A student through song
By Naila Francis
Sometimes a song will do it. Amos Lee knows it’s a confining medium, but for the Philadelphia native, the power within such constraints shouldn’t be underestimated.
It’s why the 30-year-old’s songs are weighted with the gravity of a conscientious seeking — war, poverty and inequality are all issues pondered in his lean but soulful lyrical sketches.
“I’m just trying to cover as much ground as I possibly can for what it is I’m trying to study through music, which is the human condition,” says Lee, who is touring behind his third album, “Last Days at the Lodge,” and comes to the Keswick Theatre in Glenside on Thursday. “There are certain songs I sing every night that I feel an important connection to. Every night, I try to focus in on what I’m really trying to feel with that song and emit that vibration. There’s only so much you can do in a three-minute song, but sometimes, that’s enough.”
It’s not that Lee, a graduate of Cherry Hill East High School in New Jersey, is being sententious. Rather than moralizing, he seems as much mystified as he is disenchanted by the times in which we live. On “Last Days at the Lodge,” a grittier outing than his previous two efforts, songs like “Street Corner Preacher,” “Jails and Bombs” and the rock-tinged opener “Listen” mine a troubling landscape where justice for society’s marginalized is elusive, children are neglected and money gets thrown at hasty solutions while religion remains a crutch for avoiding honest assessment and transformation.
“I think it’s interesting to see the role of religion in people’s lives and in society and the way things evolve and the devolution of things and what informs us to make the decisions we make and what informs us to treat each other in certain ways,” says Lee. “It really kind of bothers me that the serious issues that affect people in this country, let alone the rest of the world, sometimes go without any serious recognition of what to do or how to solve them.”
If it makes for a certain despondency in song, Lee is not the first to admit that as a songwriter, it’s simply easier to travel that route.
“I try not to make it one way or another although I think the dominating mood of things is not necessarily on the sunnier side. But there are moments for me in the songs where what I’m trying to say is the overall condition of humanity can sometimes be dire or less than joyful,” he says.
“It’s very hard to write happy songs. I think that’s why Stevie Wonder is such a gift to us all. He can write about the happy stuff; he can make you feel good and not feel bad about feeling good. It’s something I’m working on as a songwriter, but sometimes you do what you have to do and do it in the best possible way that you can.”
Not that anyone’s complaining about his direction. Since Lee emerged onto the scene with his self-titled debut in 2005, the former school teacher has been hailed for his soul-folk songs of quiet intensity and unassuming candor. In a few short years, he has gone from opening for Norah Jones — the two share a label in Blue Note Records, and her bassist produced his debut — to supporting slots for the likes of Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, as well as several international headlining tours of his own.
With his latest release, Lee hints at the dynamism of his live shows with a fuller sound that draws more heavily on his formative listening years, while reflecting a diversity of influences from Al Green and Curtis Mayfield to Iris DeMent and John Prine. Beyond a bluesy bluster, “Last Days at the Lodge,” produced by Don Was, also flirts with country, gospel and classic retro soul. Lee flexes a falsetto croon on several of the tracks and fleshes out his socially conscious lyrics with lovelorn ballads and storied glimpses at a wary optimism.
“The beginnings of my music listening were Luther Vandross and Power 99 FM,” he says, referring to the hip-hop and R&B Philadelphia station. “For this album, I wanted to do something a little different, and the sound is largely because of the musicians that I picked.”
That cast included drummer James Gadson (Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye); bass player Pino Palladino (D’Angelo); guitarist Doyle Bramhall Jr. (Eric Clapton); and keyboardist Spooner Oldham (Aretha Franklin, Neil Young). Though Lee enthusiastically speaks to the talents and synergy of his touring band, he notes that recording with such a crack team of musicians opened his songs to new realms of possibility in the studio.
And those are the kinds of artistic risks that energize, fueling aspirations to personal heroes like Paul Simon, whose “Hearts and Bones” album he listened to repeatedly during the recording process in Los Angeles.
“His musical sensibility is so sophisticated,” says Lee, who has toured with the legend. “He’s never been afraid to take a chance on a different sort of idea while still maintaining his own identity. That may be the greatest achievement for a musician — to not limit themselves for fear of failure. I really, really admire that.”
Though Lee’s own songwriting has been praised for its artistry and sensitivity, he admits that he is far from having perfected the craft. But he does have a gauge for what’s essential.
“For me, as a listener, I put going to concerts and listening to artists in two different worlds: artists that inspire you and artists that sort of intrigue you or give you an interest in something that they’re doing aesthetically,” says Lee. “While listening to someone who inspires me, I’m getting ideas from their writing. I have such a connection to what they’re doing that something is funneling through between me and them.
“And then there are some shows where I’ll see someone and go, ‘That’s cool,’ but no new ideas come up for me. And I’d rather be inspired.”
Having come late to music, he feels fortunate to have the career that he does. Although Lee first picked up a guitar at 18 and began performing while at the University of South Carolina, he spent a year teaching at an elementary school in Northeast Philadelphia after graduation, compelled by the notion of making a difference with kids at a young age.
“The teaching job I was doing was so difficult. I was horrible at it,” he says. “Getting around musicians at open mics turned me onto another world that I didn’t even know existed. The musicians in this city, in Philadelphia, especially the songwriters — I haven’t met anybody that’s inspired me as much as the people I’ve met here. There’s just a lot of real, honest talent here.”
Although he was signed to Blue Note only two years after he began playing the open mic circuit, mainstream adulation has never been a goal.
“I always thought if I could get to a point where I was playing for 100 people in every town, I’d be thrilled,” says Lee. “I grew up playing in the Tin Angel, and for me, that’s the best way to connect to an audience.
“I honestly just love to make music. Some people are going to like it and some people aren’t … so I’m just going to follow my inspiration and see where it leads.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer