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There might be no singer in songdom today more reticent than Ray LaMontagne. Painfully quiet and notoriously aloof, he's shy not just around the media — he's shy around everyone, even his fans. Which makes him perhaps the last person you'd think would want a career in the public spotlight. In fact, so blasé is LaMontagne about the glow of fame that he's been known to perform entire shows in absolute darkness.
Then there are days when LaMontagne would rather not even leave the hotel room. "I either read or catch up on email or phone calls," he says by phone, during one of the few interviews he's agreed to do recently. And unless you want to talk about books, that's about all he'll say on the subject.
Over the years, LaMontagne has made no secret of his need for privacy or of his reluctance to speak about his past. So I know better than to ask the Nashua, New Hampshire-born singer about his hardscrabble New England upbringing: the estranged father, the ever-struggling mother, the relentless moving from back yard to friend's car. And I never mention the fact that he had a childhood with "no sweets and no sugary cereals," no stereo, and no television, unless it was public; when, that is, there was even a TV set to be watched.
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And I also know better than to ask about the time he spent working 65-hour weeks in a Maine shoe factory. And how he awoke early one morning to the sound of Stephen Stills's "Treetop Flyer" and decided, right then and there, to devote his life to music.
I did, though, dare ask LaMontagne whether he ever told Mr. Stills about the particular legend. And LaMontagne, predictably, said, "No." Though he did cop to working with Stills's daughter Jennifer "very early on."
Maybe LaMontagne still hasn't entirely gotten used to the notion that folks actually want to hear what he has to say. Then again, it's probably more likely he'd rather just leave what he has to say to his songs.
And his songs do speak the proverbial volumes, and they say just about all that needs to be said about Ray LaMontagne. They speak of his hurt and his hope, his loss and his worry. And, on occasion, they speak of something that would never be known by any other name.
It all started, of course, with the song "Trouble" in 2004. It was a torn, tried, and seemingly true story about a past that couldn't be shaken and the girl who should've gotten away. Inexplicably, it ended up being covered by both Taylor Hicks and Chris Sligh on American Idol. But we can't hold that against LaMontagne.
The LP of the same name was soon recorded over the course of two weeks at L.A.'s Sunset Sound with producer Ethan Johns, whose work with Ryan Adams and Rufus Wainwright made him a certain fit. And it would eventually rise to the Top Five in the United Kingdom.
But fledgling Idols and British music enthusiasts weren't the only folks to get into "Trouble." The television show Rescue Me ran the song through an episode, and its album-mates also ended up on shows such as One Tree Hill and Grey's Anatomy. And the tunes weren't confined to soundtracking the small screen either — they also wound up in movies including A Lot Like Love, Prime, She's the Man, The Devil Wears Prada, and Georgia Rule.
Thankfully or not, LaMontagne's second LP, Till the Sun Turns Black in 2006, escaped with only a co-option from the show Eli Stone. But the album's screen absence in no way affected its success. In the States, Till the Sun entered the charts in the Top 40; in the UK, it rose to a similar chart position. And if numbers alone were a barometer of visibility, the man afflicted with what the Times of London called "crippling introversion" had now become the thing he feared most: a face to be recognized.
Late in 2008, LaMontagne let slip Gossip Against the Grain, and the boob tube got back to brooding along with his by-now patented hush of torment. Again LaMontagne's sand-blasted rasp seemed perfectly suited for a torrid story line, and again those who handle such comminglings came calling. Still, having songs featured in two episodes of Grey's Anatomy, and one each of House and The Ghost Whisperer, didn't supplant the need for him to hit the road.
Unfortunately, some of LaMontagne's fans have become a little overecstatic by his recent visitations. In fact, a few devotees have been downright rude, screaming between songs and generally causing an unkindly commotion. So have the shrieking ladies become a distraction?
"Only when it's belligerent," LaMontagne replies. "And that's not just with women; it's with men as well. There have been instances when someone will yell out for a song that they want to hear, and I will respond to be patient or 'We're not gonna be singing that tonight,' just to let them know so they can stop yelling it." Yet, he adds, "for the most part, audiences are respectful and they seem to appreciate us being there, so..."
But didn't someone recently yell out "Free Bird"?
"Oh, yeah. It happens all the time," he says.
Why anyone would want to scream "Free Bird" during a set from one of the world's most introspective singers is anyone's guess. But it's evident they've not fully listened to LaMontagne, nor have they fully tasted his exquisite Grain.
Led by the single "You Are the Best Thing" (yes, you heard it in the movie I Love You, Man) and seconded by the stunning "Let It Be Me" (on programs Eli Stone and Fringe), Grain takes much of the paleness LaMontagne has developed over the years and casts it in a much brighter shade. The LP is far from being completely cheerful — but there does seem to be a certain smile behind it. Has Ray LaMontagne actually become a happy person?
"I would say that generally I am a happy person," he replies. "More recently than in the past. I still have my bouts of down time, and every once in a while a certain kind of darkness will descend. But I've learned that it's not gonna last and that I always get through it. But generally I feel really lucky. I feel really blessed."
LaMontagne goes on to explain he's most happy when he's at home. "I just love to do everyday things — be in the country and work around the farm. I get a lot of enjoyment outta that," he continues. Farm, like in animals? "Yeah, goats and sheep and chickens. It's really more a hobby actually."
Old MacDonald aside, this newfound happiness is best conveyed in Grain's "Meg White," his full-fledged tribute to the one and only better half of the White Stripes. Like the Stripes — and quite unlike the singer's previous efforts — the song's got a distinct bounce to it. Hell, some might say it actually struts.
And, believe it or not, the song's sentiment seems something like a schoolboy crush: "Someday I'd like to take a walk with you," LaMontagne sings. "And talk about most anything you'd like to talk about... Maybe ride our bikes down by the seaside, to watch the sun going down." It's a giddy bit of head-over-heels, at once heartfelt and whimsical. And it's undoubtedly the most cheerful LaMontagne has ever been. But why?
"Well, you never really know why you write a song about anything. It just kinda popped into my head like other songs," he says. "But I am a fan of the White Stripes, and I'm a particular fan of hers. I think she's really great, and there's a certain childish, playful quality to the music. I really appreciate that. It's something I don't have. That's probably why I like their music so much. It's so very different from mine."
Has LaMontagne actually come clean about a crush? Then again, he's coming clean about something he's sung about, which means he's still coming back to the songs. And it's in song where we should be staying all along if, that is, we want to get to the soul of this troubadour.