Amos Lee: Philadelphia's anonymous hit-maker

Posted: March 27, 2011

Next time you're out at Citizens Bank Park, you may want to pay closer attention to your neighbor.

That rangy, slightly rumpled guy you're shoulder to shoulder with on Ashburn's Alley? He could very well be Philadelphia's best-known, least-recognized chart-topping singer/songwriter.

"I'm not a mass-appeal artist," says Amos Lee. "I live a pretty anonymous life."

The staff at his local bar in Center City treats him like a regular, not a rock star, when he strolls in for an interview, his boho ensemble (lumberjack shirt, jeans, and sneakers) topped off with a resplendent Phillies cap.

He's counting the days until the baseball season begins.

"I just like going to the games," says Lee, 33. "Especially with this new stadium. There's not a better way to spend a night."

Work limits his attendance. Lee spends most of his evenings on stage, singing his crystalline songs with his wiry but expressive voice.

His most recent release, Mission Bell, debuted atop the Billboard album chart two months ago. "I was just happy to chart anywhere," he says.

The signal accomplishment was asterisked with an unfortunate music-industry statistic. The first-week sales of 40,478 set a record low mark for a No. 1 album.

Lee shrugs it off. "Even if you were the lowest-scoring winner in Super Bowl history," he says, "you still won the Super Bowl."

Mission Bell, which features contributions from Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, and others, is notably rootsier and looser than Lee's previous three albums. And the singing is far more assertive and forceful.

In part, that's the influence of Mission Bell's producer, Joey Burns, leader of the band Calexico.

In part, it's a byproduct of the studio layout in Tucson, Ariz., where it was recorded.

"The singing on the record is part and parcel of the arrangements," says Lee. "I was also just more comfortable than I had been in the past. Sometimes you get in the [isolated singing] booth and all of a sudden the world shuts down for you.

"This time it wasn't really like that. The way that studio works, it's kind of just open, instruments all over the place. You never feel like you're alone. I always sound much better that way when everything is basically live."

Burns favors an improvisational approach.

"There was a set of vibes in the studio," he says. "Amos was tinkering on them and I'm playing piano. I said, 'That sounds great.' He said, 'I don't play the vibes.' I said, 'That's all right. Nobody really plays the vibes.' "

The ensuing eight-minute jam inspired the arrangement for "Violin," the single Lee performed this month on Late Night With David Letterman.

His international tour to support Mission Bell brings him to the Merriam Theater next week. Why the grande old dame?

"I just wanted to try a different venue," he says. "Last time I performed here, we played the Keswick in Glenside. That limited my more urban friends from coming to the show. This time I wanted to play closer to downtown."

Lee lives close enough to the Merriam to walk to the gig. He knows the city's streets like a - well, like a native.

Born Ryan Anthony Massaro, he spent his early years in South Philadelphia and Kensington, moving to Cherry Hill as a teen. He was anything but a prodigy.

"I would listen to music and sing along," he says. "It was just checking out what was on the radio and connecting to it like a lot of people do."

His real passion was roundball.

"I was real into basketball for a long time," he says. "Like devoted. Like religiously."

That changed during his first semester at the University of South Carolina, when he was given his first guitar.

"It was mesmerizing. Like a snake coming out of a barrel," he says. "It was, 'Oh, my God. I need this in my life. This is something powerful.' "

He didn't follow the usual pattern of learning other people's songs.

"It wasn't that I wasn't interested," he says. "It's that I wasn't talented enough. My ear wasn't good. I couldn't even get halfway through a cover song."

But composing original material with rudimentary skills can be daunting.

"As I would listen to more music, I would hate what I was doing. I really had a problem with it. I would see all the flaws."

After graduating he returned to Philly, teaching second grade at the Mary McLeod Bethune School.

"There should be a crash course in the realities of teaching," he says. "It's a really difficult job."

He began performing at local clubs, such as the Tin Angel in Philly and the Point in Bryn Mawr. Eventually he was signed by the Blue Note label, releasing a widely praised eponymous EP in 2005.

The record launched him on a relentless regime of touring.

"It's not very glamorous," he says. "You spend a lot of time sitting [on the bus] in motel parking lots."

Six years and four albums later, Lee still considers Philadelphia home.

"When I come off the road, this is where I go," he says. "Although I've been spending more time in San Francisco, where I have friends, because the winters here have been so brutal."

Ah, well, music and baseball lovers. At least, you have a fair-weather friend in Philadelphia.


Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com. Read his pop-culture blog at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/dave_on_demand.

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