Even though Philadelphia-born singer/songwriter Amos Lee admits he hasn’t really lived anywhere (other than a tour bus) for half a decade, he sounds fully prepared to leave the traveling life behind and get tight with his neighbors.
“I wonder if people are going to rein back right now, because energy is so expensive, and come back to the small communities, growing our own food,” he says. “I’d love that. I’d like to learn to make my own clothing. I’d love to buy my food from a farm. That would be great.”
But Lee acknowledges that “everybody wants to say things were always better back in the old days.” And that’s kind of the impetus for his just-released album, Last Days at the Lodge (Blue Note, 2008). The CD draws its name from Los Angeles hotel Sportsmen’s Lodge, where Lee spent some time.
“It’s kind of an old Studio City haunt, and a lot of bands stay there. It’s a funky old cowboy hotel,” he says. While he was there, the landmark changed owners: the veritable end of an era. That gets Lee pontificating on how large corporations have changed the fabric of our urban—and social—landscape.
“People would say they prefer to be in New York City now, for sure,” he says. “It’s safer, it’s upscale, it’s posh and trendy and all that stuff. But you watch a movie like Dog Day Afternoon and you say, ‘That’s what New York used to be.’ It was like a neighborhood.”
“The corporatization of our cities,” he concludes, “has forced people into less community.”
Happily, the same can’t be said of Lee’s live performances. “For that hour-and-a-half I’m on stage each night, I can make an honest connection with people. And with these songs. And have a good time doing it,” he says. Now, three albums into his career (Lee, an English major, left his 9-to-5 job as an elementary-school teacher to be a full-time musician), the artist seems to have found his stride.
Not that Lee—touted by Norah Jones, likened to James Taylor and picked up for an AT&T ad campaign (his vintage-tinged “Sweet Pea” is behind the touching daddy-daughter footage)—has made many wrong steps. His songs are thoughtful and tasteful, daring yet underscored by direct simplicity; his voice is a faultless amalgamation of raw emotion and smooth musicality. He can turn on a dime between a cover of Bill Withers’ funky, syncopated “Ain’t No Sunshine” and his own original, achingly bluesy “Baby I Want You.”
And the intensity the performer evokes is far from affected. “Dark places,” he says, “are the easiest places for me to go to. It’s the lighter places I have a hard time with.” Still, a Lee tune goes down easier than contraband wine coolers behind the bleachers—an accessibility not lost on the songwriter.
“‘Ease Back’ was like that on this record,” he says. “Me and [producer/keyboardist] Don [Was] and [drummer] James [Gadson] were in the studio hanging out, and we just recorded the tune. It happened in a spell. To me, those are my favorite recordings.”
Lee also recognizes the way his material evolves through regular play. Some songs (notably “Keep it Loose, Keep it Tight” and “Listen”) sound much like their recorded versions, while others (“Ease Back” and “Truth”) have gone through makeovers. One thing the musician has learned, he says, is that “if you can play these songs live every night, then that’s cool. I have a couple songs I just don’t play live. I think people like them, but I don’t get into playing them.”
That’s good news, though. Who wants to ante up the cost of a ticket just to watch a musician go through the motions? Lee’s plan for longevity seems to involve keeping his own inspiration intact. And none of that has to do with penning a hit or climbing a chart.
“I still wonder if at some point I’m going to look around and go, ‘This is it. I’ve made it,’” he laughs. “I think that will be when I quit.”
He continues, “When you’re in the middle of it, you’re concerned with the shows and the band and the songwriting and all these little choices and happenings that go on every day.”
This is the worldview of one traveling singer/songwriter. Amos Lee plays globally but he thinks locally.
Read the entire interview with Amos Lee at www.mountainx.com.
who: Amos Lee with Dayna Kurtz
what: Singer/songwriter lauded by Norah Jones
where: Orange Peel
when: Tuesday, July 29 (9 p.m. $22. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851.)