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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Ray Lamontage Article

A few weeks back I did an interview with Ray Lamontagne, a fantastic sing/songwriter who's album Trouble is one of the best and most original works to come out in the past year. For those who missed it in the CityBeat, see below.

A New England Story-Teller for a New Generation
By Charles Dahan

Ray Lamontagne built a cabin in the backwoods of Maine while working in a shoe factory, mired in a deep, life questioning depression. He awoke to Stephen Still’s, “Treetop Flier” one morning five years ago and without any musical experience decided to become folk singer, trained only by listening to the great American songwriters of the 1960’s and 70’s. He made a demo, a record label bidding war ensued, and produced the most beautiful record of the past nine months. Lamontagne describes the process of becoming a musician as simply, “Actively listen[ing] to records. Music never played a big part in my life up until that point. I didn’t just drop anything and start singing I just kept records. Slowly over a period of about four years or so I started writing my own songs, until about ’99 when I made my own set of demos. It was gradual…I always liked to draw, to sketch from life and so on. I didn’t have much of an artistic outlet really.”
Released last September, Lamontagne’s “Trouble” is largely personal and primarily the album of a storyteller versed more in life than crafting musical hits—the narrative is never compromised for the sake of making a more marketable song. Working with Ethan Johns—producer, performer of countless instruments, and engineer for Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon, Leona Naess, The Jayhawks and Counting Crows—Lamontage created an album that is unlike anything of the past few years. Rolling Stone’s description of him as a ‘backwoods Van Morrison’ is close—he certainly evokes the same heart-felt, folksy feeling with acoustic instrumentation and succinct personal lyrics often presented as a dialogue. Yet Lamontagne says he never listened to a Morrison record until after his album was completed, and “Trouble” is much more intimate than any of Morrison’s albums. Lamontagne is not protected by the whaling, all-out vocals that leave one awed by Morrison’s vocal range and talent. Where Morrison blows you away with the power of his voice, Lamontagne shows vulnerability and pulls the listener in with vocals that are often almost a whisper. Van’s best albums—“Moondance” and “His Band and the Street Choir” of 1970 and ’71 respectively—offer songs which are reminiscent of gospel hymns, blasting the pain and suffering of life out of his body. Lamontagne invites you to listen to him read his diary—although he does so tentatively, as he isn’t sure about the whole endeavor. Performing is a way for Lamontagne to breathe life into his tales, the natural culmination of nurturing his musical and writing talent. “I just got to a point where singing in my bedroom on my porch wasn’t enough. I needed an audience to make the songs real. Even then, I never thought about being able to make a living at it—even more than that I felt like I needed to do it…Singing is just therapeutic. It just gets that stuff inside trying to kill you, it gets it all out.”
The album’s first single of the same name received radio play earlier this year, but its lyrics were certainly the tamest and its melody the most consumer friendly. The song—a generic lament—did not show the greatness of Lamontagne. While he sounds more vocally confident and the song “Trouble” is more refined than the others on the album (although with the impeccable team assembled to ensure the album’s success, there are few if any miscues) it lacks the intimacy found on songs such as “Burn”. A near perfect expression of watching an ex-lover in the arms of another, Lamontagne’s “Burn” tells us that, “To see you now with him/is just making me mad/Oh so kiss him again/just to prove to me that you can/and I will stand here and burn in my skin.” Such a statement is emotionless—yet through a mere description of events, Lamontagne separates himself from the modern emo-crap as a true storyteller in the tradition of Dylan and Stephen Stills.
A collaboration with Nickel Creek’s Sara Watson produces the album’s climax, ‘Hannah’, blending the life experiences and pain of Lamontagne with the youthful exuberance and technical brilliance of Watson. A tale of courtship, ‘Hannah’ is the most complete story Lamontagne tells, chronicling both the biography of the woman he is pursuing and the personal demons he will abandon if she does come to him. Like most of Lamontagne’s brief career, the collaboration with Watson seems to be more than chance. “It was just a fluke. We were deep at night working on the record and Sara and her brother have a monthly thing at Largo in LA…We went down and listened to them play and went up and played a couple songs. As we were leaving I said to Ethan, ‘Why don’t we see if Sara wants to come in tomorrow and try something.’ He ran back in and came back out and said she’d be there at 10 o’clock and that was it. She showed up and it was really just very spur of the moment—she’s so quick it didn’t take any time at all. I don’t like to do anymore than two or three takes and sat down and did it quickly. She’s so talented…as a musician she’s just amazing.” “Trouble” is the best album this reviewer has heard all year, matching beautiful, personal lyrics with Lamontagne’s intimate voice and Johns’ amazing knack for making the albums of great songwriters both accessible ensures the deep, dark places Lamontagne takes us are balanced by hope and triumph.
The ability to pick nearly everyone he works with—from producers to his label—has created a rare positive relationship between artist and record company. Lamontagne has been on the road—leaving his family and his beloved Maine—nearly constantly for the past year. “I started touring six months before the record came out, on my own just driving myself around, getting myself to the plane and the hotel. We haven’t really stopped since then. There will be a break of a week, sometimes two weeks, but I’ve been touring pretty steady since last May.” Lamontagne will complete his solo tour—which includes a July 16th performance at the House of Blues in downtown San Diego—in August, and will open for Dave Matthews Band later this month.