MANCHESTER, Tenn. (AP) — Tucson isn't the first place you think of when the topic of musical journeys comes up. The Arizona town felt just right for a little self-exploration to Amos Lee, though.
The Philadelphia singer was on a quest of sorts when he started recording his fourth album, "Mission Bell," and he found just what he was looking for in the desert home of producer Joey Burns and his band Calexico.
"I've listened to a lot of Calexico's records, and I love how Joey and John (Convertino) and everybody else in the band just work with — I don't really like using this terminology but it's the best I can come up with — the sonic landscape that they create. It's rich and it's deep, but it's also subtle and simple at the same time. I've always really appreciated the way they make sound move."
And the way they helped Lee with the multiple flavors and colors of "Mission Bell" has kicked the former second-grade teacher's career into a higher orbit. His first three albums were well-received, and he was already a popular collaborative partner. But he's in even higher demand, opening for Adele, working with artists as diverse as Zac Brown Band and James Gadson, and holding down two slots at this year's Bonnaroo — Saturday's acoustic performance and a full-band set Sunday.
"It is definitely the busiest I've been with all the stuff I've done, just with the press, the TV, the trips back and forth to Europe," Lee said while standing in the meager shade of a tent backstage at Bonnaroo. "I've had stretches where I've probably done more shows, but I've never been busier and I've never had a more intense experience that I've had this time."
Part of that success is due to the inventiveness of "Mission Bell," an album that marks a blossoming for the 33-year-old singer. Burns and his Calexico mates helped Lee break out of a neo-soul niche that had begun to chafe. Lee was looking for a way to reacquaint himself with the things that had made music so exciting back when he was playing open mic nights in neighborhood bars.
"You get stagnant, and I felt like some ways as a performer I was not feeling the same way about performing as I did before," Lee said. "So I had to find and am still looking for new ways to open myself up even more to the experience of playing for people and to open that energy up more that comes between the audience and the performer."
Burns, Convertino and Calexico have a reputation for taking collaborators places they've never been before. They've worked previously with Iron & Wine, Neko Case, Nancy Sinatra and My Morning Jacket's Jim James on a powerful version of "Going to Acapulco" for Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan film "I'm Not There," among many others.
They're known for a Southwestern-flavored blend of Americana that's lush, vibrant and haunting. After meeting briefly in Europe while on tour, Lee and Burns were reintroduced by Willie Nelson's harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, while Lee was looking for a producer and quickly decided to work together.
Burns was intrigued by the "transitioning" Lee was undertaking and thought he might be able to help.
"I think he's been pursuing that for a while, trying to figure out what he does and what he does well," Burns said in a phone interview from Tucson. "He can do so many different things so well, I think he's really now applying the ability to distill everything together into his sound and his identity in his songs and his music. So I think it is an exciting time as a fan of Amos and his music."
Lee scheduled a trip to Tucson last year to see if things would work out, and after recording a few songs, he came away convinced. Lee immediately felt like a kid let loose in the toy store at Wavelab studios, where everything he could imagine, from unique guitars and amps to glockenspiels and vibraphones, were laid out in a big room.
"It really does give you a chance to delve a little deeper into what you want to do, I guess, sonically," Lee said. "As an acoustic guitar player I really haven't spent a lot of time doing it and I really loved it. The atmosphere is just wide open."
Lee says "Mission Bell," which features appearances by Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams and Sam Beam, has a live feel that comes from everyone gathering in a big room and throwing out ideas. The group would set aside one song to work on another that felt more urgent, sometimes nailing a track in a take or two.
Along the way they layered on little details and highlights that pushed the sound into three dimensions. The Spanish-flavored horns on "El Camino," for instance, sit in the distance and create a different mood than you might find in a soul song. A haunting pedal steel guitar line by Greg Leisz helps push "Windows Are Rolled Down" along like a sunny Sunday drive. And then there's the final moments of "Violin," a one-take wonder that breaks down into a fuzzy guitar feedback coda as Lee quietly sings, "Oh, God. Oh, God."
All this adds up to something more than soul, folk, jazz and all those other tags that have overburdened Lee.
"There's been comparisons to Bill Withers, which is great, I love that," Burns said. "But it's more than that, too. He's got other influences. He really kind of confuses definitions, which is really interesting to me because I'm a fan of that kind of music where it's just not blatantly one thing, but it expands into other areas and other things."
Contact Chris Talbott at http://twitter.com/Chris_Talbott.
- Amos Lee