Anyone old enough to remember when record stores were places where you could hang out, discover new music and meet people who shared a passion for music can appreciate singer-songwriter Amos Lee. He's an old-school guy who confesses to his love of actual albums. You know, the things that came in cool gatefold sleeves and that were pressed onto vinyl. While growing up, he worked in a record store for a few years and developed a keen ear for music and a love for the original long player format.
"We sold mostly classic jazz, but we also sold soul music, gospel, country, old rock 'n' roll — all really good stuff," he says via phone from his Philadelphia home. "We were allowed to take home [a record], listen to it and then bring it back. That was the perk of the job. I spent tons of time listening to an album. It's a commitment to put a record on. Just that physicality of putting that record on made you listen to it a bit more."
That old-school approach comes across clearly on Lee's latest album, last year's Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song. The opening track, "Johnson Blvd." has a mournfulness to it that makes it sound a bit like an old country tune (the hint of slide guitar amplifies that connection). It sets the tone for the album, which works better as a whole than in parts.
"Listening to music in 2014 is just different," Lee says. "People are distracted. There's a niche of people who have record players and are playing vinyl but, as a whole, there aren't many people who have the stereo system as the centerpiece of their home. I wish people made the time to really live with records. Like back in the day when we would buy a CD and listen to it in our car. Now, we have the entire catalog of music at our fingertips at all time. It makes it easier to go, 'This doesn't crush me right now so I'm going to move on.' It limits a little bit the way that people can dig deeper into an album."
Lee still fondly recalls hearing the Hall & Oates album Abandoned Luncheonette for the first time. He took the time to really soak it in.
"I would listen to 'She's Gone' over and over or side A or side B over and over again," he says. "I fell in love with so many songs because I lived with the album."
While Lee cut his musical teeth on the open mic circuit, his career began in earnest a decade ago when Blue Note Records signed him to a deal. Label mate Norah Jones would take him on the road as her opening act that same year. While Lee isn't exactly a household name, his distinctively husky voice stands out amidst other singer-songwriters and his albums regularly receive rave reviews.
Produced by Jay Joyce (Emmylou Harris, Eric Church, Cage the Elephant), Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song is a beautifully recorded album that shows off his soulful vocals. Right from the opening chords of the somber ballad "Johnson Blvd.," Lee sounds like he's channeling classic rock moves. In fact, the whole album has an epic feel to it like it's from the '70s. Part of that sound undoubtedly stems from the recording experience. Lee and crew holed up in a Nashville studio and cut most of the songs live.
"It seems to me if I'm sitting with some engineers in a studio that philosophically that's the way to do it," he says. "We all agree that it's the coolest way to do it. When we deliver the masters, the labels want perfection because they want to keep up with the Joneses. It doesn't need to be perfect. We don't have to synchronize the bass notes and make sure the high hats are on time. You don't have to synchronize everything. You go back and listen to anything from before Pro Tools and you realize that some of the guys were fucking up. Not all of them. The level of musicianship was really high. But they didn't have engineers and ProTools people. You listen to what Bobby Charles did with the Band. It's super loose. There's plenty of stuff that may not be 'right' but it feels so damn good."
Lee's soulful voice clearly resonates on the songs he writes, but he's not over confident when it comes to his abilities.
"People respond to it," he says when asked about his vocals. "It's sort of a weird thing for me. I sing along with records but it's not something I think about as something I'm good at. I think of it as something I do. It's essential to my life, but I think it's as much about this time in history. The connection I have to it is that it's always been something that's united people. No matter what. You come together through these songs. You sit around and it's something you can do together. That's how I approach it."
Lee will be plenty busy this summer. He is set to open a few Jack Johnson dates and will perform at big festivals such as Bonnaroo and Firefly. But for him, the small gigs are as important as the big ones.
"This summer, I'm looking at it holistically," he says. "I treat every gig like it's the most important gig because frankly it is. Every show you want to be great. People are paying their hard-earned money and I know that in these times, that's no light thing. It's like if you worked at a kitchen in a restaurant and someone said, 'I'm only going to pay attention for a few of my tickets that are up.' That restaurant wouldn't stay in business. Every person who comes to my show is someone I want to give 100 percent of my attention to."