Philadelphia-born singer/songwriter Amos Lee has lived on a tour bus for half a decade. An English major in college, he left his 9-to-5 job as an elementary-school teacher to be a full-time musician. Touted by Nora Jones, likened to James Taylor, and picked up for an AT&T campaign (his vintage-tinged “Sweet Pea” is behind the touching daddy-daughter footage)—has made many wrong steps. His songs are thoughtful, tasteful, daring yet underscored by direct simplicity; his voice 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.” With the release of his third album, Last Days at the Lodge (Blue Note), he’s hit his stride.
Amos Lee recently spoke to Xpress about his thoughts on shrinking communities, corporate takeovers, perfectly imperfect songs and the steep learning curve of a touring musician.
Mountain Xpress: I understand you know Asheville singer/songwriter Kellin Watson.
Amos Lee: She’s a very cool girl. She opened up a show for us at the Orange Peel, which is a great room. Really, one of my favorites.
I listened to Last Days at the Lodge and I have to tell you, I didn’t get the album until the second time through. Then, when I listened again, it’s like every song hit me.
That happens to me all the time with music. Don’t feel weird about it.
On this album, there are a lot of intense emotions. In order to write these songs, did you have to go to a dark place?
Dark places are the easiest places for me to go to. It’s the lighter places I have a hard time with.
Do you sometimes aim for the light stuff to challenge yourself? “Sweet Pea” (from 2006’s Supply and Demand) is pretty light.
What’s funny about that song is it was kind of a fluke. It wasn’t even supposed to be on that second record. What happened was, we went in the studio one night and my friend’s roommate came over. He was like, “I’ve got a ukulele and I learned one of your songs.” I was like, “Well bring it in here and we’ll cut it.” So he brought in the ukulele and we did it all in two hours. Those kind of things are meant to be, I think.
Sometimes the spontaneous songs are the gems.
“Ease Back” was like that on this record. 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. I love things like that. To me, those are my favorite recordings.
Back in the early era of recorded music, people had to work like that.
I think about those Big Band recordings and what not. I’m sure there’s lots of quote-unquote mistakes in them, but I know people like them more for that. I think the thing is with recording today, it could be done a lot quicker but we have the opportunity to think about things more. I’d like for my next recording to be a little less thought out.
Back to the intensity of Lodge. Are you asking your audience to get deep with you?
I’m just putting out there what I’m feeling in a song. I don’t necessarily even know who listens to the music I put out. I don’t think there’s any particular kind of people. I’m trying to make the best music I can. I put the songs I feel fit best together and I know I’m going to enjoy playing.
That’s the thing I’ve learned: If you can play these songs live every night, then that’s cool. I don’t have that with my first two records. I have a couple songs I just don’t play live. I think people like them, but I don’t get into playing them. [A song has to] feel good every night when I’m putting it out to the audience. It has to connect. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Do songs evolve for you, over time?
Some of them have evolved. They’re starting to. Some are still evolving for me. “Street Corner Preacher” is always different. We do it a lot of different ways. We haven’t figured out one locked-in way.
I think a lot of these songs are that way and when it gets into a locked sort of thing, unless it’s real straight forward, like “Keep it loose, keep it tight,” where there’s a not much that can be done with that arrangement. It’s a straight-forward song from the first album [Amos Lee, 2005].
“Ease back” has changed harmonically a little bit. The feel that we have with it is quite different. “Listen” changes bit to bit, night to night. It’s not like it is on the record. “Listen” is pretty straight forward. We play that pretty much like it is on the record. “Baby I want you” is pretty much the same. It varies with the song. There are some that are more open to being changed and others that feel a little more like that’s the song, that’s the way it should be played.
When you write, is it from the point of view of a persona, or are you always yourself?
A song’s a song. I know that’s my answer to everything, but it’s true. “What’s been going on” is autobiographical. There’s always a bit of a distance, I think, in the songs because I don’t necessarily like the extreme personal narrative. Those songs are cool, but I don’t really like them all that much when I write them. A song like “It started to rain” [about a marriage falling apart] is completely just … I’ve never been through that. I could; I’m old enough to, but I haven’t done that yet.
The feel that [the way the band] put on that song is really special to me. A couple of these songs, before I went into the studio I didn’t know what would become of them. This time in the studio I really trusted everybody and I trusted my live band, too. Sometimes it’s a little hard to put songs out there if you don’t trust people.
Do you think there’s a trend toward more genuine music?
Even among band of the late ‘90s, there was still real beautiful stuff. [Lucinda Williams’] Car Wheels on a Gravel Road came out. That record was great. I think that people have always been making genuine music. I think that because the outlets of music have broadened, there’s more of an opportunity to hear genuine music.
