From Baltimore to Philly, With Love: A Conversation with Lee Mo

Photo Courtesy of: @pascale.lourdes

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?

Photo Courtesy of: @Maximilianimages 

[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...

Really?

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?

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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.

Wait, really?

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.

 

You can follow Lee Mo on Instagram and Twitter@Musica_LeeMo

 

The Breakdown: All Cows Don't Eat Grass

During the summer of 2014 I moved to Oklahoma for graduate school.  Moving isn’t an easy thing to do, and moving to Oklahoma from Philadelphia was especially challenging. To say that I was the victim of a cultural shock would be an understatement. I remember the summer before moving vividly. Family and friends would ask what my next move was, and I would tell them that I’d be moving to Oklahoma for graduate school. Immediately after telling people that I’d be moving to Oklahoma they’d typically start singing Oklahoma! (sigh) from the Broadway musical.  But I can’t blame them. Like many people from the east coast, I had my perceptions of Oklahoma, too, but hearing family and friends offer their interpretation of the song certainly didn’t help ease my worries of the coming cultural shock. 

For students attending school away from home (in my case 1,200 miles away from home), there’s the added adjustment of adapting socially and culturally to a new place, not to mention the workload; so to maintain some level of sanity, I needed a musical outlet. But where would my outlet be? How would I be musically fed? Like many of the people that would offer me their rendition of Oklahoma! when I told them I was moving to Oklahoma, I [ignorantly] only thought of Oklahoma as a place for Country music. But, after spending two years in Oklahoma, I’ve come to know some phenomenal musicians and artists all along the musical spectrum, one of them being Adam Ledbetter, a pianist, producer, rapper, composer, and member of Adam and Kizzie – a collaborative group with his wife. I caught up with Adam to hear his thoughts as someone raised in Oklahoma, a musician, and artist. Here’s our conversation:

STANLEY: Thanks for taking out the time to answer some questions about music in Oklahoma City! How would you describe the [Black] music scene in Oklahoma?

 ADAM: I would describe the [Black] Oklahoma City music scene as dysfunctional. Lol. Not my typical response because I love my city and the scene here but I feel like I should be totally candid. The artists themselves are very supportive of one another and I really believe that is what is sustaining the black music scene in Oklahoma. We can't lean on our fans because they are skeptical. We can't lean on professional colleagues (agents, managers, talent buyers, venue owners etc) because they simply don't exist, we can't lean on the radio stations because they have different interests but we lean on each other. I think that’s special because we believe in us if nobody else does. Oklahoma City in general has always suffered from an inferiority complex. We're too small and too close to Texas for our own good. The fans are reserving judgment until they see us get big enough to get props from everywhere else, the venues don't profit so they just bring in party and cover bands and we're left to remind each other "Hey, that's killer even if nobody else gets it." Jabee is a good example. His hard work is beginning to pay off but he's doing what he's always done: grind and put out albums like nobody's business. He did that despite OKC. OKC did not always have his back until he got an Emmy... Welcome to OKC. I dream of the day when OKC takes enough pride in itself to not need outside validation. There was a venue called Urban Roots that was the hub for black artists until it closed in May 2015. The owner, Chaya believed in the artists so she made her resources available to them. She gave us free access. We still had to put everything else together but what I witnessed over time was a chain reaction. The fans became more involved they became less skeptical. All of our shows went up in attendance. More artists were producing new music. People were participating. None of this happened because all of a sudden we got awesome. It was all because one venue owner said "I believe in you all". Other artists started making OKC a regular stop on their tours. It was magical and unfortunately aggressive gentrification pushed Urban Roots out of business. We're hitting the roads hard, game planning and hoping one day we can find a new nest to lay some eggs in. So yeah, dysfunctional - hopeful, but dysfunctional.

"I dream of the day when OKC takes enough pride in itself to not need outside validation."

STANLEY: You brought up a lot of interesting points, but I just wanted to highlight a few points that you made.

Urban Roots: When I first moved to Oklahoma and started exploring OKC musically, Urban Roots was the place I gravitated toward. It reminded me of my hometown, Philadelphia, but it had a fresh feel to it, largely because I wasn't expecting to find that type of venue in OKC. You know, you hear so much about Oklahoma, the music there, the culture, etc. so I think, more than anything, Urban Roots just caught me off guard.

