Frankie Lee: When a song happens, you never think it'll happen again

Frankie Lee: When a song happens, you never think it'll happen again
Photo courtesy of the artist

Frankie Lee. It's a name you like saying -- which is always a good thing when you are a musician. And to look at Lee, you'd assume, without knowing anything else about him, that he is a musician. In a denim jacket and wide-brimmed hat, Lee has a casual cowboy-coolness about him that makes him seem like a guy totally comfortable in his own skin. Talking to Lee puts you at ease because he takes his time with his words: a conversation is like taking a walk on a shady path.

Lee's debut EP, Middle West, due out today with a release show at Icehouse, follows the same theme: it's a five-song rambler of original country and blues tunes, and it flows easier than sangria in the summertime.

For Frankie Lee, Middle West is a record born on the road, on his way home. It was about two years ago that Lee traveled on a long cross-country drive from California back to his native Minnesota. To hear Lee tell it, all his best songwriting comes from being on the road.

"It's usually when I'm traveling. There'll be a notepad involved, or a receipt, or a napkin. There's always notes that you make, and then when the movement stops, you have time to catch up with all those pure thoughts," says Lee, sipping thoughtfully on a cup of coffee. "It's on the way to a place or back from a place that these things come, and the process is totally alone. There's no formula, and every time a song happens, you don't ever think it's going to happen again."

The EP was recorded in two days at a warehouse, and the players involved are like a Minneapolis Best-Of: JT Bates on drums, Mike Lewis on bass, Jake Hanson on guitar, Ryan Young on fiddle, and Jeremy Ylvisaker on guitar, with sound engineering and additional guitar parts by Erik Koskinen. Haley Bonar does vocals on the closing track "Black Dog," while Jeremy Hanson sits in on drums. Now, finally, a year after the EP recording, Lee is finally ready to send his songs out into the world.

"I've been playing music for ten years, but the side of recording... I just never felt like there was the right time or place to do it," says Lee. "With these guys, it felt right going into it. That was the premise."

There's a lot going on in the 19 minutes on Middle West. Lee lifts influences out of a childhood surrounded by music and the hearty old country that guides his aesthetic. You can pick some of them out -- Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams come through pretty clearly -- and then there's some other element that's less easily identified. "East Side Blues" is a desert-lonely song with a sweet sort of ache to it, and "Country" has the kind of rowdiness that makes you want to pack your bags and head for, well, the country.

Middle West feels like a record for the road: you feel all the gravel and tar and breeze when you listen to it, but it's familiar, as though you're going home. Lee's vocals are smooth and minimal -- he leaves the twang to the guitar strings and the atmosphere to the composition.

"I try to stay really simple and really honest. With music, with lyrics, with instrumentation, all that stuff," says Lee, a small smile at the corner of his mouth. "Honest and simple is what we are as people, and that's what I like to hear. Limit yourself enough to the essence of who you are, and in music that's hard to do."

For Frankie Lee, part of keeping it honest and simple means controlling the release. Lee is a traditionalist at heart, and you'll be hard-pressed to find his music streaming on the internet. He's got this view that music isn't about the instant gratification of a click-through--it's about the tangible emotions that are attached to music, about the physicality of an actual record. It's the notion that belongs to the country artists, the ones who are still doing things the simple, honest way. If there are more records like Middle West coming from that viewpoint, well, here's to hoping nothing changes.

Frankie Lee plays a CD Release Show at Icehouse on Friday, March 22. Cactus Blossoms are opening. Doors at 10:30 p.m. $10. 21+. Middle West is available for purchase at the Electric Fetus.

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