Amos Lee on Crafting 'Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song'

Amos Lee
Harper Smith

Amos Lee enjoys the recording process. The respected singer-songwriter explains it's a place where one never knows what can happen creatively. "I enjoy the unplanned things that happen in the studio," he said. "The shapes that things take, the manipulation of sounds -- it's a learning process for me. I can't do that when I'm just writing on my guitar. Usually, the stuff you like the most wasn't what was planned anyway, so I try not to put too much pressure on it because then the fun leaves."

Lee told Billboard that recording his newest project "Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song" (out this week) was definitely a rewarding experience. "My touring band and I came down here, and hung around East Nashville for a few weeks and recorded with Jay Joyce."

The Philadelphia native spent all of 2012 writing for the album, staying off the road while composing for the project. Working with the red-hot Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town, Emmylou Harris) was an exhilarating experience, he says. "He's present for the times he has to be, and he's not overbearing at all. He's not on top of you, but when he needs to be there, he just sort of magically appears. It was a very collaborative effort. I'm not sure how he works with other bands, as I know he does a lot of different stuff. With us, he kept it positive and kept it focused. I think he did a great job with that."

The album starts off with "Johnson Blvd," which has a bit of a ragged feel to it. He says he thought back to his youth and a bygone era when he penned the song. "As someone who gets a chance to travel all the time, you get to see stuff and how quickly things evolve. As a writer, I like to take on other people's minds for a while. I was thinking about how my dad used to work around Brownsville, TX, and I started to think about what progress is and how people define progress today. The beginning of the song outlines the moment that where someone who has always felt comfortable in their skin realizes things are about to change forever, and the bulldozers are on the way. Somehow, it's always been that way. It's never been any different. It's just a plight of humanity. It's hard to hold fast to the things you love, because tomorrow comes anyway."

Writing allows Lee to think outside his own psyche – something he enjoys. "I think about the show 'Quantum Leap,' which I watched a lot as a kid. I always envied that Scott Bakula could do that – just pop in and be a part of someone's trip for a minute, and communicate different stuff to people at the right time. I always wanted to be able to do that. I can't act worth shit," he says with a laugh. "I had an audition for a film, and blew it terribly. This is the closest thing I can get to really being able to contribute in some other way to living outside myself. I think as a writer, it's a gift. I probably would be feeling empathetic toward stuff, so it gives me an outlet to communicate."

The singer is on the road extensively through the end of the year -- including a pair of sold-out shows at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on November 13-14. He is grateful for the support he enjoys from his fans. "That's the point of the shows we play. I like that people come up after and say 'I like this song or that song,' because it is about catalog for me. I've never had a hit, but I'm able to gather a bunch of people to come together in the same room in different cities, and be united in the love of these songs. It's amazing for me because I love writing them. I love performing, and doing them for people, but the grind of playing every day, riding on a bus, and not sleeping can be challenging. It's taken me till now to understand the commitment I've got to it, which is to give. This experience is a shared one, and if I'm not committed to giving during those moments, there's no reason for me to do it. I feel a renewed sense of gratitude this last year in understanding my place and that I'm not owed anything.  People who come to the show are buying tickets, parking their car, maybe getting a baby sitter, and all those things factor into my mind when I take the stage. It deepens my commitment to being present in that moment with the songs."