with Neal Francis
With one foot in the real world and the other in a charmed dimension of his own making, Amos Lee creates the rare kind of music that’s emotionally raw yet touched with a certain magical quality. On his eighth album Dreamland, the Philadelphia-born singer/songwriter intimately documents his real-world struggles (alienation, anxiety, loneliness, despair), an outpouring born from deliberate and often painful self-examination. “For most of my life I’ve walked into rooms thinking, ‘I don’t belong here,’” says Lee. “I’ve come to the realization that I’m too comfortable as an isolated person, and I want to reach out more. This record came from questioning my connections to other people, to myself, to my past and to the future.”
In the spirit of fostering connection, Lee made Dreamland in close collaboration with L.A.-based producer Christian “Leggy” Langdon (Banks, Meg Myers). “I met with Leggy, who I really didn’t know anything about, and before we even started to work we had a very open and vulnerable conversation about what was going on in our lives,” he recalls. “So much of what I do is solitary work, and it felt good to find someone I could connect with—sort of like, ‘I’m a lonely kid, and I wanna play.’” Thanks to that palpable sense of playfulness, Dreamland embodies an unpredictable and endlessly imaginative sound—a prime showcase for Lee’s warmly commanding voice and soul-baring songwriting.
The very first song that Lee and Langdon created together, “Hold You” set the standard for Dreamland’s open-hearted confession. With its delicate convergence of so many exquisite sonic details—luminous guitar tones, ethereal textures, tender toy-piano melodies—the track finds Lee looking inward and uncovering a deep urge to provide comfort and solace. “Especially if you’ve grown up with a less-than-appealing inner voice, you have to start with yourself,” he notes. On “Worry No More”—the mantra-like lead single to Dreamland—Lee shares his hard-won insight into riding out anxiety. “I’ve had a lot of episodes with anxiety in my life and now I feel much more equipped to handle them, partly because my family and friends have always been so supportive of me,” he says. “Music has also been so healing for me, and helped me to find a place in my mind that isn’t purely controlled by fear.” To that end, “Worry No More” gently exalts music’s power to brighten our perspective, with the song’s narrator slipping into a headphone-induced reverie as they wander a broken world (“I’m listening to the sounds of Miles/Spanish sketches, playground smiles/Crowded streets and empty vials/For all to share”).
All throughout Dreamland, Lee embraces an unfettered honesty, repeatedly shedding light on the darkest corners of his psyche. On “Into the Clearing,” for instance, the album takes on a moody intensity as Lee speaks to a desire for obliteration. “There’s always a longing to be one with the universe, to be one with nature, to be one with the sky,” he says. “And sometimes the only way you can be with the sky is to be smoke.” A powerfully uplifting track with a gospel-like energy, “See the Light” evokes a fierce resolve to hold tight to hope (“Since I know I’m going to be singing these songs over and over, I like to infuse them with helpful messages to myself,” Lee says). With its soulful piano work and soaring string arrangement, “Seeing Ghosts” reflects on anxiety’s insidious ability to warp our perception. “For a lot of people with anxiety disorders, there’s this fog that sets in, where your brain becomes overwhelmed and you disconnect,” says Lee. “I’ve definitely seen ghosts my whole life.” In a striking tonal shift, Lee then delivers one of Dreamland’s most euphoric moments on “Shoulda Known Better,” a radiant piece of R&B-pop fueled by his dreamy falsetto. “That song’s looking at the messy side of life,” he says. “It’s saying, ‘I was dumb, I shouldn’t have done that, but we had a lot of fun. I don’t regret it at all.’”
In the making of Dreamland, Lee found his songwriting indelibly informed by his recent reading of Johann Hari’s 2018 book Lost Connections. “It’s about depression, which I have a pretty deep history with, and how our society and our generation looks at mental health and healing in terms of medication rather than thinking about our personal relationship to the people and the world around us,” he says. And with the release of Dreamland, Lee hopes that his songs might inspire others to live more fully and free of fear. “Over the course of my life I’ve come to understand that music is my bridge to other people,” he says. “I have no idea what the waters are like below that bridge—it might be lava for all I know—but music allows me to float over the whole thing and connect. To me that’s the whole point of why we do this: to give people something to listen to and be enveloped by the love of another human being, and just be reminded that humanity is beautiful.”