Rootsy songwriter blends the cerebral and the psychedelic on his latest album, produced by Jim James.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Don’t try to pigeonhole Ray LaMontagne. While critics have been quick to compare him to any number of rarefied and rootsy icons — the Band, Van Morrison, Tim Buckley and Steven Stills among them — LaMontagne sole muse is the inspiration that strikes from within. “I always let the songs lead the way,” the soft-spoken singer/songwriter insists. “It’s always kind of the same process. I hear all these melodies. If something catches me, then I say to myself, wow, I’ve really got to pursue this further.”
The dusty veneer this New England native established with his first four albums — Troubled (2004), Till the Sun Turns Black (2006), Gossip in the Grain (2008), and the Grammy-winning God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise (2010) — began to shift slightly with 2013’s Supernova, a set of songs that found him connecting with producer Dan Auerbach and taking more of a psychedelic spin. His latest effort, Ouroboros, released earlier this year, continues that tact, opening up new layers of aural suggestion thanks to the input of producer Jim James and his own cerebral sensibilities.
We recently connected with LaMontagne during a break in his current tour and asked him to expound on his overall MO. Serious and soft spoken, he came right to the point.
BLURT: You’re touring behind the new album now. How long ago did the tour start?
LAMONTAGNE: We’re ten days into it now. It’s good.
And you’ll be on the road for how long?
Right through the end of December.
You’ll be out for awhile. Are you looking forward to it? Is it still satisfying?
It is. It’s an adjustment. But this tour especially, being able to play with these guys is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s really a high point in my career so I’m just trying to enjoy every minute that I get to be around these guys.
It’s been said that this latest album of yours took some time to come. You weren’t sure where you wanted to go with it and then it supposedly came to you in a dream. And then your demos actually became the album. Is that how it transpired?
Not exactly. I demoed the piece in full for Jim (James). I have a very rudimentary home studio, so I played all the guitars and sung all the harmonies, and just kind of mapped it all out just so he had a good idea of what I was getting at before we went into the studio. Which is what I like to do anyway. I don’t go in with any questions. I go in with songs that are finished so that all that stuff is out of the way and we can just get to work. I don’t like hanging out in the studio. I like the work, but I like to see it completed so that we can just go in there and get it as good as it can be. But I don’t want to spend a month in there. I like to do it in less than two weeks if we can. I just wanted to give Jim a roadmap. But really, Jim is Jim and he loves things to be really pure. When he heard the demo, it was Jim’s personality to say don’t even mess with it. Just release that. It’s beautiful. It sounds so pure. But of course that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to use good mikes, and record it with good players. It really blossomed because so many surprises happened in the studio, and I knew it deserved that.
You’ve worked with any distinguished producers over the course of your career… Ethan Johns, Dan Auerbach and so on. Now you have Jim James at the helm. What makes you lean towards any particular producer at any given time? Why don’t you stay with the same producer for two albums in a row? You seem a bit restless.
Working with Dan was due to the fact that I really just always loved his music. We got to know each other slightly around the time when I released my second record, and that’s how that conversation started. Working with a producer is for me just having someone else’s ears in the room other than mine. I need someone to bounce ideas off of, other people just to prove to me that my initial idea was right. It’s really helpful in a creative situation, I feel, just to have someone to bounce ideas off of. It gives you outside perspective, to get it out of my own head so to speak. That’s really it. I don’t need someone to write songs for me, I don’t need someone to rewrite songs for me, I don’t someone to tell me what the sound is going to be. I already know what I want, and so I just want that other person in there to bounce it off of, and the musicians as well of course. I find it helpful, even if it’s just to clarify my own ideas, my own thoughts.
It seems like you made a pretty dramatic change from the God Willin’ album to the one that came out after, Supernova. You veered from a sound that was very archival, emanated this kind of Woodstock mystique, to a set of songs that were cloaked in a psychedelic haze. So is that the path you’re pursuing now?
I never really know until I get in a room and start of waiting for melodies to come. It’s driven by something that’s really unknown. I just open myself up to the unknown and see what happens. It’s always been that way. In the earlier years, when you’re learning, you may have been working to heard to receive things in one direction or another. I’m learning to be really hands off and the less I’m consciously involved, I think it’s better for the work.
So you wait for inspiration to come to you? It seems a kind of passive way of doing things.
Yeah, it’s a funny sort of balance. When I decide it’s time, I think it out, and I feel that current pulling me and then I’m very dedicated. I can be in my room from 7:30 in the morning to 10:30 or 11 at night. It’s all I do. I just pace and follow the melodies until I hit a roadblock, and then I follow another melody until I hit another roadblock, and I just keep going in that circle. And if things aren’t panning out, I just wait for another piece of melody to filter down, and then I follow that. Whatever is fruitful is what I follow. It seems to be producing good stuff. I really feel that the Supernova record was my best work. I feel like I’m just hitting my stride. I’m just getting to a place where I’m in a good place with that creative energy. I don’t push it, I don’t manhandle it, I just follow it and hopefully I use the skills I’ve learned and the tools I’ve learned to just take it ever so slightly. And at that point, it’s mysterious to me too as to what it’s all about. (chuckles) I enjoy that mystery for what it is.
You seem like a very cerebral sort of guy. A real deep thinker. Introspective to a degree. Is that a fair assessment?
I’m a homebody and I value my friendships highly and my relationships. I’ve been with my wife for 28 years, and we’ve been married for 20. I’m taking my oldest boy to college this fall in between tours, and these things are important to me. Stability is important to me. Fame is not important to me. I’m never put any energy towards that whatsoever. It doesn’t do anything for me, but the work does. I just love the art form. I love music. It’s such a beautiful powerful art form and I feel like it’s a blessing to be able to do it and make a living at it. I feel really fortunate. But I want to do good work. I don’t want to just go out and tour. There’s a certain element that does it a lot, especially younger bands that just love it because I think they don’t believe there’s any responsibility out there. What strikes me is that a lot of guys like it because they like the image of it. They like the lifestyle that comes with no responsibility and being the coolest guy in the room. That’s not why I do it.
Hopefully you’ll be able to do it for a very long time.
I’ll keep doing it as long as I can. When I talk to some of my heroes like Elvis Costello, he’s such a groovy dude. If I ever get down, I just talk to him. He gets me into shape. That’s the career arc I would love to have, just being able to age into it gracefully and always try to do good work. Really, it’s not about right now. It’s about 50 years from now. I don’t care how a record is received today. I just hope that 50 years from now, some seventeen year old kid is going to find it in a stack somewhere, maybe all moldy, and he’s going to take it home, and it’s going to blow his mind. That’s it. That’s the shit. Who knows? For now though, I’m just going to keep working.
Ray LaMontagne will resume his extensive North American tour this week, starting on July 15. Dates are HERE. Below, watch him perform “Hey, No Pressure” live at the World Cafe.