The American Dream—the idea that you can improve your financial and physical standing in society—is a concept that Americans have fantasized about and aspired to achieve for decades. Historian James Truslow Adams first popularized the phrase in his 1931 book Epic of America, writing, “But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”
The concept has certainly taken on new meaning with each passing decade. The ability to achieve the American Dream has changed for some people as well, either increasing or decreasing. It’s not a big secret that many aspiring songwriters these days face an uphill battle to succeed, much less make a living. That’s not lost on Minnesotan singer-songwriter Frankie Lee. But he’s not afraid to give a fame and fortune the middle finger. What’s important to him is being real and unfiltered in his music and approach to life.
Earlier this year, Lee officially released his debut album, American Dreamer, in the States after dropping it overseas. Lee says he came up with the title after being somewhat disillusioned with the state of the country and music. He says people are “forced fed a bunch of bullshit [one’s] whole life” and that “if you can wake up from the illusion of the fear and drugs and all the stuff they want you to do, then you’re lost in a dream.”
“Reality is so tough for so many people right now. They don’t mind living in that dream of what could be or what was and what peoples’ possibilities are,” says Lee. “It’s not so much hope. It’s just that you can choose you reality, you don’t have to choose the one that was given to you or where you were born or what country you’re from or are a girl or boy, black or white or whatever it is. That’s my dream. The only thing that separates us is ourselves. But I think the best way to do that is to speak to your own experiences, which mine have been through trial and error and finding out your way and working the whole time and traveling and learning different experiences. Still searching and dreaming, I guess.”
While he’s seen his fan base increase over the years, Lee still doesn’t consider himself to be a professional musician. He says that he’s worked harder at his day job now than he ever has before. “There’s no ease to any of it. It’s made my life harder. But I don’t mind it,” he says. “It’s not something kids can go into and make money on. It’s gone, man. There’s nothing professional about it. It’s a trade like anything that I’ve done a long time and somebody hired me onto their team for a certain amount of time. But the people don’t employ me which means come to my shows and buy my records and then they find somebody else. It’s not any different from being a gas station attendant. Imagine if nobody bought gas. You’re still out there trying to convince people they still need this thing that we really should pay for in the first place.”
He argues that making music to get rich and famous shouldn’t be the overreaching endgame. Music needs to be real and not take shortcuts. One makes music because they have to and that making music is in their DNA. “When one farms, you want to have good food and to not die of cancer you have to grow your own food,” Lee asserts. “If you want a soul to your music and you want it to make an impact in your life and form your spirit connections between yourself and whatever’s beyond us, you have to have good music. It has to be natural and has to be man-made. It has to be from the earth and from the people from there. That’s the struggle and sacrifice I’ve made to be a human being who makes music without compromising.”
Songs like the piano-tipped “American Dreamer” speak to the listener and offer a sense of community. And while he thinks many of today’s songs don’t have a sense of belonging in them and often become ego versus the world, Lee doesn’t have that view in music. “I like getting closer to the song and farther away from the ego,” he says.
Lee, who is also committed to staying true to his working-class roots, often worries that musicians from similar backgrounds are disappearing by the day due to the music industry’s get-rich mentality. “I don’t have a manger or talent agency or any of that shit because it’s all an illusion,” he says. “The people that have, have to pay them. I’m just a working class musician and they’re trying to get rid of us. I’m sure you grew up with people like that and now they don’t work anymore. All the small towns now have fucking digital jukeboxes or some crap cover band.”
Though Lee technically hails from Minnesota, he’s really more of a nomad, having moved around the country a number of times due to his father working in the horse business, which had the family living in Michigan, Texas, Minnesota and Tennessee, among other places. Still, Midwestern life has helped install a humbleness and toughness in him. Farm life, which included growing crops in unpredictable seasons, informed him of the struggle to survive. “I’d like to see anyone who runs around in a cowboy hat these days do one day of farming. I guarantee you none of them have come close to it,” he says. “It’s probably the toughest job you can do, with the least amount of benefit. I don’t know of another job I’ve done that’s been that hard. I dare anyone to find a harder job in America than a farmer on all levels.
