In the moment
POSTED: Friday, May 29, 2009
The thoughtful singer-songwriter Amos Lee doesn't want to take his weekend in Hawaii for granted.
"I want to feel it and be with it," he said over the phone earlier this week.
Although he admits he's not one to jot down ideas for his songs, Lee freely allows the muse to grace him with her presence at any time. Take, for example, the song "Street Corner Preacher" from his latest album, "Last Days at the Lodge."
Amos Lee with local opener Anuhea
» Where: NextDoor, 43 N. Hotel St.
» When: 9 p.m. today and tomorrow
» Cost: $20; 18 and over
» Info: (877) 714-7668 or hsblinks.com/av
In a recent interview with National Public Radio, he said inspiration came to him while driving in Camden, N.J. He saw a guy, out of prison for good behavior, preaching on the street, "back in the neighborhood, working for the savior," as Lee's song goes. The initial lyrics, melody and rhythm came to him pretty quickly.
It's easy to see that Lee is an astute and eager student of music. His acumen first developed from playing a guitar his stepfather gave him while a student in South Carolina; working at a record store at that time allowed him to take home vinyl from the store and receive the musical blessings of diverse artists such as John Coltrane, Steve Goodman, Luther Vandross, KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions and Joni Mitchell.
Armed with an English degree, Lee returned home to Philadelphia and tried his best to teach second-graders at an inner-city school. But writing music was always his refuge, and when the challenge of public school teaching became too much, he quit to fully devote himself to music.
A self-produced EP of five songs in 2003 helped get Lee signed to the august jazz label Blue Note, where Norah Jones first heard the folk-soul musician. The discovery led to him opening for Jones during a 2004 tour.
While Lee himself tours both as a soloist and with a backup rhythm section, he admits he wants to concentrate more on singing and playing by himself onstage—much like when he first started out doing open-mike sessions back in Philly after he left teaching.
When asked if he was prompted to do open mike knowing his music was ready to be presented, Lee admitted, "I don't think at any point back then did I tell myself I'm ready to do this—it was more, 'I'm gonna try this.' In fact, the music is still a process for me, not a crystallization.
"Performing with just one mike and guitar was how I first started, and hoping people dug what I did. I remember getting ready to finally present my music to the public and feeling good about my thing."
To date, Lee's "thing" has put him in good stead with the music community. Besides the initial support of Norah Jones, Lee's grounded music has led him to opening tour slots for Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Paul Simon. His latest album—his third—is his most confident, recorded live with help from producer Don Was and a veteran backup band.
"With these three records, they provide a real conduit to put on a good live show," Lee said. "I'm creating material to play for people in a live setting, (and) I notice it's different now to what it was five years ago.
"I'm now thinking of the minutiae of the songs and how to build an arrangement. But, all in all, I always go back to the simple stuff."
A couple of his musical heroes who make deceptively simple songs themselves are Bill Withers and John Prine.
"I'm humbled by Bill's music," Lee said. "I love listening to it, the way he can tell stories and his ability to put heavy emotions in his songs. He and John Prine, they can shred you with just a line. It doesn't take a whole lot—they can turn around a song in six words.
"I've hung out with them before, and I try to not separate the musician from the human being. They're good people."
There's an earnestness about Lee when it comes to presenting his songs in as honest a light as possible.
"My energy is wanting to connect to people, and I know I have the means to do it. Part of why I wanted to teach in the first place was wanting to give back to the world in some way. I'm lucky that I've been given a lot of love in my own life.
"I remember that first year of teaching and how it took so much just to get through the day," he said. "There's so much more to teaching, so many layers, that I honestly was not prepared for it. If it not had been for music, I might've stuck with teaching and learned to get better at it. But since I was meeting so many interesting people at the open-mike sessions and folk gatherings ... I took it all as signs to go into music.
"It's all about letting people come to my music, and I'll meet them halfway. It's about keeping that connection open. I'm in love with it."