AM Partners with Shawn Lee on New Project
Written by Chrissy Mauck
L.A.-based singer-songwriter AM has a thing for patterned socks. It’s the final item of a long list of “stuff I like” on his official website that includes vinyl, Craftsman architecture, Vitrosax glassware, heirloom tomatoes and Jack Nicholson.
|AM has two explanations behind his band name.
“It happens to be my initials, but it’s also a reference to that era when AM radio was still a big part of music and just what that AM sound evokes — kind of old; maybe a little bit crusty,” explains AM. “A lot of AM stations had a really eclectic blend of music, which I think also plays into it. Radio was so different back then; less restrictive. You would hear rock music stacked up against soul and stuff. It wasn’t as compartmentalized as it is now. I guess I have a real reverential thing for AM radio.”
“I like socks with some personality because they just kind of peek out every now and then,” explains AM. “I think it’s a little bit of a treat for somebody else that is nearby that they get a peek at your sock (his current favorite pair is purple argyle) and it’s got some action. Socks are so boring generally that it’s just a way to express yourself subtly.”
The Tulsa, Okla.-born, Louisiana-raised musician took a similar approach when it came to penning the lyrics for 2010 soul, psych-pop and folk album Future Sons & Daughters.
“I’ve always responded better to poetic lyrics than I have storytelling-based lyrics,” AM explains. “I feel when lyrics are too specific, it sort of takes the magic away for me. The more poetic and vague, the more timeless they can be. I tend to remember one or two specific lines or quotes from songs.”
For instance, AM rehashes a recent conversation with a friend in which the two lamented how fast the world is changing and how rampant technology is, even among very young children.
“Every kid has a cell phone or an iPad, and as we’re discussing this I suddenly had to laugh over how old I sounded,” shares AM. “I ended up quoting that Jeff Tweedy (Wilco leader) line ‘Every generation thinks it’s the last.’ I don’t know any other lyrics from the song except that one; it just pokes out because it’s so genius. I just love those poetic type of songwriters like Lou Reed or Beck or even Bob Dylan.”
AM did, however, vaguely sketch the back story to Future Sons & Daughters cut “Darker Days,” which American Songwriter described as “a Jeff Tweedy outtake.”
“That song plays with the notion of somebody coming into your life and helping to dissolve your cynicism or bringing new life into yours,” he says. “Again, I like to let the listener get what they get out of it, but that’s a general overview.”
Unlike his pursuit of lyrical obscurity, AM is much more obtuse when it comes to showcasing his melodic influences. On Future Sons & Daughters, the former record store employee demonstrates a diverse sonic palette that includes a love for New Orleans funk, Brazilian jazz, Italian soundtracks, psychedelic grooves, alt-country tempos and classic pop of the ’60s and ’70s.
“It’s not like I tried to intentionally put all of my influences or inspirations on the album, but I didn’t censor myself from letting them come through, either,” he explains. “What that record became was sort of a blend of everything I was listening to, but with what I do as a songwriter gluing it all together.”
AM’s love affair with music took root when his family moved to the New Orleans suburb of Mandeville.
“I was 13 and we moved during the summer and I didn’t know anybody, so it was a lonely time,” he says. “I had just started playing the guitar and, I think because of the solitude, music became sort of a companion. I started playing all the time and I think I knew then it was something I was going to stick with.”
Eventually he moved to the Big Easy, where he could soak up live music on a nightly basis.
“New Orleans was definitely responsible for getting me into funk and jazz,” he says. “There’s a radio station called WWOZ, and it’s amazing. They just play the deepest cuts. One of the best funk bands in the world, the Meters, came out of New Orleans, so it’s just ingrained there. I think what New Orleans gave me was the appreciation for groove. That’s just a mainstay in that city.”
On moving to Los Angeles to pursue a music career, AM’s love of jazz and funk quickly expanded.
