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The Soul Of Chris Lee

New York — Chris Lee's voice is big enough to carry all of us. Though he's never had any formal training as a singer, Lee is becoming known for a falsetto that sounds, oddly, neither thin nor tough to manage. He is handsome, tall and rangy, with floppy brown hair and a mustache. Occasionally, when he's moved, stamping his feet halfway through a show and about to sing a last chorus, he peaks — and the voice stops on some high, impossible plateau of melody with the audience on its back, then slips and tumbles down, fizzling on a few steps on the way back to earth.

Lee sweats a lot. (He told me, laughing over the phone, "I can't explain the sweat. It might be the Joe Cocker influence. He was pretty much a sweat-hog onstage.")

This past April, performing at Low, a bar in Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood, he quietly debuted a few songs from his new album Cool Rock (Misra Records), but unlike most nights, he showed no signs of a troubadour. The album then was still in production, and the new songs, played solo, sounded a bit rough. (When money's available, Lee tours with a band around him, but this summer he will tour alone.) The crowd barely noticed that Lee was in the room. There were a few distractions: a magician, actually an acquaintance of Lee's, went from table to table performing card tricks; near my table, four men sat around a glowing laptop and chatted excitedly about some application on the screen; and, as the evening was only the fifth night into New York's ban on smoking, many people seemed more concerned with cigarettes than the music or their companions, and they stared around, unlit cigarettes between their fingers, as though ashtrays might sprout up from other tables.

All of this is rare. Lee often brings his audiences to rapture, turning small, black-box clubs into hothouses, wild things. When the audience listens, and the sound engineer pays attention, and Lee himself is stirred, it comes as a surprise the morning after, when we're sober and the buzz in our ears has worn off, that Lee is not mentioned in the same leagues as Sade or Sam Cooke.

But that night in April, Lee was off. I've seen it other times — he gets a hangdog look, screws up his mouth and pouts into the microphone. He experiments with some choruses and lets others die at his feet. The voice stays in-bounds. Lee will look consumed, but also seem like he's struggling — with a muse, fatigue, or some interior combination. And though the songs are still extraordinary, perfect love ballads and strong, poppy rippers, it's a minor performance.

A lyric from his new single, "Sail On," comes to mind: "At times the feeling is too strong/ I'm too weak to carry on/ But I know this is where I belong."

At the Low show he finished after half an hour, muttered a quick goodbye to the crowd, then disappeared behind the bar. The audience packed up their shoulder bags and went home. "Where'd he go?" his wife, Julie, asked me, then ran off to look.

The next day we talk on the phone and he says he figures he played a few songs well. His conversation comes in fits, and occasionally, when talking about things he cares about, he'll get so frustrated that each sentence ends in mid-speech until he'll blurt out a confession to sum up all his points, and you feel a bit humbled, thundered-down, having received something quite bare and raw that you didn't ask for.

"It was an OK night," he tells me politely, ready to finish the conversation. I say it was better than that, but I know he doesn't hear me, because he's right.

Because to him, it was only OK. I've known Lee for a few years, and seen enough of his shows where people come out from the bar dripping sweat and grinning, far from speech, as if emerging from a particularly humid confession.

But not that night in March. To be saved requires first that we know we're in trouble. And some nights, it seems, Lee's listeners aren't ready to make that commitment, to be carried. And Lee, perhaps aware of our lassitude or feeling it himself, is less himself.

Secrets Of Pop Songs Revealed

We embrace pop music because it returns our affections. It is not an academic, or even thoughtful relationship. Like sex, it's best when dumb and easy, and once in a while, transcendent. Most really good songs are difficult to love at first — it takes a few rounds of listening until we can unpack the hooks and hum the chorus correctly. But once a tune is opened up and laid bare, it's ours. It smiles on us for weeks. And quite amazingly, it works this way for almost every listener, in most every genre. Though we can't predict how today's songs will sound in two centuries, good pop songs from the '50s are still catchy. The addiction hasn't changed, and the medicine, despite different coatings or makers, is the same. Like the '60s teenie-girls who screamed their heads off to their record players, we pop devotees can listen to a new, good song 20 times a day, four dozen times a week, until we know every snare-crack and guitar part and even the spot where the singer trips over a chorus. And then, as if we'd spent too much time looking in the mirror, or overeaten, we begin to find it and ourselves a bit revolting, and we store away the song for a much later, nostalgic visit.

