RAY LAMONTAGNE GETS BETTER: an interview by J. Hayes
Singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne has been portrayed as the tragic hero or tortured soul since the release of his perhaps conveniently titled commercial debut Trouble in 2004. One interviewer even referred to his sounds as “a tender blues rasp of exquisite world-weariness” which sounds really good and is fun to write but sometimes journalist and writers enter into things with preconceptions that taint the conversation or composition. And for those that love an artist or are avid readers of music literature, I think it is refreshing when our expectations are challenged. Perhaps that world-weary troubadour has drifted in and out over the years or perhaps it is just an easy formula to follow, I can only speak from experience and the man I met was a reflective, gentle and honest craftsman who has worked very hard to become a better Ray LaMontagne.
Ray’s 2004 release met commercial and critical acclaim but floated below the radar of the mainstream for a while. It was aimed at the Starbucks, Barnes & Noble set by the label but soon Justin Timberlake and the like started showing up at his concerts. American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson recorded a version of his heart wrenching “Shelter” and his own soulful rendition of the refreshing Gnarls Barkley hit “Crazy” began floating around the internet.
To the outside Ray may have seemed like an overnight success, but this is no case of creatio ex nihilo. By the time RCA released Trouble, Ray had recorded no less than four independent collections dating back to 2001. A man searching for and refining his sound… many of the songs on Trouble are reworkings or re-recordings of songs from previous albums.
Two more records followed with producer Ethan Johns, Til The Sun Turns Black and Gossip In The Grain, both saw subtle experimentation but Ray and Johns essentially stuck to the formula that had worked on Trouble.
“We had a certain approach,” he recalls, “At first it was out of necessity because we had no money, we were just trying to get good making recordings. But, it also led us to stick to that formula and any deviation from that would cause problems.”
His latest album, God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise, (August 17th) is credited to Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs, and there is a definite significance in this not being simply another “Ray LaMontagne” record.
“I just really felt it was time to do this.”
One thing past interviewers have got right, Ray speaks in hushed tones at first. But he seems to get more comfortable and exuberant as our conversation goes on.
“It’s really a collaborative for the first time with the band. I’ve been playing with them off and on for about four and a half years, I think, maybe a little more. I think we started playing around the second record. It was interesting when I first met them, I had never really played with anyone of that caliber, it had been a pretty loose proposition until then. But I immediately felt a connection with them. You know… what’s the word?”
“A bit of synchronicity?” I suggest “At least from the sound of the record, it seems you all gelled in a very organic way.”
Ray LaMontagne: Yeah, it’s about time. We’ve been playing together for a while but it’s not been captured on a record. For a couple years, even before the last record was done, I had been thinking about it and after the record was finished I thought, I’ve just got to do it… the next record’s got to be a band record.
J. Hayes: I think at this point it goes without saying that you have one of the most enviable bands in the business. Jay Bellarose and Greg Leisz (Joni Mitchell, Joe Henry) alone are both phenomenal. Just beautiful, emotive players. But in all honesty, You’ve had great players in your live band since the beginning of your commercial career. I was always in awe of your performances with Chris Thomas on upright bass as well.
RL: Yeah, CT!
JH: The version of “Heaven is a Honky Tonk” you and he did on Austin City Limits was breathtaking. I was really moved by it. There was something about the considered simplicity of what he added. So that’s part of what excited me about this being a band record… that aspect of collaboration and synchronicity in spontaneity.
But there is more than just spontaneity on this record, there also seems to be a sense of renewal, certainly musically if not lyrically.
RL: Yeah, I think it was a little bit of everything. It was certainly the way we approached it. I mean, the band, the guys hadn’t heard any of the songs… which is not unusual. The way we were recording was, for breakfast we’d sit down and I would play them a song and we’d immediately jump into it, I mean first listen, they’d hear it, they’d get it, we’d start to get ideas. We’d sit down and I’d express to them what I’m hearing, if there were any specific lines, guitar lines, or anything on my end. They could either run with my ideas or just do what came naturally to them. And I mean these guys are amazing.
JH: (laughs) Of course!
RL: I mean they’re good, they’re sooo good. Often times, I’d have a song and a specific idea and as soon as Eric or Jay or everyone would sit down to play, it would blossom into something else. And it felt new, even for me. Which was exciting and allowed us to get a lot of momentum. I mean we were getting two tracks a day for… well… five days. It was just really spontaneous.
JH: So was that the time period that the record was cut, basically a week?
RL: Yeah. We had two weeks here scheduled and we had a ton in five days, so we spent the rest of the time working on mixes and…um… playing pool (laughs).
JH: That natural connection is really audible. But it’s not just blues, ballads and acoustic guitars, I mean ya’ll dig up some funk on “Repo Man” and it sounds like you had a lot of fun recording it.
