Hushed, earthy, soul-soaked.
Those are the ways in which observers and critics have often spoken of Ray LaMontagne's songwriting -- ever since his recorded debut, Trouble, introduced him to the world's music fans as a bearded Northeastern mountain man with an acoustic guitar.
Not many would've described LaMontagne or his songs as trippy. But now, with his fifth studio record, Supernova, produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, the singer-songwriter has proven that he's also got a flair for psych-tinged pop 'n' roll.
"I thought people might not like it," he recently admitted to Crossfade. But after "writing songs now for fifteen years," LaMontagne says, "I think I can trust my gut at this point."
Crossfade: Let's start by talking about your latest album, Supernova. Is it a correct assessment to say it's a change of course, with the hint of psychedelic suggestion that's in there, as well as the influence of the producer, Dan Auerbach, and his signature sound?
Ray LaMontagne: I think there were hints of that kind of stuff on other records. I always liked that psychedelic sound. I was always a fan of early Pink Floyd. I like the Kinks, the Troggs, Captain Beefheart. I loved all that stuff. So I think this album is maybe tipped a little more in that direction in terms of influences. But Elvis Costello also played a big part in this record. He's always been a sort of mentor to me.
Overall, I was just going through this weird stage. Nothing was sounding interesting to me. I'd think, I don't want to do that. Or, I've done that already. It was like the well had run dry. So I put my heart on my sleeve, and I told Elvis Costello, "God, I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I feel like I'm banging my head against the wall." And he was really thoughtful, and it really helped me.
He said, "There's only one way. You just have to keep going forward. You just have to trust that inner voice." It was much deeper than that, but that's the essence. It really helped.
What kind of impact on this process did Dan Auerbach have? It was your first time working with him, right?
I've wanted to work with Dan on some level for years now. We back talked back and forth about doing something. So it's been a long time coming. And actually, it's perfect timing. I had demos of the songs and we had a lot of conversations about them. I would send him the demos, maybe with little organ lines, or some kind of flourish -- it could be anything -- little hints. I wanted to give him as much information as possible, and from that point, Dan put the band together.
He put together a great band, a lot of experienced musicians. The vibe in the studio was great, because it was like everybody had equal say. Everybody had input. Any ideas that anybody had was welcomed. Whether it was the bass player or the drummer, anybody who had any good ideas was welcome to throw those ideas out. Everyone was listened to. I think that's how it's supposed to be. That's how a producer should operate: to hear everybody out, to hear everyone's ideas. Very cool things can happen that way.
You also worked with noted English producer Ethan Johns early on. How were you able to make that connection for your first album? That's a nice hookup right out of the box.
I met him early on through my publisher, which was Chrysalis Music. I'm still with them, actually. They're wonderful people. They gave us some studio time to make some demos.
And what did he bring to the table?
I think Ethan was the best thing that could happen to me at that time. He helped lead me through the minefield of the music business. He gave me so much advice about the pitfalls that could happen and what to avoid. And so we made that record and then the record companies started coming around, but they were all treating the record like it was a bunch of demos and they were asking, "Well, what kind of record do you want to make?" They were supposed to be demos but we had ended up making a record. And so it was Ethan's advice to say, "Stick to your guns on this. This is a record. Don't let anyone say we should do these songs again." Ethan said, "Don't worry. These songs are beautiful. Don't let them convince you otherwise." So I went with his advice. They said to me, "Are you sure this is the way you want to go?" And I took his advice and said yes, and the conversation was over. So RCA was the first label that agreed, and that's why I went with RCA. As far as the music goes, he works really well one on one. When it comes to younger artists, he has the ability to quickly take control of the session. For better or for worse, he takes younger artists under his wing. I'm just really glad I made those records with Ethan.
You produced your last album, , yourself. What inspired you to take the reins and act as your own producer?
I kind of felt like it was time. I have a really great band that I've been touring with for a while, and it just seemed a very natural thing for us to record, to make a record together, just us, to capture the sound and energy we were creating. The guys I was playing with had been around a lot longer than me. They're wonderful musicians, and I felt so lucky that these guys were touring with me and making music with me. I wanted to capture that, so I could look back and say, "We were really making great music together."
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Ray LaMontagne. With Jenny Lewis. Saturday, July 12. Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The show starts at 8:30 p.m. and tickets cost $37.50 and $47.50 plus fees via livenation.com. All ages. Call 305-673-7300 or visit fillmoremb.com.