Gentrification: It's ironic that you mentioned the aggressive gentrification that played a key role in the demise of Urban Roots, because the first time I visited Urban Roots I noticed the heavy construction and development being done in the area, as well as the neighborhood demographic, the style of housing (lofts, brownstones, etc.), and I couldn't help but wonder how this would play out for a black owned business. So, I leave Urban Roots after my 1st visit, I go home and look up the history of the Deep Deuce, the area where Urban Roots was located, and come to find out that the area was historically black, and at one point the epicenter of black culture/music during the 1940's and 1950's, only to be throttled by the highway development of I-35; a sad, but all too common trend for many inner city, Black communities around the United States. Seems as if the elimination of Black spaces has been an ongoing project for 70+ years.

While the loss of Urban Roots may have hurt the music community somewhat, I think Bistro 46 and Ordinary People Lounge has played a nice role in filling the gap and offering a space for artists and musicians to grow.

STANLEY: Who are some artists from OKC/OK that you think we should be on the lookout for?

ADAM: The artists to look out for in OKC are Adam & Kizzie (shameless plug), Jabee, Cooki Turner, Sean C. Johnson, J. Lee The Producer, Kadence, and Tony Foster Jr. Band. That's my bread and butter right there.

STANLEY: I'm familiar with most of the artists you mentioned. Y'all are the first group/people I mention when I talk about OKC's black music scene. I love y'all's music so much, seriously

 STANLEY: If you could change one thing (or more than one thing) about OKC/OK's music scene, what would you change?

ADAM: If I could change simply one thing about OKC's music scene I would reopen Urban Roots! No brainer. It is the most significant of several missing puzzle pieces. It serves the artists by giving them space and it serves the people by making it easy to find where the art is taking place. There has never been more cooperation, camaraderie, diversity and ambition in this music scene in my lifetime than when Urban Roots was open. Worth noting, that Urban Roots developed over time as well. It was serving a need that many people in OKC didn't immediately know existed once they caught on though, it was magic. Beyond that I would convince the fans how important they are. I'd make them believers.

"I would convince the fans how important they are. I'd make them believers." 

STANLEY: Wow - that's profound: "...I would convince the fans how important they are" You've put a good bit of emphasis the role of fans in the creation, and success, of the music scene in Oklahoma City, as opposed saying there's a "talent gap" on the end of the artists.

Often times, it seems like we (fans) put a lot of emphasis on making the ARTIST feel like they're important, but you're saying the opposite, which I think is a valid point. But from my time in Oklahoma I learned a lot about the so called "hidden", and in some sense, undervalued talent in Oklahoma City. OKC has a lot to offer musically!

ADAM: No question bro! OKC has a ton to offer musically. What we don't have that a lot of the healthier scenes I visit have is a sense of ownership among the fans. In OKC they're taking all of their cues from the artists which doesn't work. There has to be give and take but here the artists give and receive nothing in return. If you look at every major musical movement in America's history you'll find a lot of drugs. I believe the reason for this is because the artists, by pushing boundaries end up requiring more from fans than they are willing to give and in order to continue to give without receiving self-medication becomes necessary. This is just one angle to the issue, but I believe this pattern exists! In OKC, among the artists I've mentioned, drugs aren't a part of the culture which is another thing I believe that makes it special. That said, the fans here don't understand that they can place any value on their local music scene that they want. They can demand excellence, and get it. They can demand individuality, and get it. Sadly OKC suffers from an inferiority complex (always trying to compete with Texas) and there's a deep insecurity that prevents fans from recognizing and championing the things that do make Oklahoma special. When I go to Richmond the venues are full of gatekeepers. Same thing in Austin, Chicago, Asheville, Atlanta etc. Those people make it their business to enjoy their local music in a serious way. Here everyone just laments that we don't have what those other places do, but if the fans showed up and became gatekeepers the venues that keep closing wouldn't and if those venues didn't close, the artists wouldn't move, and if the artists didn't move the standard would go higher and higher, and then people would move here.

All photos come courtesy Tori Beechum. You can find more of her work on her website beech-photography.com or on Instagram (@tbeech32)