As novelist and music writer Nick Hornby notes in his most recent collection, Songbook, "Only history will judge whether Ms. [Nelly] Furtado turns out to be any kind of artist, and though I have my suspicions that she will not change the way we look at the world, I can't say that I'm very bothered: I will always be grateful to her for creating in me the narcotic need to hear her song again and again. It is, after all, a harmless need, easily satisfied, and there are few enough of those in the world."

Though this may represent the gluttonous side of the spectrum, pop music — simply meaning songs that are melodic, short, and in my opinion, sing-able — snags its hooks in nearly everyone. It can strike from any radio or CD player, and it's fairly omnipotent; we are weak to gods we thought held no power over us. And though we put the songs away, eventually we are happy to return to them. (J. Lo may forever remind me of this past Christmas Eve, driving home from church at night on the FDR and so consumed by a need to hear "Jenny From the Block" that I made my family listen to the song in lieu of Handel. Five months later, I can't listen to it more than once a week.)

But some songs avoid any shelf life; they wink at us from the stereo. By some intrinsic strangeness, they manage to seem new every time. Or, if not new, then as if we were born with them already installed inside us, and when they're played, we wonder if the songwriter, in a fit of genius, had our lives in mind while composing. These are the songs that avoid attachments. In our memories they are resistant to influences (trips overseas, bad relationships, car commercials, recovery from bad relationships) or consume and stand for all of them. These are the pop songs with their own souls, who seem as alive and important to us as other people.

Most bands will write one or two of these songs. Lee, 30 years old, has already written five of them in three albums.

For example: My wife and I fell in love to his song "Baby Belle." Though I'm sure we listened to lots of music together at the time — at that point, she mostly listened to soul, and I was still tracking down every release on the Thrill Jockey label — it is the only song from our early period that stands out in my mind, and particularly the only song that, when I hear it played, trips my memory. My wife lived in Chapel Hill, N.C. at the time, and on my first trip down from Brooklyn, I brought her a just-released copy of Lee's first album as a gift.

We listened to it all weekend; we have listened to it many weekends since. "Baby Belle" is the album's sixth track, and though I haven't kept count, I would guess I have listened to that song at least 200 times. Not once has it ever sounded old.

A Sincere Evolution

Chris Lee, as both singer and songwriter, is a pop musician in the tradition that stores Morrissey, Bruce Springsteen, Nina Simone and Prince in the same record bin — farmers of their own lots, iconoclasts, existing almost separate from their influences. On the stage he stays in place and poses, very upright with his head back, and loses himself. His is an American talent: colloquial, soulful, and inclusive. Though he doesn't claim his heritage outright in (most of) his lyrics, Lee grew up in Charlotte, N.C., and the two sides of his musical influences from early on, divided easily between black and white, reflect the region's diversity: Sam and Dave, New Order, Smokey Robinson, the Cocteau Twins.

His new album, Cool Rock, is his third release in four years, and certainly his most distinctive. Artistically, it is a sincere evolution. The songs are more focused than on any of his previous releases, somehow more "his," and though he's added more texture to his music — a vibraphone player in some songs, and horns in others — the melodies actually sound sparser than those on his previous albums. They're simpler, but richer — gleaming, lonesome pop jewels.

I mention this to Lee when we meet outside one afternoon in Manhattan's Union Square, a few weeks after the show at Low. Lee lives half an hour away, in the Windsor Terrace section of Brooklyn, with his wife. It's sunny and warm. In a few hours, 200,000 anti-war protesters will march down Broadway into Washington Square. The police barricades are up, and already, a few young protesters mill around 14th Street, hustling signs, strutting, gaping as though they're looking for something close by to be upset about.

