Philadelphia is home to singer Amos Lee, but he says he feels most at home when he's making music on the road. On his new album, Mission Bell — and its song "Hello Again" — he keeps coming back to the idea that moving on means leaving things behind.
"I'm not sure exactly who ["Hello Again" is] about, because it could be about a few people I know. I think ultimately it's about myself in a lot of ways," Lee tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block. "As I've moved along — not only my life, but my career and things like that — you look at yourself and start going, 'Oh, man, are you still doing what you set out to do? Are the ideals you had still the same?' Sometimes you measure up and sometimes you don't. The funny part about that song is that I thought it was about somebody else, but it just might be about me."
"Hello Again" features a wrenching line: "You used to be so beautiful, but you lost it somewhere along the way." Lee says that creating songs is a way for him to connect to specific moments and feelings.
"It's not all gloom and doom, but there are days you feel that way," Lee says. "With songwriting, you're documenting particular moments; you're not documenting your overall sense of things. I'm not afraid to be bluntly honest in my songs, even if it means I'm discovering things about myself that I'd rather not."
Taping R&B Off The Radio
Lee's voice has been praised for its rich timbre and beauty, but for much of his life, he hadn't known he could sing.
"I didn't really hang around with anybody that was playing music. I was playing basketball most of the time," Lee says. "So there would be no real reason for me to know or not know that I was talented in that area.
"I would spend a lot of time in my room singing," he adds. "The old-school way of recording songs on the radio was to get a cassette and a tape deck and wait until my favorite song played and hit the record button. There were a bunch of songs that I was really feeling. There was this 'Power 9 at 9' in Philly, and I used to listen to that all the time — all those great R&B songs that were out in the '90s. I would record those songs and then sing along with them."
A Special Performance
Apart from doing concert tours, Lee says he likes to perform outside of the margins. One song, "Stay With Me," came about after he gave an unplanned performance.
" 'Stay With Me' — it was a song that came up in Kent, Ohio," Lee says. "There was a fella and his family, and I'm not sure how it happened exactly, but we were going to play a show there in Kent. I got an e-mail from a friend of his that was passed along to me that he wasn't well [and] he really wanted to make the show, but he wasn't well enough to get there. He wanted me to know how much the music meant to him, and that he appreciated what I was doing. I was supertouched by it, so I went to his house and played for him. He came to the show that night. He actually got up and he came. It was amazing. I went on my way, playing some other shows, and I wound up in Hawaii. And I was sitting in a room, playing my guitar, and that song just came to me. I found out within a day or two that he had passed."
Lee says losing people is often the hardest part about living life.
"I get a little worked up when I think about him," Lee says. "Some of the hardest stuff we go through as people, and for them to be able to face it with such conviction and strength and openness and love — that's what inspired me, and that's what will inspire me forever."
For Lee, sharing that moment with a stranger was an invaluable gift.
"It's pretty amazing what music breaks down — all the barriers and the borders that we set up, they're immediately erased," he says. "Before that moment we were strangers, and the minute that we shared in that communion of music, we were family. That's the greatest gift that I feel music has given to me, and I try to serve it to the best of my abilities."