Amos Lee is a name to remember.
Currently touring with Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard, the 27-year-old musician has shared the stage with Norah Jones, and his new self-titled album has received nothing but praise.
On his way from Buffalo, N.Y., to Boston on the Dylan tour, Lee took time during the drive to speak to the Vanguard about fame, musical inspiration and his new CD.
While Amos’ band rested in their Ford Excursion, the view outside revealed a landscape bathed in dusk with lifeless trees in the distance. The cell phone kept fading in and out as Lee spoke, and he occasionally shushed his friends during the interview: “I’m trying to concentrate.”
In an unassuming manner, Lee responded to questions regarding his increasing celebrity and revealed someone who doesn’t dwell on his fame too often.
“Celebrity is what people choose,” he said, “I’m just interested in playing music.”
But celebrity seems to have chosen him regardless, and it’s his music that’s making it happen.
Rolling Stone has labeled him one of 10 artists to watch, he’s been on “Letterman” and “Leno” and his album has reached no. 10 on the Triple A CMJ chart.
The Philadelphia native began his venture into music at 18. He started playing guitar and writing music in college. After graduating with an English degree he became a teacher but admits he “wasn’t too good at it.” Music was too attractive an option to turn down so he went the route many artists take to achieve their dreams: he became a waiter.
And it was the decision to seriously pursue music that allowed him to release two EPs that made him one of those “musicians to watch.”
His fusion of folk, soul and bluegrass paired with a voice that exudes raw emotion is a winning combination with its warmth. It certainly won Norah Jones over, who asked Lee to join her on her summer 2004 tour.
It was his big break, and he said it helped him understand how music and musicians are made.
“I learned how much work is done behind the scenes, how much work goes into the product, the livelihood of a show.”
And with the March 1 release of his self-titled CD he’s been doing plenty of touring.
The CD was recorded in two short weeks at the Magic Shop Studio in New York City. Produced by Lee Alexander (Norah Jones’ bass player) and recorded by Danny Kopelson in July 2004, it resonates with Lee’s warmth.
Drawing inspiration from such disparate musicians as John Prine, Stevie Wonder and KRS-One, the album plays out as predicted in its first song, “Keep it Loose, Keep it Tight.”
Lee’s English degree from years ago served him throughout the writing of the album.
“I studied literature because of an interest in songwriting and poetry. I wanted to learn from the masters,” he said.
And there’s a touch of mastery in “Amos Lee.”
Released on the legendary Blue Note Records, his name and album join the ranks of Norah Jones and the musical legacy left by artists such as Wayne Shorter and Grant Green.
“Any label can compete with the legacy of Blue Note, but as far as jazz labels go Blue Note was it,” Lee said.
He had been courted by record companies like Universal but was drawn to Blue Note because it offered him the opportunity to be himself.
“The label, to me, had the best philosophy. They said, ‘Why don’t you make a record you feel good about?'”
And Lee has certainly made a record to feel good about.
When the interview was almost finished the cell phone connection was lost. A second phone call led to a “thanks for the interview,” but the voice that answered was much deeper than before. Band member Fred Burman was pretending to be Lee, and failing miserably – the joke was quickly discovered. The phone was passed back to Lee to the sounds of unconstrained laughter. It was the sound of a band having a good time.