Years of touring left Amos Lee with a batch of songs that chronicled not only what he'd seen, but also what he'd missed. They are songs of self-reflection and searching, songs of departures and new horizons, songs of loss and hope, songs with undercurrents of friendship, love and community.
An uncommon talent at the intersection of folk and soul music, Lee garnered critical acclaim from the start. His 2005 self-titled debut for Blue Note Records featured Norah Jones, who took Lee on tour. From there, he shared tours with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Merle Haggard and Elvis Costello. On two subsequent records on Blue Note, Lee continued to blend his voice, a clear and soulful croon, with cozy jazz and folk tunes.
Back in Philadelphia for a taste of downtime after those first few years rushed by, Lee found himself struggling over what to do next.
"I really needed to make some decisions, personally and artistically, about where I wanted to go next," he says.
Reaching out artistically meant picking a wildly different direction. He met Tucson's Calexico when they played a show together in Vienna, and Lee says he's long been impressed with the band's eclecticism and musicianship.
"I had these songs, and we were thinking of folks we wanted to work with as far as musicians and producers, and we're big fans of Calexico," Lee says.
So Lee reached out to Joey Burns, sending a few demo songs and asking if he'd like to produce the new album. The first sessions for Mission Bell, released Jan. 25, took place at Wavelab Studio downtown. Lee says he was impressed from the start with the subtleties and textures that defined his songs' development at Wavelab.
"The songs were all coming together before Tucson, but they all sort of found their way out there," Lee says. "You can't help but be informed by the environment you're in, by the musicianship and the engineering and the studio space itself. All the songs took on different fundamental ways than if I'd recorded somewhere else."
The songs reflect the emotions of a man facing new uncertainties, searching for direction and meaningful experiences, looking to build a better world and ultimately find both wisdom and joy in life.
"This record was all written in a period of reflection and reassessment and trying to figure out where I was and where I want to be," Lee says.
The album starts literally with a departure. The opening lines of "El Camino" are a farewell:
Well to all my friends
Who treated me so well
You know I'm headed out
To that mission bell
Gonna wash my soul, gonna get it clean
Headed down the border road called the El Camino.
Closing the record is a second, mellower version of "El Camino," this one a duet with Willie Nelson, whose cracked Texas tenor adds a weathered authenticity to Lee's lyrics, suggesting that those searching years can stretch across a lifetime, that ambition is a spark that can burn forever.
Mission Bell's roots are in the first calm that Lee experienced after five hectic years of recording and touring.
"I hadn't really prepared myself for what it was going to be like when I started touring. It happened fairly fast, and it wasn't something I'd thought about much," he says. "I went on my first tour in 2004, and by early 2009, I was really unsure what was going on with me. I'd been bouncing around, living in random places, never taking a serious forward motion into establishing a home base for myself.
"I'd been holing up in different towns and cities, and once that tour stopped, I met a woman, and we got a place together in Philly, and then at some point, she decided she had to split. It left me with a lot of free time on my hands and a home base where I could make myself stay put," he says. "Once I made the decision and went out to Tucson to record, I'd had almost a full year to figure out where I was at. I was feeling pretty strong."
The songs hit both somber and uplifting tones, slotting the upbeat ("Windows Are Rolled Down") and the forlorn ("Violin") right next to each other. Aside from the backing of Calexico, other Mission Bell guests include Sam Beam of Iron and Wine, Lucinda Williams, R&B drummer James Gadson and singer-songwriters Pieta Brown and Priscilla Ahn.
Lee calls the song "Stay With Me" a "revelation" that came from a tour stop in Kent, Ohio. Through e-mail, he'd met a fan who was ill and couldn't make the show. So Lee and his band stopped by the man's house to play privately for him and his family.
"Just being there with them and seeing the commitment they had to each other, through the hardest of the hardships, it renewed my faith, even though it was sorrowful and sad. It washed away a lot of the cynicism I had. There is a real commitment we have to each other," Lee says.
The power of togetherness and love is an important message to spread for Lee—and a message that his adopted community of Tucson needs as it heals.
"I believe in the power of love," Lee sings on "Flower," which strikes a welcome note of redemption and hope:
I'm going to reach on up over that fear
I'm never alone, won't you please be near
I know that darkness before the dawn
Tomorrow's coming and yesterday's gone.
"We can get lost in very individualistic lifestyles nowadays," Lee says. "There's not as strong of a call to community as there once was. But where there is community, it's very strong, because you have to make a commitment to that; you don't just fall into it anymore. I see it in Tucson with Joey and John (Convertino), for sure. There's a strong group of musicians and artists, and there's a lot of connection there."