On a surprisingly warm day in January, in North Philly, Lee Mo is fresh off of a two-month long tour in Europe that took her to Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Switzerland. Born in Baltimore, Lee Mo moved to Philadelphia to study music at Temple’s Boyer College of Music concentrating on Jazz vocal performance. Since moving to Philly, Lee Mo has taken the city by storm becoming a highly sought after vocalist. Though Lee Mo’s technical skills were developed in college, she attributes her passion and zeal for music to her upbringing in church. Over lunch, not far from where Lee Mo honed her skills as a musician, we discussed the lasting impression growing up in church has had on her, some of the highs and lows of writing music, and being mentored by Anita Baker. Here’s our conversation:
Who is Lee Mo?
I’m a musician. I’ve been surrounded by music my entire life. I feel like it’s a part of me, and I’m a part of it. My brand is just feel good music. I also want to send a deeper message about love, about – just sharing the struggle that we feel as black people, I want to make people feel good, and just sing about what people can relate to, about what people may not know how to express for themselves. That’s what I’m about. I feel proud to be a part of such a rich history of music – whether I’m singing jazz; or gospel; or soul, I want that to show.
I know you’re originally from Baltimore, but I’m interested in learning more about your personal story and upbringing. What made you want to pursue music?
Yeah, I grew up in Baltimore, in a religious household. We were always in church, we always listened to gospel records, and even as a child I could feel emotionally connected to the music. I connected with the chords, with the singers that I listened to: Kim Burrell, Yolanda Adams, Karen Clark-Sheard, Darryl Coley, and I imitated them. Eventually, I realized that this [singing] is something that I’m good at. Then in High School, when I was a part of the choir, and that really pushed me out there to do solos and develop my own sense of musicality.
I was adopted and raised in a foster home; I didn’t know my biological parents. As a kid, I was surrounded by a lot of other kids who were also foster kids. My foster mother, my mom, she had kids of her own that were grown. She was raising all of these kids that came from different backgrounds, but we all have something in common – we’re all in this system now; for whatever reason, our parents couldn’t take care of us. So, having that background, that curiosity of…well, that person could be my parent, or that person could be my sister, that curiosity kind of fueled my creativity, and makes my approach to music different.
I feel proud to be a part of such a rich history of music – whether I’m singing jazz; or gospel; or soul, I want that to show.
I’ve heard some artists talk about how their childhood, specifically difficult times, informed their creativity, allowing them to create a world through music. Is that something that happened for you?
Oh, yeah! I didn’t even consciously think of it that way, but that space in my head; that wonder poured out into my music and my art in general. Whether it was through drawing, painting, or instruments I always looked for ways to be creative.
So, you have these experiences in church and at home that are fueling your creativity. Do you remember when you wrote your first song?
[Laughs] I don’t remember exactly, but I was young, about 9 or 10. It was a Gospel song. So, my siblings and I used to play church on Sunday’s before going to church – my brother would be the Pastor, I was the choir director, and I would sing the sermonic selection. My other brother played the drums. I wrote this song for the church choir called “I Just Want To Praise the Lord.” We used to sing it every week – it was the only song the choir sung [laughs]. And when I wrote it, I was actually making fun of an organist that played at this church we used to go to, and she had this style of playing that I thought was hilarious. No matter which song was playing, she always had that same rhythm, so when I wrote my first song I basically mimicked that.
Do you see any similarities between Baltimore and Philly?
Yeah, I feel like Baltimore and Philly are similar in a lot of ways. When I first came to Philly, Broad Street reminded me of street in Baltimore called North Avenue, it felt like home. The transition wasn’t hard for me at all. Musically, for me, I think being around musicians growing up, understanding the language of music, allowed for me to be embraced by the music community here. The musicality that’s here in Philly makes me feel like I’m at home.
What was the inspiration behind your single One Last Chance?