“Everyone here has a chip on their shoulder, and I like that,” he continues. “I don’t like being forced to be happy all the time or to be around people who are plastic surgeons. It’s very real.”
Growing up, Lee would spend free time with his family playing and listening to music. He recalls simple moments like his father playing acoustic guitar and listening to artists like Bobby Charles, Don Williams, George Jones, Stanley Brothers and Doc Watson. “I didn’t grow up with a TV. I grew up with a piano and guitar,” he says. “Television used to the piano, put it that way. Everybody used to have a piano. It wasn’t different from having supper or making a fire, it was a part of life. Which music used to be. That’s the whole vision of the music business created, is that there are musicians and people that buy records. Which I never grew up thinking that because that’s how everyone made music. My parents made music and my parents’ friends made music and my grandma could play and sing. That was just a part of our lives. It was never separated. You woke up to work and played music at night.”
When Lee was nine years old, his father brought him to First Avenue to see punk icons The Dead Milkmen, his first major concert. “That was the first time I saw something larger scale than my family,” he says. “That made me realize that music could tie that many people together in two to three minute songs. While I was there I saw a bunch of other weirdos and skaters and kids with divorced parents. That was really important to realize that music created this sense of place for people to peacefully gather and celebrate their differences.”
When Lee got older, he moved to Austin, Texas, where he got some of his first paying gigs in the folk and country scene. He worked with JT Van Zandt and started honing his craft. After seven years there, he made the move to live in Los Angeles, which, after a few years, ultimately lacked what he was looking for, musically. After some thought, he decided to move back to Minnesota. “I’m still moving around and don’t have a place,” he says. “We’re nomadic by nature…That’s part of my theory of life, that we’re not meant to be in place for very long. I think I actually have a bad sense of place by moving than I would have if I stayed in one.”
“I never knew where I was going and still don’t,” he adds. “When the next thing happens, I’m going to go there but it doesn’t make me smarter or see anything differently. Probably the opposite. I’ve been doing it so long I don’t know where to go anymore.”
He put together a collection of songs detailing his ten-year journey around the country for a locally released EP called Middle West. All of songs on the EP made it to the full-length while others were written while he was living in St. Paul and drove miles into the country to work alone on a farm. The transition from the concrete of the city to the soil of the farm and free time to think help spur him to come up with songs with an unfiltered, big picture view of life. “It was a very transitional time,” Lee says. “The record speaks to that with a lot of struggle of where we belong.”
When describing the state of the country, he offers a less-than-glowing opinion. He doesn’t believe in tourism or American consumerism. He worries that the nation’s towns are disappearing and that the country will eventually feel like one big city with a freeway. “It’ll be one big shopping mall. One big Arby’s-Pizza Hut conglomerate and a bunch of condos,” he says. “My viewpoint in that humans shouldn’t mask destruction with progress because even 15 years ago when I left home the country is so drastically different now…Pretty soon there won’t be accents anymore or sense of place anymore. Because what makes you believe you belong to the place that you’re from? The land? The smell? The sky? The stars? Your neighbors? The things you eat? The accents and stuff, that’s all going away. It might already be gone, but we haven’t realized it yet.”
One thing he does feel optimistic about, though, is getting up onstage to perform his own material, as opposed to covering his contemporaries, which he did for a decade. “I learned hundred of peoples’ songs and played them and sang them and learned how they worked. So now I’m learning how my own songs work and my own voice feels and all that,” Lee says. “I don’t decide if my songs are good or not. That’s not why I really write them. But if they mean something to me, they tend to mean something to somebody else. I only write a song if there isn’t one out there that’s been written, if I have something I want to say or express.”
“I hear a lot of songs that don’t need to be made or remixed or rehashed,” he continues. “It’s like selling someone a used car and saying ‘It’s new and so important.’ I guess my trick to stick close to myself and find a voice. That’s the only thing you can’t recreate. I’m trying to go below the radar and find my own niche, like a good carpenter or the guy at the co-op that has really good eggs. I don’t want to own the store.”