• AJ Lee Talks Mandolins, Touring, Songwriting and more

    AJ Lee and Blue Summit

    AJ Lee and Blue Summit have been making new fans outside their home state of California ever since they hit the road to support their excellent recent albums of mostly original material, I'll Come Back and Like I Used To. We chatted about touring, songwriting, the hit cover "Harvest Moon," and an upcoming album they just recorded. If you have the opportunity, get out and see this band as they are the total package and a whole lotta fun.

    About the author: Dave Berry is a mandolin player, composer, and freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Bluegrass Today, the California Bluegrass Association Breakdown, and on the Mandolin Cafe. You can read his works and access his album Morning Walk, a collection of original instrumental "fiddle" tunes, on his website or all streaming sites.

    Hello, AJ. You've had some recent tour travel hiccups. How do you deal with those?

    Yea, we just stick together and somehow manage to make it. We recently had a trip rescheduled where we stayed at one of Jan's friend's house in NY then took a train to Harrisburg, PA then an old friend of Scott's drove us to Pittsburg in his RV where were able to fly home to the bay. We're very lucky to have the community we have supporting us.

    Your last release, I'll Come Back, is sublime to my ears. Your playing services the song beautifully, not the opposite.

    That's how I feel when I play on our tracks. I view myself as a vocalist and songwriter first and just try to play mandolin to the best of my ability and get a nice interpretation of the melody out there.

    Tell us about the "Harvest Moon" recording with the Comatose Brothers that took off. Your mandolin playing is spot on.

    That's a new tune for me and I was excited to connect with them. I remember, Ben Morrison reached out and said he wanted to do a video up in Oakland. He mentioned that he had heard me play that song before and asked if we could do it. I guess we played it once or twice and it just came out. It was all very casual.

    Were there any overdubs for the single?

    No. The recording is actually the audio from the video.

    Were you surprised at the success?

    Oh yeah. When the video started to blow up (current 3.1 million views at the time of this publishing) which was cool, I remember checking every day and the numbers kept going up. That was very reassuring because, you know, as the self-deprecating musician, I keep asking myself if my music is still good anymore and does this even sound good, so getting a good response to it was validation.

    It was a great mix of rhythm, cross-picking, and tremolo, and you made it sound simple.

    Thank you. It was some sort of studio magic. I felt comfortable taking all the fills and whatever came out at the time. I tried not to repeat anything. Fills and singing at the same time is probably the hardest thing a musician can do. I think that song is complementary to the mandolin, and this version shows off the mandolin filling that sonic space.

    Can you talk about your mandolin(s)?

    Sure, I just added two more so I now have three in my rotation. One was given to me at DelFest by Joe Mills who made it. The other I got from my parents which I played when I was younger was made by Ray Webber (not to be confused with Bruce Weber) who doesn't make that many. The blond mandolin Dennis Anderson gave to me in like 2013. I've been mixing the tones of the three instruments.

    The blond one, made mostly out of juniper with a spruce top, has a unique and bright sound projection that melds well with me as a woman bluegrass player and songwriter. It has almost what I'd almost call a feminine sound. The one Joe gave me is maple with spruce on top and is similar to the blond one with a bright projection but with a lower bark settled in there. It's got beautiful in-lay and is kind of a sibling to the blond one. The Webber has a bunch of low-end bark. I've gotta big spectrum out of the three right now.

    Tell us about the rig you use with your mandolin?

    All of the mandolins have a K&K pickup and I pair that with the ALiX Grace design preamp. I have a few pedals and use delays on "Harvest Moon" plus an old-school Vox Wah with a gain adjuster. Using it with an acoustic mandolin, I have to be kind of cautious because the mandolin has like a high mid-forward frequency so it can get wonky or sharp sometimes but the gain adjuster makes it more adjustable. Depending on the venues you can push that gain up a little bit more.

    What kind of picks do you use? Is tone or feel more important?

    I've been using the BlueChip for years but I met up with Frank Sullivan at DelFest so I've been plunking around with the ToneSlabs for a while doing an A and B. I think they both sound great but for now, I'm sticking with the ToneSlabs on the blond mandolin. I'd say tone is more important. I like the thickness of the tone slab but that's the great thing about the BlueChip, it's thinner but doesn't feel that heavy. I don't really care about how it feels as long as it sounds good.

    Do you ever play mandocello or mandola?

