Ray LaMontagne, Finding His Place

Ray LaMontagne has drawn comparisons to Nick Drake, Tim and Jeff Buckley, and Van Morrison.
Ray LaMontagne has drawn comparisons to Nick Drake, Tim and Jeff Buckley, and Van Morrison. (By Dan Winters)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006

True story: Shy, reclusive fellow living in a one-room apartment is awakened one morning long before dawn's early light by his clock radio blaring Stephen Stills's "Treetop Flyer." The song so transfixes him that he skips work that day -- the assembly line at the local shoe factory rolls on without him -- to hunt the song and the album that contains it (1991's "Stills Alone"). Soon after, he trades in his vintage VW bus for a vintage Martin acoustic guitar, and, after a lengthy rummage in the attics and basements of American music, he emerges -- seemingly from nowhere and literally out of the deep, dark woods of Maine -- to find great acclaim for his 2004 soul-folk debut, "Trouble."

According to singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne, that 4 a.m. Lewiston epiphany has "taken on a life of its own -- it's my 'history.' "

History is not something LaMontagne, 33, feels particularly driven to discuss, at least not until it gets to the good part. After all, the early part includes an impoverished childhood with a single mother who had six children with various fathers and pursued a nomadic lifestyle across the country. Not surprisingly, by his late teens LaMontagne was himself something of a drifter, eventually settling in Maine and working as a carpenter before landing at the shoe factory. It was, he has said repeatedly, a dark time in his life.

But in the Stills of that night, LaMontagne found something lost years before. Or abandoned: His father, who'd taken off when LaMontagne was 5, was a musician, and the son had no desire to follow in his footsteps. Yet "as a young person, before I turned 10 or 11, I was drawn to instruments, whether it was piano or drums or whatever," LaMontagne recalled recently from a tour stop in support of his new album, "Till the Sun Turns Black" (he'll be at the 9:30 club Monday; the concert will be streamed live on NPR starting about 9 p.m. and archived for on-demand listening at "But then, for one reason or another, it just kind of fell away to other things. I just didn't find much that I really connected to."

The family's itinerant lifestyle surely had something to do with that, and you get the feeling LaMontagne is a naturally introspective soul who prefers to keep his own company because it's the only one he has always been able to count on. "Treetop Flyer" transformed LaMontagne from a passive personality to a passionate explorer at vinyl-only Enterprise Records in nearby Portland, "a little hole-in-the-wall record store that was always playing something really interesting in the shop, and it felt like a yard sale."

"I lived for the chance to get back there and dig through the stacks, find something new, something that I hadn't heard -- whether it was another Stephen Stills record or Bob Dylan, Neil Young or the Band, Sonny Boy Williamson, Nina Simone, just a gazillion people, Etta James, Joni Mitchell, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, Leadbelly. I loved everything, and I lived for that time after work, putting on a record and having a sandwich or macaroni and cheese, whatever I could pull together at that time, and just listening to those records."

All that listening, six years' worth, would gradually lead to a second epiphany: "I felt like there was this little voice in the back of my head saying, 'I think there's something in there.' "

By then, he was married (he has two young children) and living in a small, isolated, self-built cabin with no electricity or running water. Writing his own music may have been a necessity, but, LaMontagne says, "I knew it was the next step; writing songs became a passion and I just kept doing it, and then it got to the point where I thought, 'I've got 15, 20, 25 songs, maybe I should try to play them for people and see what happens.' "

That step, he admits, "was tough and really frightening," particularly for someone who seldom even spoke to people and now had to sing to them. LaMontagne started in small coffee shops, "anywhere they let you play for 30 minutes and you get free coffee or free brownies -- or both!" he said. "And nobody wants you to be there -- I can see that looking back. If I want a cup of coffee and to read the paper, the last thing I want is to hear some [expletive] singer-songwriter sitting by the table singing some really sincere [expletive] to me."

So, if you were in Maine in the late '90s and stopped in some small town for a cup of coffee, that lanky, shaggy, denim-clad troubadour with the hushed sandpaper vocals, supple guitar strokes and melancholy songs of love, loss, desperation and redemption was in all likelihood Ray LaMontagne, or as the first two of three privately produced albums advertised, Raycharles LaMontagne (his given name, not a tribute).

"You have to believe in yourself before anybody else believes in you," he says of the albums that started others believing in him and eventually led to a publishing deal and a contract with RCA Records that assured him an uncommon degree of creative control. "Trouble," featuring mostly re-recorded versions of his last demo album, "Introducing Ray LaMontagne," was made in Los Angeles with producer/musician Ethan Johns (the Jayhawks, Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon).

By then, LaMontagne says, "I really felt like I was starting to home in on my own voice, and not just my singing voice -- I feel like I found that really quickly. You only have what you have -- your range, your natural tone, whatever -- and I found that pretty quickly. I'd always enjoyed writing, not songwriting, but short stories and this and that, journal writing. I'm an avid reader as well. Putting the two things together was tricky, but at the same time, in a weird way, it felt really natural. By the time 'Trouble' came around, I felt confident in music for myself, not necessarily what other people's opinions of it would be."

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