Interview: Ray LaMontagne
Tue, 17 Aug 2010 18:45:20
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"I feel like I've been working towards this record over the last few years," exclaims Ray LaMontagne about his phenomenal new offering, God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise.
In actuality, the album came together pretty quickly—about five days to be exact—but it's so poetic, poignant and powerful that it sounds like the result of years of pondering. That's the real beauty of what Ray LaMontange does though. He's able to craft music that's both intricate and infectious with that soulful bellow and some clever chord-strumming. There's no shortage of either on God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise and that's one of a myriad of reasons of why it's Ray LaMontagne's best albums. Backed by his Pariah Dogs, it also gets rocking on the title track songs like "Devil's in the Jukebox." This is one record you need to buy this year…
Ray LaMontagne sat down with ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino for an exclusive interview about God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise, some literary influences, capturing music in the moment and so much more.
Did self-producing give God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise a sense of boundlessness?
Well, I don't know about boundlessness, but it was freeing for sure. It was challenging in ways, but it was also a very comfortable process. We're all very good friends, and we were working out of my house. The whole process felt really good from start-to-finish.
Do you feel like you really captured what was happening in the moment?
Definitely, the bulk of the album was recorded in about five days. We did two tracks per day for five days, which is faster than any other recording session I've ever done. We weren't trying to; it just happened that way. We got momentum really quickly and sustained it.
Did you go into the studio with a complete vision for the album in mind? Is that why it came together so quickly?
I certainly put a lot of thought into it, preparing to do the record. Producing an album, there are a lot of responsibilities, and I wanted to have all my ducks in a row when the guys got there. There was a lot of thought beforehand that went into the record. What you really here are musicians responding. They hadn't heard the songs before they got there. It's a very spontaneous reaction from the other musicians to the music.
That definitely results in a real palpable vibe.
There's an energy there that you can't fake.
Do you tend to read a lot when you're writing lyrics?
No, not really…Especially this time, it was a very focused effort. There was a very disciplined approach to writing songs. I really locked myself in this writing room for two months. Sometimes I was in there from 8 in the morning until 10:30 or 11 at night. I would just work on them. Some days, I would hit nothing but dead ends, but I forced myself to keep punching in every day and doing it. It was interesting for me to try it that way.
Was all of the music done before you started writing lyrics?
Just bits and pieces were done. I'd have a melody to build off of, but there was a lot of unfinished stuff when I started. It was interesting and different.
Each song is genuinely vivid in its own right. They're all like individual movies.
Well, thank you! That's very nice of you…
The title track "God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise" really stands out. Is there a story behind that song?
It was tricky. It was taking its time revealing itself to me. I just had this melody that I was whistling—the pedal steel part at the beginning—running over those chords. Once the lyrics started, they drove the song pretty quickly. It took awhile for that lyric to reveal itself. Two verses into it, I started to realize it was a letter. Then it became clear it was a letter from a cow-punch back to his gal. He's writing back to her wondering if he can see her again. Once that revealed itself, the music followed that this time, which is a little different than how it's been in the past. The music flows like a letter as well. There's no repeating chorus; it just reads top to bottom. It was an interesting experiment to try.
So the visual of this letter dictated the song?
Yeah, that drove it.
Is there a theme that runs throughout the whole album for you?
Well, I don't think so, not lyrically. It's not like a concept album. It's really just a band record. I think the fact that it is a band record ties it all together and gives it the sense of being whole. This is the first time I've made a record like that.
At the same time, that landscape has allowed you to still write personally.
I suppose so. There's always going to be a bit of that. A lot of the songs are stories and emotional truths. Maybe they're not specifically relating to me, but the emotional core of it is always true, no matter what the lyric is. It's always been like that though.
"For the Summer" feels really cinematic too. What's up with that one?
That's neat. It's not real specific. It's still a bit distant from me. I liked the changes. Again, it's a little strange; it ends on a bridge. It's like a bridge to nowhere at the end [Laughs]. I like to mess around with traditional forms of songs. "Are We Really True" has sort of a strange form as well. Loving the tradition of American songwriting, I also like to subvert it a little bit and mess with the forms. I've done that in the past with "All the Wild Horses," "Gossip in the Grain" and those kinds of songs. They're strange tweaking of traditional forms.
Which books do you always come back to?
Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow is a book that I re-read every couple of years. I highly recommend that book. It's beautiful. Another would be Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. That's another book that I go back to. They're just beautiful written and so vivid. Annie Dillard is so poetic and deep that you get something new out of it every time you read it. The same goes for Bellow. It's just a great story, and it's very unique.
Your songs are very literary.
Songs continue to fascinate me and interest me because it's a unique form of storytelling. There are all of these things working together—the melody, the arrangement, the lyrics and a vocal to carry it and express the emotional content and make it effective. All of these things have to work together flawlessly. It's not something I can claim to really know how to do, but it's a really fascinating form. I enjoy it.
What do you dig about The Pariah Dogs?
They're really wonderful musicians, every one of them. They have very individual voices with their instruments, which is why I really wanted to capture this. We've been playing live together off and on. It's magical.
What is it about New England that you love?
I don't know what it is. It's just in my bones. I've been all over the world and all over the country. It's beautiful, but there's something about New England that always draws me back and welcomes me in. It's the very distinct seasons and changing of seasons that I love so much. It's a very grounding place. It keeps you aware of the impermanence of things. Death, re-birth and all of that are all there. For me, it's home. I love it.
The woods are the most beautiful anywhere.
There's something special about it. There really is.
Which records really shaped you?
I go back to music from Big Pink still. I go back to Astral Weeks. I'm obviously digging into other things too. You move away from the things that initially inspired you. There's so much music out there to be discovered. I'm always listening to something else or discovering something else. I've been listening to a lot of Lee Dorsey. Alan Toussaint wrote a lot of songs for Lee Dorsey so I've been discovering his music. Lately, I've been listening to a lot of Little Walter, Chicago blues rock player. He's really amazing. I've been listening to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I'm still digging through the stacks of record stores trying to find something I haven't heard before.
It must be just as tough to find the record stores themselves…
[Laughs] Yeah, it is!
What's the next step?
I'm always working on new stuff. We're just going to tour this record through the fall next Winter, spring summer, I don't like to go too long in between making records.
What's your favorite Ray LaMontagne song?