    I'm borrowing Scott Gates's octave mandolin right now which is kind of a prototype made by Michael Lewis that basically is an octave but has the guitar fret spacing on the neck. I've been playing around on it a little bit, had some intonation fixed on it and it sounds great. I tried to track some tracks with it on this next record that we'll release in 2024 so hopefully, you will hear some of those tunes in there but I can't say for sure because I'm not sure if I even liked the part that I played.

    AJ Lee at DelFest

    Do you do any mandolin duets with Scott?

    Scott and I want to start doing some double mandolin and have been experimenting figuring out what songs and arrangements we want to do, so yes, that is definitely in the works.

    I know you studied with Jack Tuttle. Has there been anyone else that you've studied with regularly?

    It's mostly been just occasional touch bases. Even with Jack, I maybe have taken only two or three official lessons but since I was incorporated into the family band, I did most of my learning at shows and practicing parts he would send me. I didn't have very much official mandolin training.

    Really, so for that expert-level technique, I guess you are just really good at figuring it out for yourself.

    Well, Jack gave me a really solid foundation especially with chopping, practicing pick direction, and being tasteful. With solid basics, you can learn from there, especially with the check-ins so if I was starting to develop a bad habit, he would be quick to point it out.

    Are you able to find time to do much practice?

    Mostly it's all rehearsing and playing live now. I would love to practice but if you are only home for a day or two at a time during the summer, there's not much time for it.

    If you had more time, what would you do?

    I'd probably just write more songs. Songwriting on mandolin is appealing to me because I can develop parts that I would actually play versus if I wrote something on guitar.

    AJ Lee

    What are some current favorite tunes?

    One of my favorites I've been playing forever is "New Chance Blues" (Norman Blake). I love that one and I've also circled back around to John Reischman's (Harmonic Tone Revealers) version of "Half Past Four" (Ed Haley).

    Are there any surprises or changes of direction on the upcoming album?

    I think it's gonna sound different in a good way because we had Lech from The California Honeydrops produce it. He's a fantastic vocalist and that's one of the reasons we want him to do it. There's a song we're putting on there we learned by Candi Staton called "He Called Me Baby," and it's one of those more soul R&B felling songs but it's all acoustic. We didn't put any drums on it so the mandolin is driving what the snare would do in this kinda groovy feel.

    Are most of the songs originals?

    All are original except for I think two. I'm excited about the album because we're kinda stepping out of our element a little bit on a few of the numbers. One of the songs that I wrote called "Hillside" is inspired by Sierra Hall because I thought it sounds nice with the chords on the chorus and it's like something she would do.

    I've seen videos of the track "City of Glass" that you've been playing.

    I wrote that with my friend Max Schwartz who you probably know from a band we were in called OMGG.

    Are you playing much of this new material on your tour?

    We're in the process of figuring out what to do. Should we play all the material right now or just sprinkle one or two in. We haven't really decided yet and it's so far off.

    Your songwriting from the last album is mostly in the first person and it sounds so personal. Are you drawing largely from personal experiences for this album?

    I'd say from personal experience though it's songwriting, so not so black and white. Sometimes you can have part of the song be very personal and the other half be totally hypothetical. It's hard to pinpoint. Some of the songs are more old-time and Sully's got an original on there that has more of an indie feel. Of course, you have Scott, who is our country guy that sings country so well, and he's got three originals on there so it's gonna be a good mix of things. I think we have drums on maybe two tracks.

    Do you ever write any instrumentals?

    I've written one on mandolin and I posted it for David Bendict's Mandolin Mondays.

    Can you talk about that song "Magdalene?"

    It's funny that you should ask as that was a Covid song and I was originally just trying to wrap some food with plastic wrap and was just singing "Oh Cellophane" over and over again. I thought well maybe I should make this into an actual song so I changed the name to "Magdalene." I was writing it and it was a sweet country song and I thought about the LGBTQ community and I should write a song that is supposed to be sung like this (woman to woman). You know, throughout history as a woman, you sing songs keeping the "she" in but there's nobody that has really made a point to say like, no, this song is supposed to be this way.

    It's kinda subtle because if you don't hear the word husband in the first verse, you don't necessarily get it. It's not in your face but it does what it needs to do.

    Yea, and I wanted it to be that way, to be enjoyable without stating that it has a deeper message. So if someone's just hearing it maybe they'll like the song first then they'll discover the story and have a nice relationship with it already before they make a judgment on it.

    Right. Bravo, very well done. Can you explain what inspires you when you are writing?

    Thank you. It's a good question because it's so finicky with inspiration. It's mostly a waiting game for me, just waiting for that inspiration to come if I'm just sitting around or I see something then be like, aha, I got something. Usually, it happens when I'm just home alone by myself and I'll sit down and start plinking something on the mandolin, and eventually it just kinda turns into something. I'll leave it and come back and more often than not it turns into a song. Whether I use it or not is up in the air but that's the typical process.

