Amos Lee courts the muse
December 13, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN When Amos Lee entered his first career, teaching second-graders in a Philadelphia school, he did so with the expectation that it would be for the long run. But Lee lasted just a year in the classroom, and, in retrospect, he probably should have anticipated that something – namely, music – would come between him and his students.In college, at the University of South Carolina, the Philadelphia native caught the music bug. The newfound passion obliterated all else.”My roommate played guitar, and I was fascinated,” said the 29-year-old Lee, speaking by phone from Petaluma, Calif. “I became entrenched with a group of people who were into music. It was like a snake in a barrel. I lost interest in everything else, worked in a jazz record shop, listened to everyone’s CDs.”Among the items steamrolled by music was basketball. The 6-foot-2 Lee had entered the University of South Carolina as an aspiring hoopster, but quickly came face to face with the realization that he would not be a standout on the hardwood.
“I was playing basketball at the time, and started freaking out that I might not be able to play anymore. I wasn’t good enough – that simple,” said Lee, who makes his Aspen debut tomorrow night at Belly Up. “So I wanted to check out something on the other side of things.”What Lee spied on the other side of the basketball court was music. But thinking about music as a career was an impossibility; Lee had never performed in front of an audience, not even in the most casual of settings. During his year as a schoolteacher, however, Lee fell in with a crowd of Philadelphia musicians, and once again music drew him away from other interests.”I started meeting singer-songwriters, and I met people who were really my folks,” he said. “That started to sway me.”
From the time he recorded a demo tape of his songs, it was clear that Lee was good enough to make it as a musician. As Lee made his name around his native Philadelphia, and his manager did the customary task of courting interest from record labels, a friend (who happened to be the music journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer) passed along the word to Blue Note Records. Blue Note, a label that had historically handled jazz, had expanded into adult-oriented pop and had just experienced massive success with Norah Jones. The record company was intrigued by Lee’s easygoing, soul-oriented style.Lee’s Blue Note debut, 2005’s “Amos Lee,” was, in fact, produced by Norah Jones’ bassist Lee Alexander, who also wrote several songs for Jones’ hit CD, “Come Away With Me.” But Lee says his gentle sound – light rock, with hints of soul, blues and jazz – came neither from a conscious desire to repeat the success of his label-mate Jones, nor from outside pressure. After a stretch of listening to whatever was on the radio – mostly hip-hop – as a youngster, Lee began to hone his tastes. At the top of the list were the old-school soul singers Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers, which molded Lee’s mellow approach.”I always fell back on the older classic stuff, which even at a higher tempo always has a laid-back feel,” said Lee, who since the release of his debut CD has toured as an opening act for several high-profile, older artists, including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and John Prine. (He has also opened shows for Norah Jones.) Contributing to the easygoing feel is that Lee has always been most comfortable composing on an acoustic guitar.Lee’s music has become somewhat less austere. Where “Amos Lee” was mostly spare and slow, with some of the songs using nothing more than voice and guitar, the follow-up “Supply and Demand,” released in October, sports a fuller sound. Produced by Barrie Maguire, with whom Lee had made his earliest recordings, the album has Lee’s voice backed with organ, piano and pedal steel guitar. But it is more a matter of fleshing out the sound than taking a more aggressive approach. Even in its peppier moments – like the title song, about shoving aside pain and embracing pleasure, and the louder ones, “Freedom,” with backing vocals from Lizz Wright – “Supply and Demand” is Sunday-morning kind of music.
“I want to keep on growing, not only as a writer, but as a musician,” said Lee. “I don’t want to stop on the road. It’s like a relationship: You don’t want to give up, you want to keep on going.”Lee’s manner seems to match his music. In conversation, he is quiet and calm, slightly elusive. When I asked if he was as mellow a person as his music would indicate, he said, “That depends on when you catch me.”Opening the show tomorrow night is another easygoing Philadelphia singer-songwriter, Mutlu, whose new, self-titled EP was produced by Lee and features Lee on guitar and backing vocals. The show starts at 10 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $22 the day of the show.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org