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The pursuit of rent and beer money led Amos Lee to a successful career

Pretty Natural

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For a while Amos Lee lived two lives. By day, he was a teacher, by night a singer-songwriter. But he dropped the chalk for a guitar pick when he realized he wasn't getting enough shut-eye to do either right. It was then that Lee's fortunes changed.

"I took a break and started going to open mic nights in Philly," Lee says. "I lucked into a great gig as a bartender at a folk club, which afforded my $300 rent and beer money, so I just did that until I went on the road. It was pretty natural, all in all actually."

Lee started writing songs when he was a student at the University of South Carolina. In fact, he composed many of his lyrics on college-ruled notebook paper. The music came later.

Like many before him, Lee lived a gig-to-gig life, playing bars and restaurants in exchange for vittles and booze. "When I made 50 bucks in the beginning, it was the deciding factor. I thought, if I can play music, get paid, get drink tickets and a meal, why would I do anything else?" Lee says with a laugh.

Then along came Norah Jones. She had seen Lee perform during his bar-gig days, and she became his biggest champion. Eventually, Lee got signed to a major label.

Though Lee is often thought of as a singer-songwriter, he refuses to limit himself to one genre. "Genre is more for generating a baseline of understanding," he says. "Like, you meet someone on an elevator holding your guitar, they ask what you do, and usually ask what kind of music. I never know how to answer."

When pressed, he takes the advice of another Philadelphia-based singer. "My friend Mutlu likes to say he plays pre-post-alt music, so I sometimes go with that," Lee says. "It's legit sounding, but somewhat confusing, so it serves both parties."

Lee's fifth album, Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song, was released last month and features a familiar blend of folk, country soul, and groovy instrumentals. While his older albums focused more on softer soul, his new disc brings a livelier funk-folk aspect to the forefront. He also collaborated with Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin on the LP.

While each new record captures a blend of Lee's influences — Bob Dylan, Bill Withers, Townes Van Zandt, among others — the Philly singer-songwriter always maintains that ever important touch of originality. "I don't really see [my albums] as different, just tentacles on the same creature," Lee says.

Currently, Lee is working on a pantomime opera. "On the musical journey of life, I'm happy where I am," he says.

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