“There was a closer proximity in L.A. to the Latin culture, and my access to that music was greater,” he says. “I connected especially with Brazilian music the first time I heard it because it’s rhythmic, but it’s still based around jazz and the bossa nova stuff. Having already liked jazz, that was sort of an obvious quick thing.”
AM plays homage to one of his favorite Brazilian artists, Jorge Ben, in the album’s only instrumental track, “Jorge Ben.”
“I think chordally it sort of plays to what he did and, above all, the style of guitar playing that he employed,” says AM. “Jorge found bossa nova to be pretty hard to play — which it is — and so he kind of did his own thing with it where he just kind of whacked on the guitar with his fingers. His guitar playing is just so innovative and cool, and I’ve always responded to that kind of rhythmic approach, much like John Martin uses, too. That’s been the style I incorporate into playing acoustic guitar.”
At the suggestion of Future Sons & Daughter producer Charles Newman, AM also incorporated a new instrument into his repertoire, using a ukulele on breezy pop track “The Other Side.”
|AM & Shawn Lee have teamed up with Pledge Music to help raise funds to tour the new record this summer. In exchange for pledges, AM & Shawn Lee are offering fans limited edition merch (like Lee’s tiger mask or AM’s socks), the very first access to their new music, and some other interesting experiences such as the chance to have a song with the fan’s name in the title. If the pair exceed their pledge amount to go on tour, they will make a donation to help victims of the Japanese tsunami. Get more details here.|
“I didn’t have one and I didn’t know how to play it, but I picked one up and learned that song on it and I was like, ‘Wow, this is a whole new world.’ Since then I’ve really enjoyed playing it, and on my new project the uke is employed much differently — more of a baroque folk style. It just has such a high register and very tingly, and the nylon strings are so soft and pretty. I love it, so I’ve been doing a lot more experimenting with it and trying to stay away from the boring uke chordal progressions you’re seeing everywhere now. The ukulele is not a one-trick pony, so I’m trying to give it its justice.”
The new project AM refers to is his new collaboration with London-based film score composer Shawn Lee. The partnership began after AM heard a song on the radio from Music & Rhythm, an album by Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra.
“I thought it was an old piece of music; something from the early ’70s,” remembers AM. “I was just waiting for the DJ to tell me it was off some Italian soundtrack or something, and then he said Shawn Lee, which sounded more current. So when I got home I looked him up and realized he’s currently making this instrumental music. I e-mailed him and we became friends because we both share a love for that type of old ’60s/’70s music, and eventually we decided it was kind of stupid we hadn’t worked together before.”
Lee, armed with a four-track and other vintage tape machines in his London studio, began sending drum and percussion beats to AM, who would then add guitars and lyrics.
“It was a totally new songwriting approach for me,” says AM. “He’s a very musical drummer, so he would send me beats to write over and I would write a song to the beat and restrict myself. My rule was that it’s got to start when the beat starts and it’s got to end when the beat ends, and when the beat changes the sections need to change. I let that serve as my outline. I’ve never done that before — let the drumbeat dictate what I’m going to do and restrict me to a certain framework, so it forced me to be even more creative because I had to operate within these certain guidelines. And so that was fun and that actually came along very quickly.”
The pair has now completed an album’s worth of material that darts in and out of the pop/soul/tropicalia worlds. Debut track “Dark Into Light” will be released on vinyl on April 16 in honor of Record Store Day.
“It’s a perfect blend,” says AM of the partnership. “Shawn is playing drums and percussions and he brings a very specific and intense groove to the music. I’m bringing more of my ethereal and melodic songwriting sensibilities to the table, and lyrics. I’m still singing on everything, but Shawn’s presence is clearly there because he mixed the record and really brought an organic quality to it. His mixes sound really crusty and old, so he’s definitely shaped both the groove and the sound of this record.”
Sample “Dark Into Light’ below, and stay tuned for the AM and Shawn Lee album release in summer 2011.