Writer’s Room: Amos Lee

Photo by Brantley Gutierrez

It has been seven years since Amos Lee had the #1 album on the Billboard charts with Mission Bell. That success increased his audience to a size that might be hard to relate to — or even imagine. But Lee found a way to keep his music personal by volunteering to sing to individual patients in hospitals through organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project, Musicians on Call and the Melodic Caring Project.

It was the latter group that put him in touch with Maya, a seven-year-old Seattle girl isolated in quarantine as she battled cancer. Lee couldn’t be in the same room with her, but he could communicate through FaceTime, singing whatever song she requested, whether it be the Beatles or Meghan Trainor. During a radio-promo tour to Virginia, Lee discussed his relationship with Maya and how it helped to inspire his new album, My New Moon.

Did you ever get to meet Maya face-to-face?

After I got the good news that she was in remission, I met her whole family. It was me and Maya on the couch with her brother Braden, with her father and grandmother in the room. She’s just a light for me. This world can seem gray and depressing, but to hear her say, ‘I’m just glad to be alive and feel the sun on my skin,’ I’m grateful for that. I try to show my gratitude through music. The song “Little Light” is about that.

Half a dozen songs on the album use metaphors of light and dark to tell their story. Why were you drawn to that imagery?

A lot of these songs are about grief and loss, so darkness was an obvious way to talk about that. But I didn’t want it to be all about grief; I wanted there to also be some light. I find that balance between grief and hope to be crucial on albums and in shows. A lot of songs I write are ballads so I’m always conscious of looking for levity to make the catharsis more effective.

How does the album’s title play into this?

The title, My New Moon, plays with this concept of light and dark. You can see the new moon as mostly darkness or as the beginning of the light, as the end of a cycle or the start of the cycle. They say crisis and opportunity can be bedfellows, and that’s true not only of our times but also the experiences of Maya and her family. They went through a crisis and found a new appreciation for sunlight and the waves. Can we find a similar appreciation from our national crisis?

The album’s title comes from a line in the song, “Whiskey On Ice,” which depicts a mother who has lost a son strolling the empty halls of her home in the early hours of morning, searching out the first white line of sunrise and hoping the moon is the start of something and not just the end. Where did that come from?

That song is based on two of my friends’ moms after both of my friends passed away. I imagine myself being them in that hour of feeling lonely and not sure of what anything is. That line, ‘The light finding its own shape’ implies that you’re not in control of it at the moment. You can control how you interpret it, but you can’t control how the light moves.

How did your experience singing to individuals in hospitals change your approach to your larger audience via records or concerts?

Singing for large audiences is like being a chef in the kitchen and you don’t know one-to-one how your food’s going to be received by a particular diner. But you can’t treat each dish with anything less than the best intention, not if you’re a serious chef. So I approach each concert the same way: When I go on stage, I try to imagine one person sitting in the audience that I might have a personal relationship with, like the one I have with Maya or my mother. And when fans come back after the show and tell me about their lives, I find they feel that kind of personal relationship.

How do you draw a connection from Maya’s story to our national story?

The messaging from the White House and a lot of politicians is very divisive — and intentionally so. Divisiveness can be a method of control. I get bummed out by it, because it’s tearing us apart. We all want the same thing, but the fires of our fears are being stoked. People who have abundance are afraid of losing it and people who don’t have it want it. Our workforce is really changing; our neighborhoods are changing.

My hope is that we can find more unity. I want these moments to make bonds rather than break bonds. I don’t expect everyone in the world to hold hands and sing together, but I don’t think promoting hate in a time of crisis is helpful at all. I don’t understand why tragedy can’t be a unifying experience to make us better. It was for Maya’s family.