“The worst thing for an artist to have done to you,” Amos Lee submits, “is to be tagged as something, or not something. Or for a human being to be, for that matter — unless you want to do it for yourself.”
He’s clearly not the sort of guy who wants to do that, so with newspapers starting to call him a leader of a new “soul folk” wave, or a “male counterpart” to his friend and Blue Note labelmate Norah Jones, it’s got him bugged.
“There are all sorts of movements, and people ask me if I’m part of one,” he says. “No; that means nothing to me, but it’s fine if they want a shorthand…I know how the game is played.”
It’s probably inevitable that attempts are being made to pin down just what Lee, 27, is singing. American singers have been loosely separable into those who evoke a certain feeling or mood — typical in soul music and R&B — and those who tell stories and make points — the work of balladeers. Amos Lee brings a gently pulsing, warm and knowing warble to songs that often smartly synthesize the two camps.
Our conversation took place in the confines of the dressing room at Nashville’s homey 3rd & Lindsley club, where he was on a double bill with singer-songwriter Holly Williams. That there’s a “buzz” about a “fast-rising” new artist may be a tiresome press cliché, but in this case, there’s tangible evidence that the buzz is on.
It’s a Sunday night in late February, yet the place is packed. And though his self-titled debut disc was a couple weeks away from its March release, women at one table near the stage are calling for some of his songs, even without quite having a handle on the titles. They’d seen Lee in his one previous Nashville appearance, opening for Jones some months before (at the Grand Ole Opry House, no less), and they’d been checking out his songs via 30-second web previews.
And then there was the announcement just before this club date that Amos would be the opening act for two fairly established combiners of rhythm, mood and story — Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard — on a coast-to-coast tour in March, with all three acts ready to emphasize their cabaret sides.
Less than two years ago, Lee was in the middle of a six-month residency at the downtown Philadelphia bar called the Fire, a not-so-glamorous spot that’s often been a home for fledgling alt-country bands and punk rockers. “Maybe three to five people would show up,” he recalled, “ten or twenty max. But I was loving it, because I had a chance to be onstage every week, and that was really important. Things were still gelling at that point.”
After that regular workout, and much touring as an opening act, Lee shows considerable stage finesse, fronting his small, low-key but flexible band. Some audience members at the Nashville show had apparently had one too many too early and were already down to rebel yells (incongruous at this spot) as he took the stage. With a bit of firm but good-natured banter and an invitation to dance to the music, he had them hushed, for a moment. His touching and potential breakout song “Arms Of A Woman” had the whole room hushed moments later.
That one may bring to mind the quieter side of Otis Redding, and other numbers that of Stevie Wonder, but the artists most often referenced in attempts to describe Lee’s accomplished, soulful vocals are 1970s acoustic soul balladeers Bill Withers and Donny Hathaway. The comparisons may be facile, but Lee acknowledges his interest in their work.
“The biggest turnaround for me, in terms of singing, was when I first heard a Donny Hathaway record,” he says. “I’d heard a lot of singing, but I hadn’t heard anything that raw. I mean, I love Hendrix’s voice, and Dylan’s, but I hadn’t heard anything like Hathaway’s. That stopped me in my tracks. The gospel, church sound in there got to me; I’m a huge gospel music fan, no matter who’s making it — whether it’s sort of Appalachian gospel or…well, regardless of the piety of it; it’s totally beautiful, sacred music. So when I heard him, that was cathartic.
“The thing that I love about Withers is not just the writing, but his stripped-down arrangements. My favorite Bill Withers songs are the real dark ones like ‘Better Off Dead’ and ‘I Can’t Write Left-Handed’, more than the hit stuff — although ‘Lean On Me’ is obviously going to be an American folklore song, for the rest of our history, and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ maybe even more so.”
Withers’ drummer James Gadson actually appears on Lee’s album, but it’s telling that Lee had found that Gadson was still playing and available after spotting him as a player on Beck’s Sea Change disc and checking who was behind “the color” he liked on there.
When Lee grabs hold of a chorus like “I’ve seen it all before, ain’t gonna be your fool anymore” and rides with it, plays with it, repeats it and plays off instrumental responses from the band, you can see a certain soul tradition revived, even as it’s updated.
“No; I wasn’t just living with my mom’s record collection,” Lee wants to make very clear. “My generation, and the future ones, are especially informed by hip-hop. Lyrically, that affects me greatly. I grew up listening to EPMD and KRS-ONE. That’s where my heart was back then. But I was also into different kinds of stuff, too, you know — Luther Vandross, Boyz II Men, and really all of the R&B of the late ’80s and early ’90s.”
That childhood was not spent in the inner city, but in the suburbs of Cherry Hill, New Jersey — at one time the place Philadlelphians went to go to nightclubs and buy liquor outside restrictive blue laws, but by then a major center for shopping malls and a fairly conservative suburban bedroom community. In high school, Lee had his sights set on basketball, not balladry, but though he was tall, he wasn’t going to be NBA tall (and by his own admission he can’t jump worth a damn). While nursing that wound, he became taken with the John Prine albums he found in his stepfather’s collection — another piece in the Amos Lee synthesis.
He knows very well what attracted him to Prine’s work. “The simplicity — but the sophistication as well; his ability to talk about something really down-to-earth, but serious at the same time, the way he can bring humor and tragedy to the same song.”
The Prine influence can be spotted on “Bottom Of The Barrel”, which leans toward twang just a bit and is gently comical, even as it explores some dark places.
When Lee first tried his hand at songwriting, while studying literature at the University of South Carolina, Prine was still the key influence, though the results were not songs he showed to the rock band he played bass with at the time. In fact, he still had no real thought of pursuing a career as a musician; he put the music aside as he returned to Philadelphia to teach at Bethune Elementary school, near Temple University Hospital.
After a year of teaching, he showed up at a few open mike nights at the Fire and other city clubs. He found an affinity for singer-songwriters there who played Philadelphia style. “I’m not going to say that it’s a direct link, but people are influenced by a lot of the soulful stuff there,” he explains. “You know the kind of city it is — a pretty integrated kind of city, in its own way. And you always run into people.”
The lit major and inner-city school teacher would become a singer-songwriter himself, but not of the navel-gazing variety. On songs such as “Soul Suckers” and “Love In The Lies”, there’s a pointed perspective that’s social, and there are political aspects as well.
“I’m interested in the world outside of my own emotions, and I always have been,” he agrees. “There’s a lot going on today, and a huge line dividing people, more than at any time that I’ve been alive. I think Chris Rock is pretty brilliant; he talks about people who define themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’” when they’re first human beings. And I feel like that, because in the family and background that I come from, there are people from both sides whom I love and respect. With the music I do then, it is political, but it’s less about an agenda; I hope the songs bring people together.”
If Lee’s first album has a consistently laid-back quality, it would seem out of character for his tunes to have but one consistent attack. “Live, it depends on where I play,” he says. “If it’s at a sit-down place, it’s a more mellow show; if it’s a place like Bunkers in Minneapolis, where I played the other night, a bar, it’s going to be more uptempo. The music that I make can take a lot of turns. We have different arrangements, and I don’t go in with a preconceived notion of what’s going to happen.”
Such duality is clearly a theme with Amos Lee.
“When I talk to people, I’ll say something, but ten minutes later I might say just the opposite,” he admits. “So I’m not a good interview; I kind of feel like when I write songs is when I think about what I really feel. I don’t like to close my mind off to the possibilities of life.”
And one song can be true for one moment’s mood and the next one for another?
“That’s exactly it! Thank God for songs, is all I can say.”