Ray LaMontagne: Harvest Time

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By: Dennis Cook

Ray LaMontagne
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.”

Ray LaMontagne
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.

Continue reading for more on Ray 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.

Ray LaMontagne

 

Getting Real

Grain is his third album, which is often the spot where music becomes a real vocation and not just momentary luck or happenstance. If one makes it this far then it must be real, right?

Ray LaMontagne
“Yeah, it sure feels that way [laughs]. It feels good. Record two felt good, too; I’m so proud of that record,” says LaMontagne of the blessedly heavy Til The Sun Turns Black, where unfiltered emotions rush out poetically, perversely healing the listener in the process. “It was a tough one to get through, and it took a ton of energy to make that one what it wanted to be. I still think there’s things that we could have done better but you only have that brief time and you put everything you have into it. [Grain], in a very different way, was very challenging, too. It was a different setup for Ethan [Johns, his producer and instrument everyman on all three albums] and myself having Jen [Condos, bass] and Eric [Heywood, guitar] there, as well as Dom Monks, a young engineer that now works with Ethan, a really talented, really sweet person. So, we approached it more as a band that could just sit down, play a song and then move on. For the most part, we did that, other than the fact that I had two really severe chest and head colds, one on top of the other, before we went to England to record. I thought it was over but I got there and couldn’t sing anything for three of the five weeks we were there.”

There’s little hint of LaMontagne’s illness in his vocals on Grain, which finds him exploring his signature Tim Buckley-meets-John Sebastian singing with, if anything, greater gusto than before. Mayhap the condensed window to record vocals pushed him to dig deep for strong performances that actually expand his range a bit, adding some blues punch and more forthright rock & roll touches this time.

“The human voice is a great instrument, and I find that I’m still learning all the time what I can do with it as an instrument. I think it’s a combination of that and the songs dictating how they want to be presented. It all depends on what the song wants,” says LaMontagne, who frequently stirs thoughts of Van Morrison in tone, phrasing and language play, if not actual timbre. And there’s not many who use their voice like Van. “Oh yeah, he’s on a different level, an interstellar level! The Van Morrison thing has come up in the past, and I think it’s more of an emotional thing, as you say, than anything else.”

Unabashed emotion is the hallmark of LaMontagne’s work, which is undoubtedly a tough thing to do over and over again, both on record and in performance.

Ray LaMontagne
“It’s [pauses, searching for the right word, something he does a lot] exhausting. And I wouldn’t do it – I wouldn’t even be able to do it – if the audience wasn’t so amazing. But they are! They’re just this amazing audience that’s gravitated toward me, I guess,” says the ever-cautious, self-effacing LaMontagne. “They’re very giving. What I give, they give back. In the beginning it wasn’t like that; I was really earning their loyalty and trust. But as much as I put out they give back, and I’m lucky that way.”

LaMontagne continually amazes in his ability to create stillness and active listening in his concerts. People actually pipe down and focus when he plays, which is increasingly rare in the live setting. Songs like “Be Here Now” or “Trouble” require a calm, receptive space to get across intact. Glasses clinking and ceaseless cicada chatter would just defuse the force of his delicacies.

It doesn’t hurt that he has a craftsman like Ethan Johns, who’s also worked with Kings of Leon, Chris Robinson, Ryan Adams and many others, to help him shape such resonant music.

“We’ve become good friends, for sure, especially making Trouble together with really no money and no interest from anybody, and really just making it for us. I had no real experience in the studio recording my songs at that time, and I think that meeting Ethan was a real blessing. If anybody else had come along at that time, from what I’ve seen and heard from other artists, working with a bad producer can kill you. You just need the right guy in the room. Ethan, for me, was the right guy,” says LaMontagne. “He’s very sensitive to songs, and he’s just a really good listener. He’s not there to put his stamp on anything, even if he ends up doing that in the end. He was very sensitive to me. At that time, I was a very introverted and intense personality, and I felt like I didn’t want anybody fucking with the songs. I just wanted to play them. I didn’t want to build a track and sing over it. I just wanted to record the songs, and he was right on the same page with me.”

“We had to figure each other out. Ethan is a very opinionated person, and so am I. So, it’s this balancing act. We’re both very opinionated in different ways. Now, we’re much closer so it makes it even harder! We’re like brothers. It’s an intense relationship but a really good one,” offers LaMontagne. “At this point, I can’t really think of anyone out there I want to make records with besides Ethan. No matter what song I pull out it seems like we’re reading each other’s minds. He just knows where I’m going with it, what I’m trying to get to.”

There’s an unpredictable curve developing in LaMontagne’s catalog. Neither of the first two records hinted at a Muscle Shoals shuffler like “You Are The Best Thing,” which opens Gossip in the Grain, and speaking with him it’s clear he’s putting no borders around where his muse may travel.

“It’s all coming from the same place. I just love to write songs. I can’t stop doing it. It’s not like I ever forced myself to write. It just happens. Melodies come all the time,” offers LaMontagne. “It’s a really wonderful art to pursue, and for it to be a career at all is just crazy. I feel pretty lucky to do what I love and also pay the bills. I’m one of the lucky few.”

Ray LaMontagne is on tour now. Complete dates available here.

Ray LaMontagne – “Empty” (BBC FOUR Session)

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