Ray Lamontagne is from Maine, where he worked in a shoe factory, built himself a cabin and spent a few years mired in deep, life-altering depression. One morning five years ago, he awoke to Stephen Stills' "Treetop Flier" and decided to become a folk singer. He'd had no musical experience, trained only by listening to the great American songwriters of the 1960s and '70s.
Yet soon after recording his first demos, a bidding war broke out among major labels, and his debut album was one of the most critically acclaimed releases of 2004.
Lamontagne says he became a musician simply by "actively listen[ing] to records. Music never played a big part in my life up until that point. I didn't just drop anything and start singing. I just kept records. Slowly, over a period of about four years or so, I started writing my own songs, until about '99 when I made my own set of demos. It was gradual.... I always liked to draw, to sketch from life and so on. I didn't have much of an artistic outlet, really."
Released last September, Trouble is a largely personal album that shows Lamontagne more versed in life than crafting hit songs; the narrative is never compromised for the sake of making a more marketable hook. Working with Ethan Johns-producer, performer of countless instruments, and engineer for the likes of Kings of Leon and Ryan Adams-Lamontage created an album that is unlike anything of the past few years.
Rolling Stone's description of him as a "backwoods Van Morrison" is close-he certainly evokes the same heart-felt, folksy feeling with acoustic instrumentation and succinct, earnest lyrics often presented as a dialogue. Yet Lamontagne says he'd never listened to a Morrison album until his own was recorded.
What the two have in common is great vocal ability-phenomenal, even. But whereas Morrison blows the listener away with his range, Lamontagne's hoarse croon is intensely vulnerable, sometimes barely more than a whisper. Van's best albums-Moondance and His Band and the Street Choir-are reminiscent of gospel hymns, blasting the pain and suffering of life out of his body. Lamontagne invites you to listen to him read his diary-although he does so tentatively, as he isn't sure about the whole endeavor.
"I just got to a point where singing in my bedroom on my porch wasn't enough," he says. "I needed an audience to make the songs real. Even then, I never thought about being able to make a living at it. Even more than that, I felt like I needed to do it.... Singing is just therapeutic. That stuff inside trying to kill you, it gets it all out."
Trouble's title track received radio play earlier this year-not surprising, since the song is the tamest and most easily recalled. But it's really a generic lament that doesn't show the full capacity of what the singer-songwriter can do. The intimacy is more intense during less-refined songs such as "Burn," a near-perfect expression of watching an ex-lover in the arms of another. Lamontagne tells us that, "To see you now with him/is just making me mad/Oh so kiss him again/just to prove to me that you can/and I will stand here and burn in my skin."
A collaboration with Nickel Creek's Sara Watson produces the album's climax-"Hannah"-blending Lamontagne's wizened pain with the Watson's youthful exuberance and technical brilliance. "Hannah" is the most complete story Lamontagne tells, a tale of courtship chronicling both the biography of the woman he is pursuing and the personal demons he'll exorcise if she does come to him. Like most of Lamontagne's brief career, the collaboration with Watson seems to be more than chance.
"We were deep at night working on the record," he recalls. Watkins and her brother (and bandmate) Sean were performing their monthly gig at Largo in L.A. Lamontagne and Johns took a break to see the show, and joined the young newgrassers on stage for a few tunes. As they were leaving the club, Lamontagne suggested Johns invite Watson in to "do something" on the record.
"He ran back in and came back out and said she'd be there at 10 o'clock and that was it," he remembers. "She showed up and it was really just very spur of the moment-she's so quick it didn't take any time at all. As a musician, she's just amazing."
The ability to pick nearly everyone he works with-from producers to publicists-has created a rare positive relationship between artist and record company. And RCA Records must be impressed with Lamontagne's willingness to take it to the streets; for most of the past year, he's left his family and his beloved home state of Maine behind to get the audiences his songs need to come alive.Ray Lamontagne plays with Rachel Yamagata at House of Blues, 8:30 p.m. on July 16. $15.50-$18. 619-299-BLUE.