Where does the name Last Days at the Lodge come from?
I was staying at this hotel in Los Angeles called the Sportsman’s Lodge. It’s kind of an old Studio City haunt and a lot of bands stay there. It’s a funky old cowboy hotel. While I was staying there, they were going through a lot of changes, like the ownership changed and they were going to change the thing up. You never know the outcome of this stuff is. Everybody wants to say things were always better back in the days.
A lot of people live pretty well today. For me, it’s about trying to figure out, well, we have these advantages now as a society. We’ve come up with a lot of technological advances and we’re sort of evolving in a certain way but at what expense? Are we smart enough, are we wise enough to keep an eye on this thing that seems like it’s out of control? Because we have a lot of really great opportunities as a culture and as a civilization to better things for ourselves. But at the same time I think we’ve become very careless about the monitors that we have and the powers that we have as people as opposed to as a society. I think our society has become very, very corporatized. The balance of power between people and the corporations has become much more favorable for the corporations.
That’s an interesting thought, especially in light of the current financial market and how many big businesses are crumbling.
There are so many big corporations now. That’s the thing. Some huge ones are going down but there are so many. You look at who employs people today. Look at New York City or any big city. These corporations come in and buy up all the real estate.
I think generally speaking, as a city, people would say they prefer to be in New York now, for sure, 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.” Especially Brooklyn. It was like a neighborhood and a community. I think it still is, in effect, but a lot of the corporatization of our cities has forced people into less community.
I think that’s true nation-wide. Everyone goes to Wal-Mart and the mom-and-pop hardware stores go out of business.
It’s tough for people to realize that, because you can get a hammer at Wal-Mart for 49-cents. Everybody would like to shop at Whole Foods, right? But not everybody can afford that, unfortunately. It’s tough. That’s not necessarily everything that went into the naming of the album but it’s a big part of it. It’s me sitting here going, “I don’t consider that every corporation is bad, or that every small business is good. That’s not necessarily how I see it. But I do think the balance between the two seems a little heavy on the side of big business right now.”
I wonder if people are going to reign back right now, because energy is so expensive, basically because they have to, and come back to the small communities, growing our own food and dealing with our clothing and things like that. I’d love that. I’d like to learn to make my own clothing. I’d love to buy my food from a farm. It would be great.
Are you living in New York now?
I haven’t really lived anywhere for four-and-a-half years.
That makes it hard to get a box of veggies from a CSA.
You can’t do it, otherwise I’d love to. “Can you bring it to the Marriott in Columbus Ohio? I’ll be there in about 2 days.”
Lodge charted as your highest career debut. Does that feel signficant?
The thing that makes me happy is to know there are people who are interested in having my music. I don’t know what those charts mean. It’s good, I guess. I don’t see it as a bad thing. As to its significance, I appreciate that people are still interested in what I’m doing.
Has there been a point where you’ve felt like you’ve made it?
I have a hard time defining that. I still wonder if at some point I’m going to look around and go, “This is it. I’ve made it.” I think that will be when I quit. When I’m sitting in my house going, “Alright! That was cool!” But when you’re in the middle of it, I think you’re concerned with the shows and the band and the song writing and all these little choices and happenings that go on everyday. I don’t necessarily look around and go, “Okay, I’m good.” I’m always going, “How can I improve? How can I further myself as an artists or as a band leader or as a band member?” These are all thing I have to concern myself with.
When you left your previous career as a teacher to be a full-time musician, was there a steep learning curve to letting go of control and security?
Fortunately for me, when I quit teaching I got a bartending job and was playing in bars. I’m still on that learning curve to be honest with you. [The life of a musician is] very unstructured and there’s a lot of influence from other people. I’m still learning how to deal with that other stuff as it goes on day by day.
Three albums in, what have you learned about how to sustain career as a musician?
I’m just going to keep trying to make the records that I want to make and write my songs from the place that all of my songs have come from, which is the place that I love doing this. I really love to write songs. It’s the place where I can be most at one with the creative power, I guess you could say. I’m just going to try to keep doing that and see where it leads me. I’m not interested in having a hit record or a hit song at this point. I sort of tried to ride that pony on the second album and it felt a little not cool to me. I’m just going to keep at it. I want to make an honest connection with people every night that I play. If I can do that, that to me is success.
It sounds like you’ve given that a lot of thought.
I ask myself that question a lot. I ask myself all the time, “Why do you do this? Why do you get on a bus and try to sleep? Why do you travel six-to-eight months out of the year?” All that stuff. It basically comes down to so that, for that hour-and-a-half I’m on stage a night, I can make an honest connection with people. And with these songs. And have a good time doing it. It’s not just about honesty and connection, it’s about having a good time. It’s all those things, and the balance between them is also important to me.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter