Ray Lamontagne: With a Little Help from My Friends
Having experienced and generous friends comes in handy.
When Ray Lamontagne was unsatisfied with the batch of songs he’d written as the follow-up to his chart-topping, Grammy-winning album God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, he shot an email to a pal named Elvis Costello that helped get him on a new course.
“I was getting a lot of tunes as I always do, but they just weren’t’ demanding my attention enough. They all felt like good potential songs and songs that could make a good record, but somehow they just didn’t feel like the record I wanted to make,” he says during a rare interview from his Massachusetts home. “It was kind of a first for me. I hadn’t had that experience before so I was kind of at a loss.”
One call to Costello got him on track. “I just thought I would ask someone who must have been through it,” he adds. “Elvis is just a really generous guy so I sent him an email explaining what I was going through and asked for advice. That helped.”
What was the advice? “That’s kind of personal,” he says. ”But after that I just felt a little less concerned about what was going on creatively.”
What resulted was the most sonically adventurous album of Lamontagne’s decade-long career, Supernova, one that earned raves from some critics and head-shaking from long-time fans for diving into Sixties psychedelia that would fit on a Jefferson Airplane or late-era Byrds album.
Lamontagne says when he wrote the title cut, a Sixties-style pop song, he knew he was on a roll. “The other songs are good stuff I’ve put on the shelf for another time or another record,” he says. “It wasn’t until I had written Supernova that I felt energized, a little more confident I kind of knew where this record wanted to go.”
Lamontagne has a reputation for being tight-lipped and reclusive, but the interview, scheduled for 15 minutes, stretches on as he talks passionately about his work, often referring to songs created without contrivance. “Most of the time, songs just kind of happen,” he says. “At a certain point after writing songs for so many years, you just start to trust things. You know when a line is right. You know when a melody is working. You just kind of have to trust your gut.”
Asked if there are any songs that are views into his souls, Lamontagne admits there are a few. “There are some that are a little closer to the bone than others, but those are few and far between. I could probably count on one hand of all the records I’ve made songs that are emotionally or viscerally tied to me.There are little bits and pieces here and there, but ultimately I’m just trying to write a good song.”
Pressed, he says songs like “Empty,” “Sarah” and “Be Here Now” — all from 2009’s Gossip in the Grain and 2006’s Till the Sun Turns Black fit the bill.
The drastic departure in sound, too, was something driven by the songs. “It’s the songs that always kind of lead the way. They dictate the sound that surrounds them,” he adds. “Whatever kind of emotional stuff it stirs up that turns into the sonic stuff.”
While his songs are often emotional, they are never topical. “I don’t like those kind of songs,” he adds. “The songs I love and the songwriting that sort of informs me were the ones that sounded like they just happened. A lot of Neil Young’s stuff is like that. Bob Dylan, of course, is like that. The Band. All that stuff just got me excited in the beginning.”
His beginning is storybook. He made his debut, “Trouble,” an album recorded after he quit his job at a Maine shoe factory. The album, which harks back to the sound of Van Morrison and Damien Rice with the rasp of Joe Cocker, has gone on to sell more than 750,000 copies. The title track has been everywhere, appearing on an insurance commercial and shows like True Blood, The Office, and Rescue Me.
Listening to that and the three albums that followed, it’s easy to imagine Lamontagne as a sad soul. But he was 28 and married to his high school sweetheart with two children when he made his first album. “Trouble” was a writing exercise inspired by his love for 1960s soul and rock. In short. don’t confuse Ray Lamontagne, the songwriter, with Ray Lamontagne, the person.
Lamontagne almost didn’t make a fifth album. When he got off the road from the God Willin’ tour, he thought about quitting. He was depressed and in a bad place, he says. But, as often happens, hitting bottom propelled him back up.
What turned things around? “I think just having enough time away from the road, probably. Also it kind of forced me to analyze what was driving me up until that point or how I was driving myself I should say,” he explains. “It just wasn’t very healthy. Over time off the road having time to quiet myself I realized I could still do this an enjoy it a lot more if I would stop being so unfairly hard on myself. That’s not easy to do. We all have these challenges. We have to figure ourselves out in life. It all just came down to the way I was treating myself.”
What Lamontagne has figured out is how to crank out songs. He sits down and focuses, sometimes for 16 hours at a shot. “When I’m working, when I have a goal and I know I want to make a record, I make myself stay in my room,” he says. “I go in right after I wake up, grab cup of coffee and stay there all day until 10 30 or 11 at night. I have to make myself stay put because there are so many other things. I’d love to be on my motorcycle or messing around with cars or in the wood shop or the blacksmith shop (he does Colonial iron work) or walking around. So I have to force myself to stay in there.”
“Once I’m in that mode, songs are going to get finished no matter what,” he adds. “Sometimes hey’re us not going to blossom so you just move on, set it aside and get away from it,” he adds. “I’m in a place where I’m comfortable doing that. There was a time when I couldn’t let something go.”
With songs he liked in place and a kinder, gentler view of himself, Lamontagne dialed Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys seeking a recommendation for an engineer to help him record an album at home. They started talking and soon Auerbach was producing the disc in Nashville. Auerbach had some free time. They’d talked about working together in some capacity before. So why not now?
Lamontagne says Auerbach’s influence can be heard on every cut. “That’ s why you work with someone else — to get someone’s perspective and their ears in the room. i have plenty of my own perspective on that stuff and sometimes you just need to separate yourself from it. that’s why you hire a producer. and hopefully trust them. It’s almost to force yourself to have some other perspective to say ‘Hey, look, this could be better if we do this, maybe we should cut this verse in half. You need somebody to do that and hopefully it makes for a better record.”
Lamontagne says he was a fan of early Pink Floyd, the Kinks, the Troggs, and Captain Beefheart and it shows on the disc.
“We always wanted to do something together. We’d been talking about it for years,” he says of Auerbach.” I couldn’t be happier with the album.”