Plenty of young musicians decide to put college on hold to take a shot at having a career writing songs and performing.
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. Even Lee knows his path into music is a bit unusual.
“It’s kind of funny that I’m doing what I’m doing now, because I wasn’t even considering it as, I don’t know, a career option or anything like that, or even a dream per se,” Lee says.
“I just sort of fell in love with [music],” he says.
“But I didn’t know anybody that was necessarily pursuing that kind of thing. In my family, everybody just kind of works. 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 not only his passion, but perhaps something more.
He readily admits 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 like hours. I don’t really know what drew me to do that. It was just kind of an obsession of mine to like 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 fans that played guitar and this 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. With the 2005 release of his self-titled debut CD, Lee was touted by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the year’s “10 artists to watch,” and the CD caught on commercially, selling nearly 500,000 copies.
Lee hasn’t reached those commercial heights since, but his next two CDs, Supply and Demand and Last Days at the Lodge, have both been warmly received in the press, and Lee has continued to build his audience.
Ironically, before recording this latest CD, Lee reached a point where he wondered if he was still truly cut out for the life of a professional musician, a situation that he now knows was partly a function of the fast pace of his career.
“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, like, pretty much on the road non-stop. 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’m in a good place. 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 to album-making with Mission Bell by working with the band Calexico on the CD.
The result was a far more collaborative experience than Lee had ever had in the studio, and a CD that widens the scope of Lee’s soulful brand of folk-pop. Lee, whose songwriting is sharper than ever, credits the band with bringing a range of textures and subtle complexities to his songs that make Mission Bell his richest work to date.
And clearly songs 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 the way Lee’s songs were treated.
Lee considers Mission Bell to be at least the equal of his debut in terms of presenting a cohesive, fully formed cycle of songs. His satisfaction with the CD is apparent in that he plans to play upwards of eight Mission Bell songs nightly on tour with his newly expanded, eight-piece band. And now that he has four CDs to his name, he feels he’s starting to be able to present the kind of multi-faceted live show he’s always wanted.
“It’s getting to a point, four records and some covers we haven’t released, [that] the set list feels pretty easy to write,” Lee says. “In the past it was sort of challenging because you wanted to make sure you paced the set properly and everything. But this time out, I think it will be well on its way.”
On the Bill
Amos Lee plays the Boulder Theater on Saturday, Feb. 5. Show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 day of show. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.