5 MORE Albums: Jacknife Lee
Original Story by Don Morgan (2023-05-22)
Bono’s Stories of Surrender book tour came to an end this spring with a run of shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York and a final show at the Teatro San Carlo opera house in Naples. While Mr. Hewson was the undisputed star attraction for Stories of Surrender, the tour’s unsung hero was surely musical director Garret “Jacknife” Lee, who oversaw each night’s song performances and also played keyboards and drums (alongside Kate Ellis on cello/backing vocals and Gemma Doherty on harp/keyboards/backing vocals).
Jacknife Lee, of course, is no stranger to U2, having produced or mixed tracks for the band dating back to the How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb era in 2004 and continuing all the way through to 2017’s Songs of Experience. In fact, for the SOE release, we put together a 5 Albums article focused on Lee. The conclusion of the Stories of Surrender book tour offers a great opportunity to once again pay tribute to Jacknife Lee, and so he becomes the first U2 producer to receive a second 5 albums column here at U2Songs!
His resume is vast, having worked with U2 contemporaries such as R.E.M. and New Order but also pop superstars such as One Direction and the currently stadium-dominating Taylor Swift. While much of Lee’s work involves production, writing, mixing, or performing on specific songs, this article focuses on full albums that have benefited from his involvement. For a couple of these releases, Lee not only inhabits the producer’s chair but also steps forward as a marquis performer in his own right! Here are 5 MORE albums from Jacknife Lee:
Jacknife Lee/Punk Rock High Roller
After departing Irish punk band Compulsion in 1997, but before rising to prominence as a top-tier producer, Jacknife Lee released a handful of solo albums. His second, Punk Rock High Roller was released by Palm Pictures (Chris Blackwell’s US-based label, separate from Island Records) in 1999. Written, produced, and performed by Lee with a handful of collaborators on some tracks, the album is brimming with double entendres, funky vibes, and samples, sounding a bit like a cross between early Beck and Moby’s Play. Highlights include the singalong “Easy” (co-produced with Adrian Sherwood and featuring reggae legend Carlton “Bubblers” Ogilvie) and the disco-tinged “My Baby Got the Beat.” The album wasn’t particularly well-received (the NME said “Lee‘s preoccupation with the safer end of the kitsch stick lends ‘Punk Rock’ a tiresomely predictable air”). It’s definitely a product of its time, but Punk Rock High Roller offers some interesting glimpses of where Lee was headed in the realm of soundscapes and production.
Rokia Kone & Jacknife Lee/BAMANAN
Much has been written about the proverbial “lockdown album,” from U2’s own Songs of Surrender to Taylor Swift’s Folklore. BAMANAN is a resounding success in this post-pandemic category. Rokia Kone is a Malian vocalist who performed on two Amazones d’Afrique albums for Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records. While working on those projects she had also recorded some solo tracks with her band that had remained in the vaults, and during the global lockdown, those tracks were sent to Jacknife Lee at his Topanga Canyon home studio in southern California. Lee took the original vocal, guitar, and percussion parts from Kone’s recordings, created loops and sequences, and contributed his own guitar, percussion, programming, and electric piano. The end result is a majestic album that showcases Kone’s striking voice against a backdrop of djembe, Malian guitar stylings, and atmospheric synths and piano. BAMANAN would end up on numerous year-end best-of lists and was nominated for several awards. Producing and performing on the album from 4,000 miles away proved to be a transformative moment for Jacknife Lee. In an interview with Real World, he said, “This process afforded Rokia and her musicians the freedom to create without being bothered by my presence, and I was allowed space to experiment. My biggest breakthroughs happen when the musicians aren’t there. It’s how I prefer to work these days.”
Editors/An End Has a Start
UK indie band Editors’ second album, 2007’s An End Has a Start, boasts a sound that is not far from Jacknife Lee’s work with U2, R.E.M., Snow Patrol, and The Killers, making it the most conventional title on this list. In addition to producing the full album, Lee also performed programming duties and contributed to the distinctive choir vocals on first single and album opener “Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors.” On the strength of that single, the album debuted at the top of the UK album charts and reached #2 on the Dutch charts and #7 in Ireland. Other highlights include the slow-building “When Anger Shows” and the Snow Patrol-esque “Push Your Head Towards the Air.” An End Has a Start would be the only Editors album to date to benefit from Jacknife Lee’s touch, although it’s worth noting that the band would turn to another frequent U2 collaborator, Mark “Flood” Ellis, to produce follow-up album In This Light and On This Evening in 2009.
Lissie/Back to Forever
Lissie (Elisabeth Corrin Maurus) is an Iowa-based singer/songwriter whose first big break came in 2008 when Lenny Kravitz asked her to open for him after discovering her music via her MySpace page. She eventually signed to the UK arm of Sony Music and released her major-label debut in 2010. For the follow-up, 2013’s Back to Forever, Jacknife Lee was enlisted as producer and much of the album was recorded in The Garage LA, his southern California studio. In addition to manning the console and providing programming, Lee also sings backing vocals on some tracks and plays bass, Dulcitone, and keyboards on others. The resulting album is an appealing blend of Americana, alt-country, and straight-up anthemic pop. Highlights include opening track “The Habit,” which features a programmed beat that is classic Jacknife Lee; second single “Further Away (Romance Police)” with its 80s throwback vibes; and the title track, a coming-of-age story set against strings, piano, and ambient sounds.
Our list ends with another lockdown album and another recording on which Jacknife Lee is both producer and performer. Telefís (the Gaelic word for “television”) is a duo composed of Lee and Cathal Coughlin, former lead singer for Irish post-punk bands Microdisney and later, The Fatima Mansions. (Sadly, Coughlin passed away in May of 2022 following a prolonged illness.) Press material says, “Part celebration, part satire, Telefís is an exploration of nostalgia as experienced in the present day, by natives of what was formerly a culturally sealed-off small country on the very fringes of Europe.” Lee’s and Coughlin’s lockdown collaborations were incredibly prolific, resulting in two albums and a series of EPs that were later assembled on a double-disc compilation with additional tracks and remixes. a hAnon was the first album released, and it features an eclectic mix of ambient and upbeat tracks filled with samples, sound effects, and even Kraftwerk throwbacks. In some ways it’s cut from the same cloth as Lee’s 1999 release Punk Rock High Roller (spotlighted above), but the 25 years of experience under Lee’s belt since that album clearly show here. The songs twist and turn in all kinds of different directions, yet are somehow bound together by Lee’s engaging stylistic choices and Coughlin’s distinctive vocal turns. Highlights include the beautiful, almost hymn-like “Falun Gong Dancer” and the electro-stomp of “Ballytransnational.” This album is a unique, never-boring testament to the talents of two Irish icons, one of whom is still a driving creative force and one of whom was taken too soon.