By: Dennis Cook
When 2004's Trouble dropped out of the sky it seemed like Ray LaMontagne shot to instant international acclaim, jumping from clubs to theatres in record time, praise dripping from tongues as diverse as Rolling Stone to Warren Haynes. But this was only a seeming overnight success. LaMontagne had been working the hardcore folk circuit since 1999, opening for mainstays like John Gorka, storing up material for his debut and supporting himself with part time carpentry jobs. There's a dirt-under-the-nails authenticity and unshakeable work ethic to LaMontagne that even his present cache with the wine sippers, FM program directors and other established tastemakers can't erase. When JamBase rang him to discuss his newly released third album, Gossip in the Grain (out September 30 on RCA Victor), he missed the first call because he was out back stacking chords of wood for the fast approaching autumn. Apparently, you can offer some folks the spotlight and they'll still choose to roll up their sleeves and engage things directly.
"I have a very real, normal, down to earth existence when I'm not touring. And even [tour life] can be real. I have an amazing team that tour with me from the band to the soundman to the crew to lighting guy John Pollock. They're all really invested," says LaMontagne. "I'm not interested in any kind of scene. That's just not why I do this. I just want to write songs and be able to keep growing. I'm always anxious for that next melody, that next line that forces me to sit down and see where it's going."
If LaMontagne's last album, Til The Sun Turns Black (2006) was his Astral Weeks, then, extending the Van Morrison comparison – something that comes up a lot with LaMontagne – Grain is his Tupelo Honey, a softly engaging celebration of life's small charms and the daily tugs of one's heart.
"I felt like I really asked a lot of the listener with the second record. It's a lot to ask to sit and listen to that record. It really wouldn't be fair to do that again. So, this time around I felt like I didn't want it to be so demanding. I wanted it to be more enjoyable, a little bit lighter and more song-based without one track needing to tie into another. It's just a bunch of songs that we looked at to see what would be fun to record and play and strike me as creatively rewarding," remarks LaMontagne of his new song cycle, which offers a bit more humor than anything in his past. Tracks like "Meg White" and "Hey Me, Hey Mama" offer us a wink amidst the usual emotional density. "I've been very cautious in the past about what we record or release, but only in the sense that there's a lot riding on this stuff. You want to make a lot of impact. But, I felt like it was time to lighten up a bit. Again though, it didn't happen consciously. I have stacks of stuff that may or may not fit this or that. It could have been a really ridiculous record! Those two songs were just fun to write. Often you find that something heavy has a bit more impact so you set these kind of songs aside, but it just seemed to be working and it was time to let those songs free."
There is the commonly held perception of LaMontagne as a serious dude. His first two albums had striking, artistic covers and even though his face graces the front of Grain, he wears an implacable expression, neither happy nor sad just mysterious. However, inside one finds a perhaps more fully fleshed human than past efforts, with a playful side that surfaces most readily on his ode to the White Stripes drummer (hear it here) – a track that's already caused rampant speculation and its own share of gossip, something that's caught LaMontagne off-guard.
"Maybe I'm naïve but I didn't expect it. I should have thought about it a little more I guess [laughs]. I just thought it was a good song. I like the changes. I really like the melody," says LaMontagne. "There's been no response from Meg personally, but I'd hope it doesn't offend her. It certainly wasn't meant that way. I'm a big White Stripes fan and I think she's really exciting to watch play. That's all."
For an artist whose catalog has often been marked by deft control and slow builds, it's refreshing to come across an unadulterated rocker like "Henry Nearly Killed Me (It's A Shame)" on Grain. It begs the question, is Ray LaMontagne itching to strap on a Stratocaster and rage a little?
"Oh, maybe. I like that one as well. The whole thing for me was I wanted to record a one-chord song, which I just happened to have [laughs]. I certainly could have played better harp but I hadn't picked it up in a long time. I'd been consciously avoiding harmonica with songs. By the time I finished the take I thought, 'I could really do that better in fifteen minutes,' but, of course, the energy we'd just captured would be gone," observes LaMontagne. "That's the trick. Often that spark is there in a really imperfect take, and unfortunately that's the one you have to choose. However, there's been many instances where we've gotten something recorded with a spark but everyone is still trying to find their way. Six takes later we have it down perfectly but it doesn't have that spark. It's perfect, no mistakes, everything flows but no spark."
Imperfections often remind us of the humanity behind music. Warts and hiccups are fleshly realities that rarely find their way into the increasingly sterile music business, where the second word in that pairing too often overtakes the first. "Oh, it's gone. No one will let that stuff just slip by anymore, or very rarely. There is stuff out there that's amazing and full of life but it's not always being heard," says LaMontagne.
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