"I'm trying to write more on that level where the song plays itself," Lee tells me, after I describe my idea about his new songs and he nods along. "I'm constantly telling my guys, you don't need to play the song, you have to let it play you. Now that's a real weak, clichéd way of saying it, but the song should play itself."

We're sitting on a terrace of steps near Broadway's noisy bottleneck. Lee takes a breath, composing his thoughts; he likes to have the words right, though they often fail him. He continues in a rush: "And that's what good songs should do."

Lee hasn't performed his own music, or under his own name, for long. "I didn't mean to be a solo performer," he says. "I had these songs and I started thinking I could do it."

The first time he played solo was in 1998, at a concert at The Cooler in New York. Though he had played in many other bands before, including the North Carolina punk-country group Pine State, no one had told him before that he could or should sing. "They said they needed someone to fill a slot on the list, and I sort of piped up, 'I'll do it.' And then I freaked out. Like, 'Oh shit, I gotta find some songs.' I had the rough sketches of a few songs I could play, and I played some covers, 'Song of the Siren,' a Mississippi John Hurt song. Basically I tried to throw every challenge at myself that I had dreamed of trying to do, and then I did OK and didn't fuck up too bad."

He chuckles to himself and ducks his head, shakes his hair out. Unaffected by Brooklyn living, Lee's Southern accent pulls some of his words under the surface, and lifts others up for attention. We drift through conversation for half an hour, dissecting his recent performances, and though Lee is as polite and deferential offstage as he is consumed and direct when playing, his manner at times seems unsure. Perhaps it's simply the process of being interviewed; talking about other musicians, or production techniques, his conversation is fast and deeply knowledgeable, but when I ask about his own performances or songwriting, he stutters a bit, and tends to correct himself a few minutes after making a point. He's not uncomfortable with his talents, but he does seem to doubt them constantly.

"I'm always thinking I need to get better, and be better. I listen to my favorite stuff and just cringe. When I listen to Jimi Hendrix, I'm mortified that I try to do it. It's not that I can play guitar like Jimi Hendrix, but my theory is, the fabric of American life is so mediated and fast food-ed and mall-erized, how could anyone have an authentic life to invest in art anymore?"

This is not a rare sentiment with Lee, the feeling of illegitimacy, or the fear, perhaps, of being called a fraud. He told a TimeOut interviewer last year, "My two records are deeply flawed. I mean, I'm proud of them, that they exist. But I will never enjoy listening to them."

It sounds a bit like an actor who doesn't like to see herself onscreen, or even the universal strangeness and revulsion at hearing our own voices on tape. But when I ask him about those records — 2000's Chris Lee and 2001's Chris Lee Plays & Sings Torch'd Songs, Charivari Hymns & Oriki Blue-Marches — he confides, "What hurts so bad about the records, is that they're alive forever, and you have to deal with it. I'm mortified that the stuff's out there. It doesn't come close to what it should be. There's always a sense of 'Fuck, that's not it,' but we have to go with something. It's embarrassing to put something out there."

Then he clams up, and looks over — the same self-consciousness that applies to his talents is quite aware that he's being interviewed, and only politeness, it seems, keeps him from asking me to strike the comment.

"Do you ever feel more comfortable playing other people's songs?" I ask.

He brightens up: "Oh sure, yeah. I get much more pleasure out of it. Well, not 'much more,' but different. It's infinitely more fun and easy to sing other people's stuff. Especially when the tune is so strong, it's like walking on stilts."

A few minutes later he returns to the topic of playing covers and adds, with a bit of wonder, "A bunch of idiots can play these songs and not fuck them up 'cause they're so strong. They're just simple to play.

"'Honky Tonkin' ' by Hank Williams is pretty much a one-chord song. I was talking to my friend the other day, we still don't know how he can pull that off." He takes a deep breath and stares around. "Music doesn't explain the way George Jones sings. It's not in the math. You learn, I can take these three same chords, and if I can find the intangible thing, then I can make it sound better than you can. It's sort of something everybody knows, but it really hits home when you listen to these old songs."

