Celestial Electric, the first-ever collaboration by AM & Shawn Lee, marks the launch of a timely musical partnership that’s more than the sum of its already formidable parts. Although both artists are already well-established for their own work, their audacious new set finds these two sonic iconoclasts joining forces to create music that’s distinctly adventurous, yet effortlessly accessible and emotionally resonant. The project marks a creative milestone for both artists, offering timeless, deeply compelling music that showcases the duo’s remarkable creative chemistry.
Celestial Electric finds L.A.-based indie-pop auteur AM and London-based groovemaster/experimentalist Lee pooling their talents to create a unique brand of electro-soul that achieves seamless pop perfection, while mining a startlingly broad array of stylistic influences. The resulting blend of heartfelt, warmly melodic songcraft and vivid, inventive soundscapes underlines the artists’ abiding love for all manner of vintage genres, encompassing pop, soul, funk, jazz, Brazilian tropicalia, Turkish psychedelia, and soundtracks and library music from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
Celestial Electric’s sleek, boundary-pushing approach is reflected on such uplifting tunes as the insightful generational anthem “Dark Into Light,” the bittersweetly soulful “City Boy” and the hauntingly intimate “Can’t Figure It Out,” which merge irresistible melodicism with deeply distinctive grooves. Elsewhere, “The Signal” demonstrates the duo’s penchant for exotic, eclectic arrangements, suggesting an ’80s Bollywood synth-pop dance party, while the swaggeringly funky instrumental “Callahan” (named in honor of Clint Eastwood’s ’70s cop anti-hero Dirty Harry) conjures up a bracingly atmospheric vibe a la Lalo Schifrin, while adding a dollop of futuristic electronic melody. The twosome’s irresistible pop sensibility also drives their effervescent reading of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ 1974 hit “Jackie Blue”, a cover which AM’s friend singer/songwriter Gary Jules suggested to him. U.K. DJ and tastemaker mixologist Andy Votel, of Finders Keepers/B-Music fame, provided the album’s cover design and liner notes.
New Orleans-bred, L.A.-based tunesmith AM has won widespread acclaim by merging pop, soul, folk, R&B and psychedelia into highly personalized songcraft. In addition to releasing several albums on various labels (including 2010’s Future Sons & Daughters), he spent practically all of last year out on the road touring with a diverse range of artists including AIR, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Josh Rouse and legendary Brazilian tropicalia icon Caetano Veloso.
Kansas-born, London-based composer/producer/instrumentalist Shawn Lee has established a reputation as a mischievous sonic innovator, releasing more than twenty genre-spanning albums of his original material, usually as Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra. He has worked on recording projects with Clutchy Hopkins, Saint Etienne, Arthur Verocai, Greyboy, Coldcut, Tony Joe White, Darondo, Money Mark and Tommy Guerrero and opened for bands such as Phoenix, Sigur Ros, Kings Of Convenience, Bonnie Prince Billy, and Joseph Arthur.
The seeds for AM and Shawn Lee’s collaboration on Celestial Electric were planted when AM heard Lee’s Music and Rhythm album on L.A.’s KJazz, and was impressed enough to reach out to him online. The two met up in London, and later in L.A., where AM played guitar on a series of live gigs with Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra.
As Lee recalls, “During that L.A. trip, we listened to a lot of music together and bonded over our mutual love of vintage French and Italian library and film music and nuggets from the Finders Keepers record label. I suggested that we make an album together, and the rest is history.”
AM and Lee worked on Celestial Electric from their respective hometowns, trading ideas and tracks via email. Lee, armed with an early-’80s four-track deck and other vintage tape machines in his London studio, began by creating beats and sending them to AM, who wrote songs and lyrics over Lee’s grooves, added vocals, guitars, bass and synths, and emailed the tracks back to Lee, who then added keyboards, percussion and a variety of instruments and mixed the tracks. The two commented on each other’s work via email until each was happy with the result.
“It was refreshing to work this way,” AM says. “When we started, Shawn shot me a drum beat and I immediately wrote ‘City Boy’ over it. We both knew we had something pretty special, and it just took off from there.”
“I really used Shawn’s beats to help shape the songs, and I let the restrictions determine the outcome,” AM continues. “If the beat changed or did something weird, then I wrote to it. The process was very quick, and every time I would get a file from Shawn, it was like Christmas morning. I couldn’t wait to hear what he had come up with, and I think he felt the same way.”
“The whole thing really exceeded my expectations, and I think we really upped each other’s game,” Lee notes, adding, “The sound of this music is shaped by cheapo Casio and Yamaha synthesizers, and an old four-track cassette machine. All of the drums were recorded with one cheap plastic mic on the four-track. We used a lot of lo-fi gear, but the music we made sounds like much more than that.”
AM & Shawn Lee’s fortuitous partnership began generating substantial advance buzz several months before Celestial Electric’s release. The pair won considerable attention when they previewed the album on stage at the SXSW Music and Media Conference in March 2011. The following month, they celebrated Record Store Day by releasing a limited-edition gold-vinyl 12-inch single on Ubiquity Records, featuring “Dark Into Light,” When Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation heard the tracks, he elbowed out a handful of labels to release Celestial Electric on his label ESL (Eighteenth Street Lounge). Says Garza, “I’ve been a fan of Shawn Lee’s music for quite some time and when I heard what he and AM had put together I thought it would be an exciting project for ESL. It’s fresh, and infectious, combining elements from many different genres. We’re looking forward to putting it out on our label.”