Ray LaMontagne interview: From tortured soul to Ray of sunshine

Singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne is a changed man

Has Ray LaMontagne shaken off his demons? If his new album, Supernova, is anything to go by, the answer is yes. The least-fraught record of the singer-songwriter’s career to date, it is summery and, in places, positively patchouli-scented, suggestive of a man with, if not quite flowers in his hair, then fewer woes than were implied by his most famous song, 2004’s “Trouble”. True, there is an unrequited love song here called “Pick Up a Gun”, in which he talks about shooting the TV set in anger, but as he will later insist, “my songs aren’t autobiographical. It’s just storytelling, universal truths”. 

LaMontagne and I are speaking on the phone, because he’s in America, and I’m not. I had originally suggested we speak via Skype, but he wasn’t keen. This was hardly surprising: over the decade since he hit the spotlight, the 40-year-old has garnered a reputation as a tormented soul, whose big bushy beard has seemed as much something to hide behind as a nod to the hirsute folk troubadours – Van Morrison, The Band, et al – he so admires. And if, as I know from past experience, interviews with the man have tended to the torturous, with answers delivered in mumbled monosyllables, he has appeared little more at home on stage, often electing to play in complete darkness.

But something has evidently shifted since we last spoke. Perhaps it’s the fact that his last album, 2010’s God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise, was his most commercially successful to date, and won him a Grammy, but the man has now lightened up, both in song – the title track of his new album is something to whistle to – and also in conversation. He now speaks in full, flowing sentences, and sounds engaged throughout. Oh, blessed relief.

Right now, he’s telling me about his home, which he shares with his poet wife Sarah Sousa and their two teenage boys. He’s always liked rural spots: at the time of our last interview, he was living in the middle of nowhere in Portland, Maine; now he’s based in Western Massachusetts. “It’s a beautiful old estate that once belonged to the first US ambassador of Russia,” he says, adding “we’ve got 100 acres of fields, and another 16,000 acres of woods beyond.”

He has spent the past half-decade renovating it. “I love saving old houses. This one had lain empty since 1960, and all too often when they do sell, people tear them down to build something new. That’s sad. All that history, gone.” He pauses for a minute, suddenly self-conscious. “But this isn’t what you called to talk about, right?”

It’s been four years since his big Grammy win; LaMontagne says he felt no pressure to swiftly produce a follow-up album, initially at least. The right songs would come when they were good and ready, he thought, and not before. In the meantime, he was content pootling about his estate, fixing up an old car or riding his motorcycle. Last year, he took a blacksmith apprenticeship, and built himself a smithy alongside the house. “I like to mess around in there,” he says.  

However, in 2012, when the right songs continued to elude him, he decided to seek help. He wrote to Elvis Costello, a friend, for advice. “He’s a hero of mine, and such a gentleman. He told me simply to trust in my voice.” This, it seems, was all the encouragement he needed. The songs now flowed, each drenched in a Neil Young-like, 1970s California vibe, LaMontagne high on what seemed like his own, possibly new-found, happiness. The recording process, he says, was “joyful”. “The songs suddenly came to me, and I felt lucky to get them. Every songwriter is dying to find themselves the kind of songs people can sing around the house. That’s what I was aiming for here, melodies that endure.”

It is fair to say that LaMontagne hasn’t always described the songwriting process in such exultant terms; in the early days of his career, each song sounded like a small exorcism. Perhaps they were, for while he claims not to be an autobiographical songwriter, his tumultuous upbringing must have offered plenty of inspiration. His parents split shortly after his birth, leaving his mother to drift across America with him in search of work. There were several prospective stepfathers along the way, and as a result he now has five half-siblings. The itinerant life clearly appealed to him, and after school, he began to make his own way around the US, picking up part-time jobs. By his mid-20s, he was working in a shoe factory in New Hampshire, married with two small children. Shoes were never his passion, but, inspired by listening to Stephen Stills’ album Manassas, he thought that writing songs might be. The fact that he’d never considered this before didn’t matter. The sad, reflective songs he wrote made for intimate, uneasy listening.  

“I decided to give myself five years to see if I could get an audience for my music, and to tour enough without, you know, destroying things at home,” he says. He started in 1999, and come 2004, approaching his own self-imposed deadline, he released Trouble, a bleakly beautiful record of harrowing intimacy that became a word-of-mouth bestseller. No more shoe factory. His next album, 2006’s ’Till the Sun Turns Black, proved bleaker and more beautiful still, while 2009’s Gossip in the Grain’s spectral folk hue confirmed him as a rare breed. But success brought attention, and his social awkwardness just made everyone all the more curious. Horrified, he retreated, gradually cutting out interviews and public appearances, “because they upset me”. “I can’t pretend it’s ever felt natural,” he elaborates. “I don’t like to be noticed, or even looked at.”

These days, LaMontagne operates on his own terms: dabbling in music when he so chooses, and in blacksmithery when he doesn’t. We talk about his children, about how they love all that wide open space, and about how he finally feels happy with his lot. “I’m comfortable now. I’ve managed to carve out a niche in a very tricky and uncertain business.”

Presumably, then, when he does play live, he no longer does so in darkness? From down the line I hear the rustle of whiskers. I do believe the man might be smiling. “No, I no longer play with the lights out,” he declares, almost triumphantly. “If anything, more lights than ever.”

‘Supernova’ by Ray LaMontagne is out now

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam