Richardson, Derk, Acoustic Guitar
tHe FOLK-POP SInger-songwriter revels in HIS wildly Diverse inFluences on Last Days at tHe LODge.
If Amos Lee had realized his dream of playing pro basketball, maybe he'd be drawing comparisons to Larry Bird and Steve Nash instead of John Prine and Al Green. But an unexpected detour into writing and performing songs has made this New Jersey-raised Philadelphia native a rapidly rising soul-folk star rather than an NBA all-star. This past June, Lee released his third album, last Days at the Lodge, for the legendary jazz label Blue Note. Though the album was produced by Don Was and features a first-call band, including guitarist Doyle Bramhall Jr., keyboardist Spooner Oldham, bassist Pino Palladino, and drummer James Gadson, Lee's fingerpicked acoustic Gibson is at the core of the arrangements, especially on such songs as "Baby I Want You," "What's Been Going On," and "Better Days."
The vibes and performances of Lee's original repertoire run a wide gamut-from the Memphis soul of "Won't Let Me Go," with a Willie Mitchel-style R&B arrangement supporting Lee's vocal ventures into high falsetto, through the swampy blues of "Truth" and the folkie, John Prine- and Mary Gauthier-like sentiments and phrasing of "ease Back." "There's no genre that I don't like," the 30-year-old singer-songwriter said in phone conversation from his Philadelphia home last spring. "When you ask somebody what kind of music they like and they say, ? like everything except country and rap' how can you say you don't like that whole genre? I grew up listening to Boogie Down Productions and Luther Vandross, and then I wound up really liking Iris DeMent. I just did a thing with Paul Simon ["Paul Simon: American Tunes"] at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music], and it was a really diverse group of people-the Roches, Olu Dara, Grizzly Bear, Josh Groban, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings-and just watching all those guys work really inspired me."
Lee's stylistic versatility, which fits the breadth of his lyrics, from love songs and laments to social commentary, may play out as more than just an artistic strength. After paying dues as an opening act for such major acts as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Merle Haggard, Van Morrison, and John Prine, and a host of appearances on late-night television, Lee might be poised for a break into prime time. In his Acoustic Guitar interview, amongst scores of dizzying digressions, the rapid-talking Lee spoke enthusiastically about the influences on, intentions within, and aspirations for his already affecting songerait.
What song on Last Days at the Lodge would you say epitomizes your songwriting approach?
LEE The song that most typifies where I was really at is "It Started to Rain." I got to LA, and I really didn't know many people out there, and I was driving around a lot, because you drive in LA-a whole bunch. The one good thing about driving is you get to listen to a lot of music. I had gotten a copy of Hearts and Bones by Paul Simon, and that's pretty much all I was listening to for a month. There are a few songs in there that were really getting me good, like "The Late Great Johnny Ace" and "René and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War."
I was living in the [San Fernando] Valley, so I would drive over the hills, and I would play those songs over and over again, especially at night. The thing about those songs that was so compelling for me was-and I definitely don't do it as well as Paul does ithe comes up with these really interesting harmonic and melodic twists. I guess you would say it's the bridge in [Simon's] "René and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War." The middle of that song is very cinematic, almost like a play or a musical, like you're on this journey with these two people and all of a sudden, when he sings "Side by side / They fell asleep," the whole thing changes-he just takes you away. He figured out how to make the music, the chord structure, take you to this place where the lyrics would be able to be used to their fullest. …