So, I started writing One Last Chance a little over a year ago with a pianist named Eric Wortham. At first I only had a verse and a hook, initially, but we came up with the concept together for the most part. When I was going to Temple, I would go to the tech center and lay down tracks. They also had a recording booth in there that I used. I had sampled a James Brown beat, Funky Drummer. I had played a chord progression over the beat, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, so we eventually ended up going a different route. The concept was really [laughs] the lyrics get right to it. What I like about it is – in terms of relationships – is that you can be almost fed up with somebody, but also need a reminder of what we have; don’t let this go. That’s what I talk about in the second verse “don’t you believe that what we have is good/how come you don’t treat me like you should/cant you see this love is real/then let’s go back to how love should feel. So, it’s not just a “oh you treat me bad!” It’s also about restoring something; this is your opportunity, and then I’m gone [laughs].
Your music’s really poetic. Particularly in your song Don’t Have A Reason, you have this line where you say, “Torn between my heart, torn between my mind, cant see clear ‘cause my love is blind?” I’m no writer, but I appreciate good writing/lyrics…
I don’t really consider myself a writer...
I mean, I do…because, technically. Okay. There are people that can write a song everyday. If I try, I can push something out, but I’m not a machine. Not to say that being a songwriter means you’re a machine. I don’t hold myself there to that level just yet. I feel like I’m just learning how to write songs.
With that said. Would you consider yourself as a person that needs to "live life," then write?
Yeah, I like to write from a real place. I don’t like feeling pressured to write. For me, if the inspiration is not there, I leave it alone. It’s not necessarily where I need to live life. If there’s nothing that comes organically or naturally, then I just don’t mess with it until that time comes. For example, with Don’t Have A Reason, Harry and Mario already had the music completed from beginning to end, I heard it, and knew that it had something special. It’s so cliché [laughs], but the story, the music, almost spoke to me. Like, I could hear “this what’s supposed to be said.” For some instances the song comes quicker, other times I just like to leave it alone. But when you’re an artist, there’s pressure on you to finish a complete project, people asking, “when is the album coming out,” and it’s just like, “YO!” [laughs].
I want to change gears a bit. So, I’m on Twitter one day, and I noticed that you and Anita Baker are, like, friends? How’d this happen?
OMG! [Laughs]. So, I was in a rehearsal for a gig I was doing for RecPhilly. But I was doing a cover of Anita Baker’s Angel. I just recorded myself singing a piece of it, and I tweeted her. In the past I might’ve tweeted Anita Baker, probably. But she didn’t show me no love [laughs]. For whatever reason, she responded to the clip saying “Thank you, young one, this made me smile” or something like that. And then, I like almost died. Then she followed me back. Now, she’s reading my tweets all the time.
When my song, Don’t Have A Reason Came Out, I tweeted her the song, and said, “Hey, I just put out my first single, would you mind taking a listen to it?” But I didn’t attach the song to it, because I know how artists can be – people are constantly tweeting them “listen to my song!” and I didn’t want to be that person. Next thing she responds giving a full review of the song! She sought out the song. And you can tell she really listened to it – she said things like, “this sounds like a live session, the vamp at the end brings it home, etc.” That meant so much to me.
She’s [Anita Baker] become like a mentor to you?
Yeah, and actually, I remember there was a DJ from the UK, and they had my song on the UK Soul Charts, or something like that. At first I was in the top ten, then I fell in the charts the next week. So, I retweet him saying, “I’m still up there!” So, she sees my tweet and responds, Don’t worry about the charts, it’s about the love of the music. I’ve never had a number one album in my life.
People will come and try to give you their validation, but whether it’s good or bad, I don’t want you to get caught up in it.
Right! And she went on to say, “people will come and try to give you their validation, but whether it’s good or bad, I don’t want you to get caught up in it.” And you know, sometimes we get caught up in that stuff – sometimes the charts are a reflection of the quality, sometimes it’s not. So, I’m just glad she took the time to do that for me. I’m hoping I can meet her in person one day.