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Amos Lee sings of love, loss and hope

By Denise Quan, CNN
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Amos Lee's goal isn't mainstream success
  • Amos Lee has released his fourth album, "Mission Bell"
  • He says he dreamed of a career in basketball before he became a musician
  • Willie Nelson has called him one of the greatest songwriters of his generation

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Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- Long before Willie Nelson anointed him "a true storyteller," Amos Lee taught second grade in his native Philadelphia -- but it doesn't seem to be an occupation he misses.

"I'm wrinkling my brow, so that means I'm not sure," the 32-year-old singer-songwriter admits. "I wasn't a very good teacher. I was just a little too abstract with the kids, because I tend toward the abstract as a person."

Yet the lyrics on his fourth album, "Mission Bell," seem tightly focused. Lee sings of love, loss and hope in a rich, soulful voice. Sometimes his tone is warm and earthy. Other times, it's an anguished cry to the heavens -- as in the dirge-y "Jesus," written the day his grandfather died. "Oh, Jesus, can you help me now, 'cause I've never felt so alone," he wails over a hypnotic gospel groove haunted by background vocals straight out of a voodoo exorcism.

"I wonder what (my grandfather) would have thought of it," Lee muses. "I imagine he's probably heard it if there's some sort of spirit life out there -- and I wasn't told anything otherwise. So he must be all right with it."

The new CD (out January 25) was produced by Joey Burns of the Americana band Calexico and recorded in the group's hometown of Tucson, Arizona. Nelson appears on a reprise of the opening track, "El Camino," and Lucinda Williams partners with Lee on a folksy duet called "Clear Blue Eyes."

CNN caught up with Amos Lee in a recording studio at Capitol Records in Hollywood.

CNN: There's a song called "Flower," which you say sets the tone for the entire album. The very first line is, "My heart is a flower." It takes a really secure man to say that.

Amos Lee: I know. I've heard that a few times, and it's not something you would ever hear me say if I didn't have a guitar with me. Sometimes you go through some hardships, and you get a little bit destroyed. It softens you up, and it makes you a little bit more vulnerable than you normally would be. And that's what the song "Flower" is about. It's just about opening up and having the walls break down.

CNN: You were an English major at the University of South Carolina.

Lee: You know everything about me, almost. Darn. I got no secrets anymore. You must have been on my Wikipedia page or something.

CNN: Do you ever go on there?

Lee: I do not go on my Wikipedia page. There's just too much weird information on there for me to pick apart.

CNN: What's the strangest thing you ever heard about yourself?

Lee: I haven't really read much strange stuff. I'd be open to strange stuff, especially if it's not true. That seems to be more fun. There's not a whole lot of media interest in me other than just the records that I make.

CNN: You didn't pick up a guitar until you were in college.

Lee: This is true. I was more of a basketball guy beforehand.

Like, I was sort of obsessed with it, and I would play three, four, five hours a day, but I wasn't good at it. The funny thing is that it's informed my career as a musician so much, because I haven't ever had big dreams about music the way I had big dreams about basketball. I'm not afraid of mainstream success, but that's not my goal. My goal is to grow as a writer and to continue to try to grow as a record maker and make as many records as I can that speak to me and connect with people.

CNN: You're not afraid to fail?

Lee: I don't let it rule me. Not everybody's going to love you. I mean, shoot, if 10 percent of the people in the world care about what you're doing, that's immense. It's ridiculous.

CNN: Willie Nelson said you were one of the great songwriters of your generation, and he appears on this album.

Lee: Yeah, that's a great compliment coming from him. I mean, it's WILLIE. I really don't have a word for it. I kind of feel honored and respectful and maybe blessed.

CNN: When you recorded "El Camino," were you in the same room at the same time?

Lee: No, because he lives out in Hawaii, and when we were cutting the record, we were in Tucson. I mean, it's a long flight. So it's much easier just for everybody to send it over (in MP3s).

CNN: So it was done that way on your duet with Lucinda Williams, as well?

Lee: Yeah, all the tracks that other people sang on, they all sang in their own private studios at home or whatever. I think it happens more so than not. The technology allows it, and it's almost preferable, instead of flying out to some studio and having to get a hotel room and a rental car and whatever else. It's like all that minutia can kind of wear you down instead of just getting the track, listening to it and then focusing on it.

CNN: This album seems to be about a man who's searching. What are you searching for? Spirituality? Love?

Lee: The term "spirituality" is difficult for me to sort of understand, because it depends on what anyone's definition is. The closest place that I feel like I come to having religious moments is always musical.

CNN: So you're going to be on the road for the next year or so?

Lee: I'd like to be on the road for the next two or three years, because I would like to have a constant flow of music and creativity with the people I'm playing with.

CNN: What about doing a live EP on the road or something like that?

Lee: This is something we've been talking about, for sure. I mean, there's so many possibilities with music now. You can record the whole show and have it done the day after or the day of. By the end of the show, you can have the whole thing on a USB for somebody to take home. It just depends on if you feel comfortable with that or not, if you're willing to just be naked. You know -- on somebody's USB stick.