Ray LaMontagne talks about finding his voice, smoking pipes and touring with Levon Helm
It’s only fitting that LaMontagne, 37, should share the stage with Helm, an artist twice his age — the musicians are kindred spirits in this flash-in-the-pan era of Gaga and Bieber. Levon and Ray marry elements of soul and folk with their flair for gospel and bluegrass grit, and each man is one of his generation’s unsung Americana heroes.
At Friday's concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall, fans can expect a set from LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs, followed by the Levon Helm Band. Will Ray join Levon for a few songs? "I have a feeling there's going to be some cross-pollination going on," he said. (Tickets are $39.50-$69.50. Click here to purchase.
In August, LaMontagne released his fourth album in six years, recording and producing God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise with his band, the Pariah Dogs, in a 200-year-old Massachusetts barn. We spoke to Ray by phone following a two-week stretch of shows in Europe about what we might expect from the intimate show in Clearwater.
What have you and Levon discussed regarding touring together?
We haven’t spoken much at all, not even more than two or three words in the three of four times we’ve seen each other. That’s because every time I see him, he’s not able to speak, you know? His voice is continuing to give him some trouble. I can’t really even imagine how that must affect him, but his spirits are always high. He always seems to be the happiest guy in the room, which is amazing to me. I just find him hugely inspiring, because he’s been through the wringer. And that’s what I think is just so amazing and admirable about the man — he’s been through it all and he’s gracious about it. God knows nothing’s guaranteed in this business. I just released my fourth record and I want to do it for the rest of my life, I hope.
Do you write every day?
No, I don’t do it every day. That’s one thing — I never force myself to write. But I try to go after songs if they come knocking. For this record I was more disciplined about it because I set a schedule for myself. I didn’t want to waste any time and I didn’t want to have any unfinished songs. I didn’t even want to have extra songs, I wanted to have everything whittled down to the 10 songs for the record. I wanted to have it in my head finished before (the Pariah Dogs) got here, so that we could just hit it and split it.
So you recorded God Willin’ rather quickly?
We did it in five days, two tracks a day. We just set up in a circle. I showed them a song one at a time, they hadn’t heard anything. And then we just played. They just reacted to it. They’re just great musicians.
At what moment did you realize you sang well?
That’s really hard to say. I mean, I really didn’t get passionate about music til I was about 22, 23. And then I made some demos when I was 25. I don’t know. I still have a — oh gosh, that’s hard to answer. It took a while for me to feel good about my voice. I’m always so realistic with everything in my life, all the time. I’m always very realistic about my goals, about my expectations, about everything. So when I started singing I just listened to it when I made my first demos, and I thought, “I don’t really like the tone of that voice. I don’t really love that sound.” Then I had to make a decision: Am I going to keep doing it? And I did. But I was disappointed in the tone in my voice. And over time I’ve gotten more used to it, my range and my tone. That’s just a God-given thing, you’re given a tone to work with. I tried to be not so hard on myself about what I had no control over. But I was initially very critical of that and initially very disappointed with what God had given me. But I’m not so much anymore. Now I feel like it’s a blessing. And now I’m working all the time just to be a better singer.
How has smoking a pipe shaped your tone?
Well, not at all, because you don’t inhale pipe tobacco. You’ll make yourself sick. No, I don’t think it’s affected my voice at all. Overall, I’m a really healthy person. Especially these days. I don’t drink. I eat really healthy. And I don’t smoke cigarettes. I don’t smoke pot. Anymore. In my younger days I did, for many years, like, all the time. But at a certain point in my early 20s it just stopped working. So I stopped using it. I’m very conscious of exercising and being healthy mentally.
How do you mentally prepare for a show?
I just walk out there. I’ve never warmed up — ever — vocally in my life, whether it’s been in the studio or on the road. I’ve never had vocal strain except a few times in the beginning when I first started touring, when the sound in the room was so horrible. Now I travel with amazing guys who take care of all that stuff. It just happens. As soon as I get out there something just clicks. A couple of deep breaths before each song, and I’m right back in that emotional core of whatever song I’m about to sing.
Is it tough to bring that same emotion every night to a song you wrote years ago?
It isn’t. It really isn’t. I really don’t have any problem with that. It’s just the way I am, it’s like walking on this sort of razor’s edge all the time. I just have this sort of a well inside me. It’s just endless. I can’t get rid of all that stuff. It’s just like an emotional well, it can’t be emptied. I don’t think it will ever run dry. Every time I sing Jolene, I feel that same feeling. Touring can be really exhausting, I have to say. Because every night I’m going through it. I live it, I feel it. But what’s the point otherwise? There’s no way for me to dial in a song. It just wouldn’t work.
Have you relied on a specific guitar over these four albums?
No, not at all. I’m not very sentimental about guitars. At all. I’m not a guitar collector or anything like that, I have no interest in it whatsoever. I do have a Martin that I’ve had for six or seven years. But it consistently pisses me off with crazy intonation issues and all kinds of stuff. Recently I’ve been playing Bourgeois guitars, and I really think they’re the best-sounding guitars I’ve ever played. I had been playing strictly Martins before that, but I’ve been disappointed in them. They just don’t travel very well. But this guy (Dana) Bourgeois builds guitars in Maine, and they’re just stunning. He builds guitars for Ricky Skaggs and lots of bluegrass guys. We’re sort of gonna start building a signature guitar. He may have a couple ready for next year.
Just in time to make your next record?
I’ve got a soundtrack that I’m more and more concentrating on at the moment. We’ll see how that goes. Those things are tricky situations. They’re just quagmires, they’re really weird. (Laughs.) At any rate, I’ve got some things I’m trying to work out on that end, and then I’ll certainly do other new stuff. I’d really love to make another record with this band, with the Pariah Dogs. Hopefully sometime the beginning of next year I’d like to get it in the can, you know?
What have your 30s taught you about life as a musician?
That’s a huge question. I don’t know. I have a really nice balance. I don’t go out for more than eight weeks at a time and I try to have at least eight weeks in between each tour. It really couldn’t get better. To be able to make a living playing music is a gift. It’s really a blessing.
-- Patrick Flanary, tbt*. Photo: Getty Images.