It's that "intangible thing" that seems to drive Lee crazy. If he can't understand how to find it each time, how to create it or call it up when it's needed, how can he make albums that meet his expectations? In our conversations, he constantly returns to it from different angles. "I've always, always wanted to do pop music that was still substantial," he says, and later: "That's the theme — love in different forms. I don't have the answer to why the lyrics keep coming back to that, but the very easy answer is there's very little that's more important. It's the most labored subject, but it's nowhere close to exhausted. How could you exhaust that?"

A young man walks past us chanting "Let's go war!" Lee and I watch him go, then I ask if he's always, perhaps only privately, been a singer. He ducks his head and nods. His answer comes quietly, then picks up in volume: "I thought I could sing, but I didn't think anybody else would like the way I did it. That's what held me back for so many years — I was interested in singers who don't have conventional voices like I do. Ian Curtis, Neil Young, Dylan. People who are more idiosyncratic in their approach to singing. So when I tried to do stuff and heard myself sing, I was afraid people would think it was way too commercial or traditional." He moves in his seat and his voice rises a notch. "But what I eventually realized was two things." He flicks his fingers out. "One, that's the way I sing, and number two, when you do something that's honest, there's nothing that anyone can really say. They can not like it... but it would be more dishonest of me to sing like Neil Young or Stephen Malkmus or any of those guys if that's a totally false thing for me to do." He sighs and waits a moment. "I figured, why don't I do what naturally comes out when I sit down at a guitar, and there was the answer. Nobody can say, 'Hey, you're posing.' And when a few people said they enjoyed it, that was encouraging. And since '98, it's slowly but surely gotten bigger and bigger."

The protesters are gathering around us. There are sirens ringing through Manhattan, lots of picket signs and riot police. Lee sticks his hand through his hair and forks up his bangs; it's a tic of his when he's nervous or tired, pushing his hair up in vertical tweaks. We finish the conversation and head towards the march.

Football Or Rock 'N' Roll?

Lee grew up playing sports. His father was the high school's football coach and in his tenure, Lee played quarterback. "I didn't know there was anything else besides football. I played three sports before I could talk. It was like eating; it was just there. I wasn't pressured by my dad, but it was the most natural thing in the world, because it was what he was so into... So I wouldn't go do something completely random that young, like rock 'n' roll. Basically I was kinda bred to be an athlete and I loved it, and kept doing it."

Still, he finished playing in high school when his interests changed: "When I quit sports, it was the age where things got pretty serious — do you want to go to college and play? All-county? Play at a big public school? At the time I just wanted to chase girls and drink and sleep in the summer, not go lift weights. I was choosing to be a teenager, rather than a QB."

And it was, perhaps, a good choice; as his father wrote me in an email: "Let's just put it this way, college recruiters didn't exactly beat down our door trying to get Chris to sign on. He was tall and skinny for which he compensated by being slow."

Like a lot of teenagers, he also played music with friends. He and his friends decided, in fact, to form a cover band in high school, but then "we decided we didn't have to be a fucking boring cover band, we could cover Joy Division, Bauhaus, The Cult. We never could figure out why we weren't getting many gigs, but we did a fucking howling rendition of 'Bela Lugosi's Dead,' and most of The Cult's Love album."

Lee went on to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and study philosophy and art history. He grunted in recognition over the phone when I mentioned the other artist/quarterback that comes to mind, the video artist Matthew Barney, who frequently includes football imagery in his work, often with sexual allusions. For himself, Lee explained, it's more about work and the payoff. Playing music, he said, is "totally similar as when I was playing sports. You practice every day and it's hell. There's nothing worse than a football practice. You do it five times a week, but then you go out in the games and it's totally, totally worth it, competing in front of people."

