Before pursuing a full-time career in music, Amos Lee was a second-grade schoolteacher in Philadelphia. Then, one day, Norah Jones heard his music and liked it.
Soon, Lee began to tour as the opening act for the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Merle Haggard. Lee's third album is now out and has already climbed onto the Billboard charts. Last Days at the Lodge seems to emphasize his grounding in folk and soul.
Lee recently joined Scott Simon in NPR's Studio 4A to perform solo versions of his new songs and to talk about his new record. He had help in making it from a group of all-star sidemen, including Doyle Bramhall Jr., Spooner Oldham and James Gadson.
"All those guys had so much wisdom, musically and otherwise," Lee says. "It just made the recording process easy for me."
A Little Late
For a musician, Lee is something of a late bloomer. He says he never really pursued music in his youth. "I played basketball and that was about it," he says.
Lee wrote songs but didn't sing them; he played bass in a rock band, but never stepped to the forefront. But after leaving his teaching post, he started going to open-mic events in the Philadelphia suburbs. The drives, he says, gave him time to do a little woodshedding.
"I didn't really know anybody, so I would just go out by myself every week back and forth," he says. "And I would listen to [Stevie Wonder's] Songs in the Key of Life and Donny HathawayLive. And just by listening to those two records, singing along with them, I just kind of picked up a lot of stuff."
Which led to a late career switch to music.
"It's late," Lee says, "but I think as with most careers, if you find the right thing, it's just about always the right time, you know?"
In other words, he wasn't singing to his second-graders. "No. God, man, I could barely even teach them, let alone sing to them," Lee says. "I was just trying to hold the thing together."
Inner City Pressure
The experience of teaching in an inner-city Philadelphia school did, however, filter into the way Lee approached life.
"Perspective I think would be the most obvious thing for me," Lee says. "Just being around these kids who had such hard lives every day and just the struggle to get up. And just to realize what the education system means, and what a safe place is for a kid to learn and what learning is in our society."
Living in the Philadelphia area presented Lee with plenty of inspiration. One drive through neighboring Camden, N.J., inspired "Street Corner Preacher," which he performed in the studio.
"He's not really looking to the evangelist on the television with the whole big thing," Lee says. "He just wants to do small deeds. And for me, those are the people who are the real inspiration."
Lee says he immediately began writing the song, working out a basic melody on a tape recorder while in the car. "A lot of times for me writing, especially when it's not with a guitar, is rhythm," he says. "Rhythm of word."
Jazz Not Jazz
Last Days at the Lodge is out on Blue Note, best known as a jazz label. Though he doesn't make particularly jazzy music, Lee says he was at ease with the company from working in a jazz record store for several years.
"So when I signed with them, I didn't really have much of a grand idea of anything other than when I spoke to them, they were people that liked the same kind of music that I did," he says.
"I miss the record shop," he says. "I miss working there, 'cause I got to take home records every single night. We could take home whatever we wanted. So I was really introduced to everything from Ali Akbar Khan to John Coltrane to Steve Goodman."