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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Amos Lee's Second Career

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Whereas many young musicians decide to put college on hold to take a shot at having a career writing and performing songs, Amos Lee never really gave music much thought until after he had his degree and had been teaching in the Philadelphia area for a couple of years. Lee knows his path into music is a bit unusual, but he explains that the idea of pursuing a career in music was completely foreign to him growing up.

"In my family, everybody just kind of works," he says. "There are people who are artistic, but none of them really have pursued that as a profession or whatever. To me it wasn't even an option. I guess I just sort of decided to blaze my own path."

With hindsight being 20/20, perhaps Lee should have known that one day music would become something more than just a passion. He recalls that he was a big music fan growing up, pointing to one of his first musical memories as a sixth-grader as an example.

"I heard this song by Luther Vandross called 'Here and Now,'" he says. "I just got super-transfixed on the tune. So I taped it over and over again on both sides of a 90-minute tape and would just sing along to it, like by myself in a room for hours. I don't really know what drew me to do that. It was just kind of an obsession of mine to listen to him sing and sing along with him."

When he got to college at the University of South Carolina, he fell in with a group of friends that played guitar. That prompted Lee to take up the instrument and try his hand at songwriting.

But it wasn't until he found himself dissatisfied with teaching that he decided to see if he could make a go of music.

Lee certainly received early indications that he had made the right career choice by switching to music. His 2005 self-titled debut was a commercial hit, selling nearly 500,000 copies.

Lee hasn't reached those commercial heights since, but his next two records, Supply and Demand and Last Days at the Lodge, both were warmly received in the press, and Lee has continued to build his audience.

But before recording his latest album, Lee had reached a point where he wondered if he was still truly cut out for the life of a professional musician.

"I think there were a few things at play," Lee says. "Personally I was trying to figure out what was going on, because I'd spent the previous five years pretty much on the road nonstop. I just needed to figure out where I was, because I couldn't tell. And I'm still trying to figure it out, but I feel a little bit more solid now than I did then ... I've got people that are interested in the music I'm making. And, I mean, I still love doing it."

With his enthusiasm for his second career renewed, Lee took a markedly new approach by recording his latest album, Mission Bell, with the band Calexico.

The result was a far more collaborative experience than Lee had ever had in the studio, and an album that widens the scope of Lee's soulful brand of folk and pop. Lee credits the band with bringing a range of textures and subtle complexities to his songs, making Mission Bell his richest work to date. And clearly a tune like "El Camino," with its gentle horns, and the slight country touches that sneak through the breezy first single, "Windows Are Rolled Down," reflect a more imaginative approach to Lee's songs.

His satisfaction with the new record is apparent in that he plans to play upward of eight Mission Bell songs nightly on tour with his newly expanded, eight-piece band. And now that he has four albums to his name, he feels he's starting to be able to present the kind of multifaceted live show he's always wanted.

With those albums under his belt, Lee says, "It's getting to the point that the set list feels pretty easy to write."

Amos Lee headlines the Riverside Theater Friday, March 25, on an 8:30 p.m. bill with openers The Secret Sisters.
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