Lee, his wife, Julie, and I wander up Broadway towards the beginning of the protest march. Julie, a theater director and college instructor, is the most vocal of our group; though Chris listens attentively, makes a joke in a few places and seems to agree with her politically, there's a sense he's only along for the ride. We join the march somewhere near 30th Street and begin walking south, careful to avoid the more zealous protesters. At one point, staring straight ahead over the crowd, Lee confides that large groups terrify him. He looks miserable the whole time.

Soul Man

In an email exchange, Lee's mother told me, "At his cousin's wedding reception a few years ago, in a Southern country club setting, he took to the stage and sang 'Do Right Woman' with so much soul, he brought the house down."

Having seen Lee perform, I don't find it hard to imagine the scenario, but soul doesn't have much of a place in today's pop music. It may never have had. Though of course there is a style of music called soul — for black musicians — and, in America's devotion to racial boundaries, even one called blue-eyed soul — which may try to be rock with soul aspects, but is really for white musicians who prefer their soul with quotes around it — outside the record companies' marketing rooms, I use the term to refer more to the character of the musician and his music than the style that's played. (Especially considering the staleness and cookie-cutter sounds of the big soul acts. Alicia Keys? Justin Timberlake?)

Soul is the best and most elusive word for Lee's intangible element, what separates great artists and songs from the merely good. It seems to have little to do with race, CD bins, talent, or even emotions. Black musicians have no better natural claim on soulful music than whites (though they certainly have made more of it), just as garage rock, judged by genre, is no more substantial than sugar-pop. Soul, in music, requires conflict and uncertainty, and certainly must be different. It is what separates Radiohead, D'Angelo, and Rufus Wainwright from their competitors. The best songs — those with their own souls — must move the listener by more than sentimental means. At the finish, the listener must wonder if the song could have ever been written by anyone else, and conclude no. Lee, in that TimeOut interview, said, "For me, soul has always been the source code for all other music," and I'm inclined to agree with him, though not in the way that he means.

Lee sings about the same topics as all the rest of history's great pop singers — love and all its troubles — but with a sincerity rare in rock 'n' roll, and the kind of skill and genuine, heart-rattling, yes soulful and strange talent that befuddles marketing strategies and turns hearts. To point: does anyone believe The Strokes? We may or may not like them, we may or may not dance to their songs, but are they more than their hairstyles, jeans, and choruses? We like our singers to be grand, almost biblical. They should testify for us, for our pain and our struggles and our own desires to be unique. They should all be Nick Cave or Billie Holiday and have magical voices. We like them to address God, and Love, and other things we have a hard time assigning capital letters in our hearts, where our own problems seem woefully cliché and small. Pop music brings us together — it says, find this song, this artist to believe in, you and your friends, and through it, be lifted.

Cool Rock is the most fully realized of Chris's albums, and for those fans who know the earlier recordings, it is the most consistently, and satisfyingly him. It is still possible to make comparisons to Jeff Buckley, even Tim Buckley, or Al Green, but becoming less so. The songs are not difficult or clever, they don't show off. The second track, "Sail On," is so catchy it may become the summer's anthem (well, for those who hear it, anyway); "Lately I Want You" rolls itself into a surprising amount of brittle yearning; "Understand (I'm Your Man)" is easy and long-lasting; "Say It Ain't Soul" is perhaps the most affecting and mature, even distant of songs, and perfectly balanced, and at the end blends into the album's final track, a cover of Mississippi John Hurt's "Nobody Cares for Me," which should win awards for making sense to everyone. Each song is Lee, directly and masterfully and wholly, and as he pointed out, we can not like him, but we can't call him a liar.

The protest march moves slowly to Washington Square and empties out; the organizers tell us we have to leave immediately, so the rest of the protesters can come through. We watch the crowd for a few minutes then leave for cheeseburgers. A few weeks later I email Lee with a few questions for fact-checking, and in response to one about his feelings regarding his earlier, pre-Cool Rock songs, he writes, "I'm fiercely proud of every single one. I only wish I didn't have to listen to the recorded versions of them."

Those same recordings save his fans all the time; perhaps someday, when Lee finds what he's looking for, they'll save him too. — Rosecrans Baldwin [Monday, June 23, 2003]

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