Embracing their acoustic roots, AJ Lee and Blue Summit shed their electric instruments for their latest album, I’ll Come Back, which was released on August 20. Hoping to capture the live sound that fans have come to love about the Bay Area band, they unplugged their amps when they stepped into the studio and turned up the volume on the creative bond that has made them a tight-knit unit since first forming in 2015.
I recently sat down with AJ Lee to discuss finishing what she started, musical nuances, and making sense of word vomit.
Americana Highways: I’ll Come Back is your second album. What did you set out to accomplish with number two that you didn’t achieve with the first?
AJ Lee: Unlike our first album, Like I Used To, which had drums and electric guitar, we aimed to capture a more natural, acoustic sound with this new record.
AH: No one knows your music better than you. When you listen to the album, where do you hear the biggest growth compared to some of your earlier songwriting?
AJL: I believe my songwriting now has better imagery. The funny thing is that I started many of these new songs when I was a teenager so most of my growth can be attributed to being able to finish what I started. The biggest difference between the two albums regarding the writing and composition would be that we’ve put more energy into arrangements on this record.
AH: You set out to capture the live vibe of the band with I’ll Come Back. How do you do that in a studio setting and make it translate to what we, the audience, would hear and feel if we were standing in a club catching an AJ Lee & Blue Summit show?
AJL: To capture as live as a recording as we could, while still being able to experiment with parts and arrangements, we recorded all the basic rhythm tracks together – some of us in isolation booths – but having the feeling as if we were all in one room playing at the same time. We could still see each other and respond to musical nuances in real-time. So as a listener, you should hear the dynamics and swells that would occur in a live setting.
AH: In terms of the songwriting, are there any themes that carry through I’ll Come Back that reflect where you were personally when bringing the tracks together?
AJL: Many of these songs reflect where I was emotionally and just where I actually was, like “Lemons and Tangerines” for instance – a fun song about a grafted tree growing in my backyard in San Jose, CA. “When You Change Your Mind” and the title track, “I’ll Come Back,” are two of my favorites on the album because they have the most meaning to me personally. “When You Change Your Mind” is about a self-deprecating artist and “I’ll Come Back” is… complicated, but it’s more or less about finding what grounds you and being able to come back to that sense of “home” – whoever, or whatever that may be.
AH: What does songwriting do for you as a person that being a listener can not accomplish? Other than scratching that creative itch, does it benefit you other ways – sometimes in different ways at different times?
AJL: As a songwriter, I feel like I can express myself as vaguely or precisely as I want and I don’t have the need to explain exactly how I feel or what I want to say. Songwriting is an outlet of emotion for me since emotions seem so complicated, it’s hard to know exactly how I feel at a given time. I can put word vomit on paper and somehow it makes sense to me, and somehow sometimes it makes sense to everyone else.
AH: You play the mandolin. What is it about the instrument that first drew you to it and do you have a different relationship with it now than you did in those early days?
AJL: My mom’s side of the family has a long history of musicians, so naturally she surrounded me with instruments and taught me to sing on pitch as soon as I was able. I believe she started me on mandolin because it fit in my small hands easier than guitar. Even though I’ve been playing for eighteen years, I hadn’t started improvising on my own until joining this band in 2015. I like to think I’m improving!
AH: What would the AJ who first picked up the mandolin think of this album if she had a chance to hear it? Would she be surprised?
AJL: Baby AJ didn’t have opinions on the music arts or industry, but I’m sure she would have been surprised at the concept of making music with her best friends for a living.
AH: As you transition from having one album to having a catalog of music, do you ever look back and reflect on those different versions of your creative self? Does making albums become a bit like yearbooks that look in on your life at a particular time?
AJL: Having made seven albums in different configurations over the last thirteen years or so – I’ll Come Back being the eighth – I would say making albums is a bit like having yearbooks. They all become snapshots of my career at different stages in life. I wouldn’t say I do much reflecting on previous projects because I’m so focused on moving forward and working on material that is, hopefully, better than the last.
AH: What is your biggest creative accomplishment to date and why?
AJL: To date, I’m most proud of being able to put out two full length albums of all original songs.
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
AJL: No, living the experiences you get to have in this profession is most of the reason why I do it.
To catch AJ Lee and Blue Summit on the road, visit www.bluesummitmusic.com.
Find more interviews on our site, for example here: Interview: James McMurtry on the State of the Union, Songwriting Process, Fishing, and Recent Tour with Jason Isbell