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It's easy to get hung up on Amos Lee's prodigious vocal talent. His pitch-perfect voice has just enough snarl matched with dollops of delicacy to make any song he's a part of sound good. He reaches deep down for those introspective moments, pummels you with glam-metalesque bravado when necessary and scratches your melancholy itch with sandpapery soul.
He sings instinctually, knowing when to employ the right timbre to capture whatever it is he's trying to make you feel. There is some premeditation behind what he does, but for the most part, he lets the song lead the way.
"Kind of the same way a lot of athletes say they just let the game come to them . . . that's what I try to do with my voice," he says. "I look for the openings and go with it."
However, he hasn't built his career on his vocal gift alone. The dude can flat-out write a song.
Meandering from blues and folk to outright soul and R&B, his work has a relentless allure. His numbers convey varying messages, landing somewhere amid fiery escapades between the sheets and road-weary ditties about lost love and geography you've yet to experience.
This amalgam of genres and moods is sparked by his one true mission: serving the song.
Lee's goal is to write great enduring songs. While he doesn't write continually like some musicians do, he constantly thinks about new songs. It is a way for him to translate the surrounding world. The tracks for his recently issued third album, Mission Bell, were the result of two years of experiences. The lyrics are not completely confessional, but on songs such as "Violin," you get a peek into his emotions.
"Writing about the way you feel and what you see and do comes the most naturally," he says.
Still, it's all about staying true to his, well, mission. When asked whether he'd ever use his honey-licked vocals to bust out a Solomon Burke-style soul album—he easily could do this—his answer is telling.
"I'd do that if the songs were great. . . . I'm not into any sort of kitsch, old-school vibe just for the sake of doing it," he says. "The reason people like that old stuff is because the songs were really great."
True enough. Though genres certainly have their followings, a good song is a good song. For that matter, most of the great songwriters have been able to overcome any genre qualifications by cranking out strings of great tracks. Bob Dylan wrote—and still writes—everything from country to blues to rock. The Beatles ranged from hard rock to pop to R&B. Prince does whatever the hell he wants. Lee wants to be thought of the same way.
"It doesn't matter what the style is or if you're going for a particular sound or message," he said. "If what you're doing is making the song sound better, then that's the right thing to do."
On Mission Bell, Lee employs the services of multigenre combo Calexico. He traveled to the group's Tucson-based studio and tracked the record with them as his backing band (Calexico did a similar thing with Iron and Wine's Sam Beam a few years back).
"I first met those guys a few years back [while] touring in Austria, and I've been a big fan ever since," he says. "When the opportunity to do this together came about, I was really excited."
While Lee wrote and arranged the tracks, having a cohesive band there to work with gave the album a decidedly more energetic feel than its predecessors. This is definitely a solo record, but it doesn't feel like a guy alone in his room with nothing but a guitar, a keyboard and a four-track.
"I wouldn't say we just sat there and jammed until the songs sounded right, but everyone had input," Lee says. "We all contributed to making the record the best it could be."
This article appeared in print as "Man With a Mission: Amos Lee keeps it old-school, not by embracing kitsch, but by simply writing great songs."