loneliness and devotion?” perfectly blurs the boundary between fictional characterization and self-referential sincerity.

On the songs that populated Amos’s last This Is Lorelei release, EP #33, he was inspired by Shane McGowen and Emily Dickinson, working through character studies—like a farmer’s instinctual love for his sheepdog and a narrator watching an angel sing to a dying bird on a beach—and branching away from the usual visual influences on his work by embracing the diaristic capacities of poetry. You can hear glints of McGowen’s work on Box For Buddy, Box For Star especially. Amos was “studying chord patterns and traditional music” that had left a mark on the Pogues’ late frontman—namely bluegrass music, and the way that chord progressions can be written so that they truly exist in service of enhancing a song’s melody. “One of the things that I was thinking a lot about writing this was having melodies that don’t need a chord progression or any other context to function,” he says. “‘I’m All Fucked Up’ and ‘Dancing in the Club’ are like that, where those melodies make just as much sense if you’re humming them walking through the woods as they do with those particular chord patterns. I was thinking about music as it was in the pre-recorded music era, trying to think of things in a slightly more elemental way.”

And that elemental train of thought is what makes Box For Buddy, Box For Star such a clever, memorable slice of pop Americana. Whether he’s reveling in sunny lo-fi (“An Extra Beat for You and Me”), electropop (“Perfect Hand”), baroque (“My Boy Limbo”) or folktronica (“Box For Buddy, Box For Star”), Amos doesn’t let his own musical scatterbrain linger for too long. He’s writing and recording more intentionally now, but good luck ever predicting what his next record is going to sound like. “You should do a record of Frank Sinatra standards,” I tell him. “I would love that,” he replies. While Box For Buddy, Box For Star isn’t grandiose like a rock opera, Amos ensconces himself in chunks of multi-dimensional, multi-hyphenated genre and character studies that’ll have all of your neurons firing. It’s as much akin to something like Song Cycle as it is to the mixtape era.

And for Nate Amos, the chaos of never settling into one texture for too long is a concept in itself. This Is Lorelei is no longer a vacuum for all of his momentary fixations; after 11 years, he’s found his voice and a confectionary, cliché-embracing, singer-songwriter contrast to his inner-pop chemist virtuoso; a measure of brilliance all the same, presented in juxtaposing hues. On “Dancing in the Club,” Amos alludes to Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” (“Yeah, a loser never wins / And I’m a loser, always been”), but he should stick to his “Babylon Sisters” references instead, because all of us will be shaking it to the instant-classic waltz of Box For Buddy, Box For Star for a good, long while.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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