Amos Lee: Elementary School Teacher Turns Soul Preacher

Posted in MusicWorld on May 4, 2011 by
Photo: Harper Smith

If Amos Lee was a pal of yours, he’d come to your house party, unceremoniously take your acoustic guitar down from the wall, and play songs in your living room. That’s just how he is — approachable and without armor. He’d sing “Arms of a Woman” on your sofa and all of your friends would go quiet and Lee would act like it was no big deal at all. That’s a true story.

Here’s another true story: Seven years ago, Amos Lee was a Philadelphia elementary school teacher whose first fidgety open mic performances were just beginning to give way to a career as a heartthrob singer-songwriter with soul, but now his home is a long stretch of road dotted with stages and enormous crowds who drink up his every note.

As soft and smooth as suede, Lee’s voice and his sweet, sensual folk songs about exploration and love lost recently ratcheted his masterful fourth album, Mission Bell, right to the top of the charts. This summer he’ll play for the masses at Bonnaroo, and this fall he’ll embark on a sold-out U.K. tour with superstar chanteuse Adele. The pressure is on, and Lee takes great pains to live up to the esteem of his fans and critics.

“As a songwriter, you’re playing the same songs every night,” says Lee. “So in order for you to renew yourself through the songs, there has to be some sort of commitment to working through things as they’re happening. Otherwise you’re just going to go, ‘Alright, well, this is how I play this song and that’s that. Boom, done. Check that off the list’ … There’s an obligation, I think, that you have to people who come out to listen to you that you’re going to try to at least embody those songs the best you can.”

During a conversation with Lee, there’s lots of self-examination like this. He’s intensely focused on improving himself as a performer; that’s how he “makes peace with” himself, he says. But it’s not all work all the time. On his rare days off, Lee eschew his piles of dirty laundry in favor of the hot sun and cold beer of a minor league baseball game. You know, normal guy stuff.