RL: That song, I had some very specific parts in the beginning, but I mean Jay and Jen are amazing, just amazing… Jen is funky, she’s funky.
JH: Yeah and I wasn’t really familiar with her before. I mean I knew Jay from all the Joe Henry records, and the T-Bone productions and just you know, everything. Now is Jen some one you knew before? Did she come through the label or how did the band come together?
RL: No, No, nobody came in through the label.. that should be made clear.
RL: The label doesn’t do anything but put your record in the store, that’s all they do. And tell you, you don’t have a single… and tell you, it’s not gonna sell… that’s what the label does. (laughs)
Um, no Jay and Jen came together… they’re a couple and they play together quite often. They came on right after the second record and Jennifer has just an amazing feel and energy.
JH: Great tone as well.
RL: She’s blows my mind.
JH: To go back to the whole environment thing, which is something I am fascinated by, just how environment affects and/or effects recordings. All the way back to the Lomax expeditions and the field recording era, even something like Dylan’s Minneapolis sessions for Blood On The Tracks, where it was a thing of people that he liked and was spending time with. It was more of a home type of thing.
If you would, talk to me about this album being recorded in a fairly new home of yours that you’ve been renovating?
RL: Yeah, yeah… we recorded here at the house. I’ve been having it restored for, let me think, a little over a year now. It’s a beautiful old house, it’s out in the foothills of the Berkshires in the middle of 105 or so acres and it’s quiet and beautiful. When I found the house it needed help. It was mostly gutted and what wasn’t gutted needed to be. It was a summer house and hadn’t been lived in since 1960.
There was this big room, which i guess was a ballroom… a lot of windows… the whole place had been a big barn and had been turned into a living space in the 1920s. So it’s just really beautiful and that’s where we recorded and we were just right on top of each other, it just felt good.
JH: It’s that “beautiful bleed” that’s captured when a record is done all in one space like that. It creates such a warm feeling.
RL: Oh yeah, absolutely.
JH: And you essentially helmed this yourself. You were producing and were you also doing the engineering or did you bring someone else on board for that?
RL: I had some ideas about engineers early on. When we had been talking about doing it over the last couple tours. I had some ideas but it was Jay Bellarose who suggested Ryan Friedman and I could tell he felt really strongly that Ryan was a kindred spirit and that I’d be able to talk and communicate with him well and that he’d sort of fold into the family…. which is how we feel at this point, that we’re family.
Which is amazing to me… it’s something that just doesn’t happen. I mean our whole crew from tour manager to stage manager to the sound guy to the lighting guy to the guitar tech, everybody involved on the road, we’re just all really close and they’re such wonderful people. They’re really good people, really professional.
The only reason we’re all out there is because we want to create great music and put on a great show and just enjoy being with each other and there’s nothing else going on. I just love that about them, everyone has such a great work ethic.
So when Jay suggested Ryan and I could tell he really meant it, like “trust me this is the guy you want to use.” I totally have to give credit to Jay for bringing Ryan in and I really enjoyed working with Ryan. He’s so fast and he’s got a great personality, he’s a really sweet guy. No ego, no bullshit. I really feel this record sonically is far and away, the best yet.
JH: I agree, man!
RL: I mean really.
JH: I love all the records, but there is something new here.
RL: No, me too and I’m not trying to disparage the work that Ethan and I have done…
JH: But there’s growth too, you want that.
Artists not long ago moved into the realm a sort of elite class, but that 70s and 80s superstar status is starting to become a thing of the past, with so many indie artists out there, we are experiencing a sort-of rise of the “artistic working class.” Ray is a clear example of that work ethic and esthetic. There is perhaps, a connection with this and the amazing depth and breadth of people his down-to-earth brand of soulful folk music reaches. My four-year-old has been listening and loving Ray’s music since he was born, my nineteen-year-old sister-in-law, who grew up in the city and listened to mostly contemporary hip-hop and R&B, is a huge fan as well. And then one day, there he is, performing at the White House.
RL: Yeah… I don’t know how that happened… All I know is I got the invitation to do it and I thought, (sigh) you know I don’t like doing television stuff really, I do it… but I have an aversion to anything to do with cameras and my own image.
I still feel, to an extent, uncomfortable in my own skin. So the less I wear of it, the better.
But the invitation came somehow, so I just did it like any other gig. I thought it was a weird show, it was kinda strange.. yeah, I didn’t watch it, I lived it… I was there, I found an old Ray Charles song to sing. So just sang it and then went home (snickers)
It didn’t change my life or anything but I thought it was nice! I thought it was best to accept it.
