Amos Lee

Friends can influence a lot of things – a person’s good habits, bad habits, boyfriends, girlfriends – even career changes.

Photo: Doug Seymour

Singer-songwriter Amos Lee’s stepfather gave him an acoustic guitar after he started hanging out with a group of friends that played music when he was a student at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

Lee, whose sound is a mix of folk, soul and jazz, explained to Pollstar that, at the time, “I didn’t think of it as a hobby per se but I didn’t necessarily think of it as a career either. For me, [music] was just something that I loved. I got around people who I felt were like-minded and it was just about us hanging out together and playing songs.”

Lee played bass in a couple of his friends’ bands, writing songs but not performing them.

“In Columbia I didn’t even know where to go to do that. I went to an open mic once but there wasn’t anybody there so I left,” Lee said.

Around that same time Lee worked at a shop called Papa Jazz Records.

“It was a huge influence. I really learned a lot about music, learned a lot about history and different albums. It was a huge education for me,” Lee said.

After graduating with an English degree, he moved back to his hometown of Philadelphia to teach in public schools, which he did for two years.

“When I was teaching I didn’t feel like I was really doing what I should be doing,” Lee said. “I met these people who approached music in the same way I did. Once I started hanging with them, that was pretty much game over for me.”

So Lee quit teaching and started playing gigs, bartending to compensate.

“I was playing open mics three, four times a week,” Lee said, “just playing wherever they would let us play.”

“We had a thing called Local Honey,” Lee said of friends including Devin Greenwood, who has played keys for him and his touring drummer Fred Berman and bassist Jaron Olevsky. During open mics and local shows, “we would basically all just play guitar or keyboards or bass for one another on each other’s stuff.”

Photo: Doug Seymour
Amos Lee

Sometimes Lee and his friends would do two gigs a night, playing from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. at one bar and then 3 a.m. “or until they kicked us out” at another.

Lee said he did a lot of local stuff and landed a couple of opening gigs, including shows for B.B. King, Steve Forbert and Mose Allison.

He recorded two EPs in friends’ bedrooms and sent them off to labels. One of those five-song EPs caught the attention of Blue Note. Norah Jones happened to be walking through the Blue Note office when she heard Lee’s EP playing in the background and asked what it was.

After coming out to a couple of Lee’s shows, she invited him to open for her 2004 tour. She also lent her skills on vocals and piano to a couple of tracks on his self-titled 2005 Blue Note release.

Lee’s North American agent, CAA’s Joe Brauner, told Pollstar he was won over at one of Lee’s shows five years ago.

“I thought Amos had an incredible gift … a unique voice. It was an automatic positive response,” Brauner said. He describes the atmosphere at one of Lee’s shows as “soulful, intense and playful.”

“I just got a good feeling from [Brauner],” Lee said. “He’s a real straight-up guy and he basically had the same sort of idea that I did – just get out there and work. There’s no real master plan behind the scheme of it other than just get out there and connect with people and hope it grows in an organic way.”

Lee has also hit the road in support of artists including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Van Morrison. When Pollstar spoke with Lee he was in the middle of a North American headlining tour promoting the June release of his third album, Last Days at the Lodge.

“The headlining tour has been the most vivid experience for me as a touring artist because [although] … I’ve been to these places before – these rooms – it’s almost like it’s the first time I’ve ever played them,” Lee said.

“For instance, we played the Fillmore in San Francisco twice. The first time I was running around doing a bunch of stuff. But this time I went in there and was like ‘Wow. This place is amazing.’ I do like both [headlining and support]. But when the people are coming to hear your songs it’s a very different connection.”

Having recently completed a summer leg, Lee will be back on tour Oct. 27 through Nov. 22.

“It’s kind of a running joke that every time I walk out of an Amos Lee show I always say, ‘That was the best Amos Lee show I’ve ever seen,’” Brauner said.