    What guests are on the upcoming album?

    Well Lech sings a harmony part on something and it's still in the works but the plan is to have Molly Tuttle sing some on it. We've also got the Rainbow Girls singing some harmony and Luke Abbot doing some banjo on one. I think we have a pedal steel artist and maybe a saw as well.

    Speaking of Molly, did I see you are going to share a date with Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway? That must be exciting.

    Yea, it's super exciting. I can't remember where it is but I know it's on the calendar and we've been trying to do that for a while.

    Bluegrass Under the Stars, Nashville, September 8, 2023, 7:00 pm

    Have you gotten to play with some of your heroes while on this lengthy tour?

    Yea, I have played with Sierra Hull a few times. It's so great. I love playing with her because her personality on stage is exactly how she is off stage, she's just very charming. The last time we played it was a huge surprise. She was playing with the Bluegrass Generals and I had no idea that she was there. She was just guesting that night and I showed up and we're like, whoa hey so we had her sit in on "Two More Bottles of Wine."

    Have you discovered any young mandolin players you like recently in your travels?

    Hmm, oh, you know who I've been seeing a lot lately and we did a show with them I think a few months ago, is Kyle Ledson of Broken Compass. He's awesome. I first saw him several years ago at Crazy Horse in Nevada City and he was doing an opening set and it was inspiring because he was doing a lot of solo mandolin stuff and singing.

    What impact did the late Jesse McReynolds and Bobby Osborne have on you?

    They're been such an influence for all players throughout the years and of course, when you hear the Osborne Brothers and those classic mandolin tones, that is inspiring in itself. Especially if you are on a long drive and you put on some Osborne Brothers and you hear that goin', you're like, oh man, I wish I had my mandolin and I could play that too.

    AJ Lee and Blue Summit

    Right, and you do some nice cross-picking on your songs.

    Going back to "Harvest Moon," I think cross-picking and tremolo on mandolin are very cross-genre friendly. I would say those are kinda the signature sounds that people recognize who don't listen to mandolin very often. They hear that cross-picking thing in "Harvest Moon" or in an Americana song, you want to hear the mandolin tremolo.

    Well, thanks much AJ. Happy trails and I hope to see you soon.

    All right, thanks again Dave, it's nice chatting with ya.

    Additional Information

    Comments 9 Comments
    1. BillWilliams's Avatar
      BillWilliams -
      Terrific interview.
    1. Don Grieser's Avatar
      Don Grieser -
      I streamed her band at RockyGrass. They played a wide variety of music, including "Harvest Moon." Great playing and singing all around--a great set of music. Thanks for the interview--enjoyed learning more about AJ and the band.
    1. tuhker's Avatar
      tuhker -
      It was so much fun doing this on someone Darby Brandli of the California Bluegrass Association says is just about 1 1/5 years behind Molly Tuttle in terms of popularity. Thanks for this opportunity Scott.
    1. Billy Packard's Avatar
      Billy Packard -
      I heard them here in Nevada City at the Crazy Horse. The show was great but no "Harvest Moon"!! And I was waiting for it for very personal reasons. When the show ended I asked her to please play it and they did as the encore.

      Kyle Ledson was off the charts entertaining!

    1. Southern Man's Avatar
      Southern Man -
      Waiting for my chance to see them here on the East Coast. They made a one-show stop in Richmond a month or two ago when they were out for a festival (Merlefest I think), but unfortunately I had other plans already. I hope to catch them next time.
    1. Charles E.'s Avatar
      Charles E. -
      I first posted about AJ Lee in the "women with mandolins" forum back in January 2010.....


      Posts #1937 and 1938 (thanks Mike).

      Indeed, she has grown into a great talent.
    1. tuhker's Avatar
      tuhker -
      Quote Originally Posted by Charles E. View Post
      I first posted about AJ Lee in the "women with mandolins" forum back in January 2010.....


      Posts #1937 and 1938 (thanks Mike).

      Indeed, she has grown into a great talent.
      Thanks for that link Charles. To answer your question on that thread, she discusses that mandolin in this interview as a Webber (not Weber) that was her parents instrument she played when she was young. She went on to say that she has recently added it to her collection and is now actively playing it again.

    1. mbruno's Avatar
      mbruno -
      Great interview
    1. John Kinn's Avatar
      John Kinn -
      And Molly's right hand work is immediate recogniseable..