I never really think about meeting heros or anything… I’ve had a chance to do a few things with Levon Helm and he’s a huge inspiration to me, but it’s like meeting anybody else.
I know we did a show in Ireland and Daniel Day-Lewis came to a show with his family but the promoter didn’t tell us that he was there and I will say that I was pretty pissed off that the promoter didn’t tell us. That’s someone that I would have loved to have at least met, to tell him how much I admire what he does. He’s another artist that’s very much inspiring to me. Hugely inspiring to me.
JH: You seem to draw a lot of inspiration from literature as well is there anyone from that realm that’s particularly inspiring you now?
RL: Well, I always love to read Annie Dillard, I find her writing really inspiring. And Ursula K. Le Guin as well. She wrote a novel called Lavinia that’s really beautiful, beautifully written. And Peter Kerry I love his work, he just released a book which is beautiful as well.
JH: Do you think there is a direct connection between the literature aspect and your writing, in the way of say Joni Mitchell or do you think it’s an abstract connection? Is it something that brings you a little peace and then you go on and write your songs.
RL: I don’t try to be particularly literate in songs. I mean songs are something else. They just have to unfold the way they want to. I just try to let them happen. I don’t really think about it.
Although this time around I approached things very differently. I tried to be much more disciplined about the writing. I mean I always have melodies stacked up and stored away, but as far as writing, it happens over a year or a year and a half. And this time I sat down around the middle of February and I just began to punch in every day. As soon as I woke up I’d make some coffee and I’d go into the room and I wouldn’t leave the room until, sometimes, 10:30 at night and I’ve never ever done that before and it was horrible, it was excruciating and some days I was in this room, every fucking day for just months, all day. And some days I was just wanting to kill myself because nothing was happening. I was making no progress whatsoever. I’d been in there for twelve or fourteen hours and nothing was happening… I mean maybe a little bit of a bridge, maybe a melody for this or a little piece of that. It was really difficult but I was really determined to do it. To try and make it work. First, because I had set time limits for myself. I had set a record start day. So anyway, that’s how the songs came together, I made myself do it. Then there were surprises along the way… you know, “Are We Really Through” was a surprise, it was nothing I meant to work on it was just a gift, you know.
But then recording as well… singing, I felt so much more relaxed and confident with singing songs the way I wanted to sing them, which is not really how I want to say that, but you know what I mean. It was just so relaxed. As a singer, I’m always trying to grow and learn to use the natural range and tone that I have and try to use it better, get better as a singer. I hear a confidence that has been growing over the records but I think it’s one step further on this record.
JH: Absolutely… you can hear it… I think contrary to what you were saying earlier, maybe on a certain level you are getting more comfortable in that aspect of “your skin,” as it were.
I have read about how long it took you to get comfortable with your voice… but I think almost any songwriter goes through that sort of evolution. With you it’s interesting because your voice is at the same time really powerful, there isn’t that timid trepidation one would associate with that discomfort. And it’s been that way since the first record. How do you connect the power with that discomfort?
RL: I really don’t know, you know. At this point, this is what I am meant to do. This is what I am here to do. At a certain point you realize that, and I just sort of realized that, this is it. That being critical with myself, isn’t helping me. I mean, to an extent you always have to want to get better, and I do all the time, I always want to write a better song, to be a better musician, I want to grow as a vocalist, I want to learn to use that instrument better especially. I always want to get better but, there are enough people out there that want to knock you down, there’s no sense in knocking yourself down.
JH: You’ve got to have your own back, at least.
RL: Yeah, and I think that as much as I am self-critical, there is an inner strength there that has been there from the beginning and I’ve always known deep down that I wasn’t gonna let anything stop me. I mean once I knew what I wanted to do, I was gonna do it. And it doesn’t matter if anyone ever said, “you’re no good”, “we don’t like what your doing”, “go home.” It doesn’t matter. I always knew I was going to keep doing this, deep down.
Anyway, here I am.
JH: And thank goodness!
The mysterious case of Ray LaMontagne is merely one more example that although the record industry may have lost its way, sometimes we are fortunate enough to have it’s velvet curtain penetrated by a hard-working artist with a great voice, powerful sound and broad appeal. I suspect Ray LaMontagne is going to be making great records for many years to come. And under that gut-wrenching emotion of his homemade soul, there is catharsis, in the best of the blues tradition… healing. It’s not hard to hear, just be willing to…
Live Well and Listen Closely,
read more articles by music writer J. Hayes at: http://www.examiner.com/x-4161-New-American-Music-Examiner
and become a fan on facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/J-Hayes-music-writer/161850300225
art direction & design by www.hayesmusicdesign.com
special thanks to Ray, Meghan at RCA and my editors Kellee Webb & Marrilyn Reid.