Ray LaMontagne – Flying beyond the treetops
The notion of music saving a person’s life gets bandied about often enough to qualify as a cliche. But in the case of Raycharles Jack LaMontagne, it carries a weight that is at once chilling and inspirational.
Born in New Hampshire just over 30 years ago to teenage runaway parents, LaMontagne spent his youth constantly on the move. His father left shortly after his birth, but there would be other men in his mother’s life, as well as five more children. The family went wherever his mother could find shelter, taking refuge from Utah to Maine in such grim domiciles as backyard tents, abandoned cars, a cinderblock shell and a chicken coop.
Ray was the perpetual “new kid in school,” a brutal lot made even worse by a deep-rooted shyness that he battles to this day. Upon graduation, LaMontagne found work in a Lewiston, Maine, shoe factory, where long hours kept him from seeing the light of day for months at a stretch. One early morning when he was 20, his clock radio awoke him with the sound of Stephen Stills’ “Treetop Flyer”, and the song struck him with such impact that his life was transformed from that moment on.
“I hadn’t been into listening to music — let alone singing, songwriting, or any of that stuff — until then,” LaMontagne confesses. “I had no clue as to what I was gonna do with my life, but that song piqued my interest, and I got that record. I started working backwards and discovered all these artists, and I was in heaven.”
LaMontagne found his niche in the classic singer-songwriters of the 1960s and ’70s — Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, CSN&Y — and set about teaching himself to play guitar. The quiet young man (whose speaking voice barely rises above a whisper) quickly discovered he’d been silently harboring a singing instrument that defied belief — a rich, honeyed rasp that variously conjures memories of Otis Redding, Eddie Hinton, Paul Rodgers and a young, folksy Rod Stewart.
“I had no idea I had this voice,” LaMontagne says. “And if I had told anyone what I had in mind, they’d have thought I was nuts, because I was like the most introverted person ever. I mean, to the point of illness; I didn’t even talk to anybody.”
In short order, LaMontagne was pouring his cluttered, compressed life and dreams into his music. In 1999, he presented a ten-song demo to the owner of a local theater that featured folk acts. Apparently, the tape was impressive; his first live gigs were opening for the likes of John Gorka and Jonathan Edwards.
Things moved pretty quickly from that point. An e-mail friend in the music business who’d heard and championed his music signed him to a publishing deal with Chrysalis. The company decided to make an album without a record deal, aiming to shop the finished disc afterward.
LaMontagne hooked up with producer Ethan Johns (Jayhawks, Ryan Adams, etc.), and the two headed to Los Angeles to make Trouble. LaMontagne’s voice and guitar were recorded live, with Johns adding drums, percussion, harmonium and additional guitars later. Jennifer Stills (Stephen’s daughter) and Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins added vocals to three cuts; five tracks featured a five-piece string section.
Trouble positively oozes the intimate, soulful vibe of late-’60s/early-’70s classics, its relaxed, expansive arrangements providing striking echoes of The Band, Neil Young and, especially, Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison. That last connection is purely coincidental, at least on LaMontagne’s part.
“Someone recently wrote that I borrowed so heavily from Morrison that it was detrimental to the recording. I find this hilarious, because I’d never listed to Van at all,” LaMontagne insists.
In any case, Chrysalis’ gamble paid off, with several major labels engaging in a bidding war ultimately won by RCA in America and Echo (a Chrysalis imprint) in Europe. Trouble was released in September, and LaMontagne has been touring heavily for most of the past year.
The only real downside is that this emerging homebody sees far too little of his wife and two sons (ages 5 and 7). So far, he figures, it’s a price worth paying.
“If I hadn’t discovered music and found this path, I probably wouldn’t be around today, honestly, because I hated life as a young person,” he admits with an audible shudder. “I was angry at the world and I hated myself. So I was very, very self-destructive.
“Once I started getting into music, things started to turn around, but I was still seriously on a rollercoaster. When I signed with Chrysalis and began making this record, that’s when I felt I’d turned the corner.”