Ray Lamontagne: With a Little Help From My Friends

raylamontagneHaving experienced and generous friends comes in handy.

When Ray Lamontagne was unsatisfied with the batch of songs he’d written as the follow-up to his chart-topping, Grammy Winning “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise,” he shot an email to a pal named Elvis Costello that helped get him on a new course.

“I was getting a lot of tunes as I always do, but they just weren’t’ demanding my attention enough. They all felt like good potential songs and songs that could make a good record, but somehow they just didn’t feel like the record I wanted to make,” he says during a rare interview from his Massachusetts home. “It was kind of a first for me. I hadn’t had that experience before so I was kind of at a loss.”

One missive to Costello got him on track. “I just thought I would ask someone who must have been through it,” he adds. “Elvis is just a really generous guy so I sent him an email explaining what I was going through and asked for advice. That helped.”

What was the advice? “That’s kind of personal,” he says. ”But after that I just felt a little less concerned about what was going on creatively.”

What resulted was the most sonically adventurous album of Lamontagne’s decade-long career, “Supernova,” one that earned raves from some critics and head-shaking from long-time fans for diving into Sixties psychedelia that would fit on a Jefferson Airplane or late-era Byrds album.

Lamontagne says when he wrote the title cut, a Sixties-style pop song, he knew he was on a roll. “The other songs are good stuff I’ve put on the shelf for another time or another record,” he says. “It wasn’t until I had written ‘Supernova’ that I felt energized, a little more confident I kind of knew where this record wanted to go.”

Lamontagne has a reputation for being tight-lipped and reclusive, but the interview, scheduled for 15 minutes, stretches on as he talks passionately about his work, often referring to songs created without contrivance. “Most of the time, songs just kind of happen,” he says. “At a certain point after writing songs for so many years, you just start to trust things. You know when a line is right. You know when a melody is working. You just kind of have to trust your gut.”

Asked if there are any songs that are views into his souls, Lamontagne admits there are a few. “There are some that are a little closer to the bone than others, but those are few and far between. I could probably count on one hand of all the records I’ve made songs that are emotionally or viscerally tied to me.There are little bits and pieces here and there, but ultimately I’m just trying to write a good song.”

Pressed, he says songs like “Empty,” “Sarah” and “Be Here Now” — all from 2009’s “Gossip in the Grain” and 2006’s “Till the Sun Turns Black” fit the bill.

The drastic departure in sound, too, was something driven by the songs. “It’s the songs that always kind of lead the way. They dictate the sound that surrounds them,” he adds. “Whatever kind of emotional stuff it stirs up that turns into the sonic stuff.”

While his songs are often emotional, they are never topical. “I don’t like those kind of songs,” he adds. “The songs I love and the songwriting that sort of informs me were the ones that sounded like they just happened. A lot of Neil Young’s stuff is like that. Bob Dylan, of course, is like that. The Band. All that stuff just got me excited in the beginning.”

His beginning is storybook. He made his debut, “Trouble,” an album recorded after he quit his job at a Maine shoe factory. The album, which harks back to the sound of Van Morrison and Damien Rice with the rasp of Joe Cocker, has gone on to sell more than 750,000 copies. The title track has been everywhere, appearing on an insurance commercial and shows like “True Blood,” “The Office,” and “Rescue Me.”

Listening to that and the three albums that followed, it’s easy to imagine Lamontagne as a sad soul. But he was 28 and married to his high school sweetheart with two children when he made his first album. “Trouble” was a writing exercise inspired by his love for 1960s soul and rock. In short. don’t confuse Ray Lamontagne, the songwriter, with Ray Lamontagne, the person.

Lamontagne almost didn’t make a fifth album. When he got off the road from the “God Willin’ ” tour, he thought about quitting. He was depressed and in a bad place, he says. But, as often happens, hitting bottom propelled him back up.

What turned things around? “I think just having enough time away from the road, probably. Also it kind of forced me to analyze what was driving me up until that point or how I was driving myself I should say,” he explains. “It just wasn’t very healthy. Over time off the road having time to quiet myself I realized I could still do this an enjoy it a lot more if I would stop being so unfairly hard on myself. That’s not easy to do. We all have these challenges. We have to figure ourselves out in life. It all just came down to the way I was treating myself.”

What Lamontagne has figured out is how to crank out songs. He sits down and focuses, sometimes for 16 hours at a shot. “When I’m working, when I have a goal and I know I want to make a record, I make myself stay in my room,” he says. “I go in right after I wake up, grab cup of coffee and stay there all day until 10 30 or 11 at night. I have to make myself stay put because there are so many other things. I’d love to be on my motorcycle or messing around with cars or in the wood shop or the blacksmith shop (he does Colonial iron work) or walking around. So I have to force myself to stay in there.”

“Once I’m in that mode, songs are going to get finished no matter what,” he adds. “Sometimes hey’re us not going to blossom so you just move on, set it aside and get away from it,” he adds. “I’m in a place where I’m comfortable doing that. There was a time when I couldn’t let something go.”

With songs he liked in place and a kinder, gentler view of himself, Lamontagne dialed Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys seeking a recommendation for an engineer to help him record an album at home. They started talking and soon Auerbach was producing the disc in Nashville. Auerbach had some free time. They’d talked about working together in some capacity before. So why not now?

Lamontagne says Auerbach’s influence can be heard on every cut. “That’ s why you work with someone else — to get someone’s perspective and their ears in the room. i have plenty of my own perspective on that stuff and sometimes you just need to separate yourself from it. that’s why you hire a producer. and hopefully trust them. It’s almost to force yourself to have some other perspective to say ‘Hey, look, this could be better if we do this, maybe we should cut this verse in half. You need somebody to do that and hopefully it makes for a better record.”

Lamontagne says he was a fan of early Pink Floyd, the Kinks, the Troggs, and Captain Beefheart and it shows on the disc.

“We always wanted to do something together. We’d been talking about it for years,” he says of Auerbach.” I couldn’t be happier with the album.”

Ray Lamontagne at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $65. http://www.sandlercenter.org.


My Favorite Albums of 2011

For me, it was a good year for music. I listened to more and liked more than I have in several years.

Here are the albums I listened to and enjoyed the most.

Garland Jeffreys – “The King of In Between”

Jeffreys’ first album in 13 years features his strongest material since 1991’s “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” one of the signature discs of that decade. Jeffreys typically moves easily through rock and roll, reggae, and folk blues as the melodic foundation for his mix of personal history and social commentary.

J.D. Souther – “Natural History”

Souther takes his considerable back catalog, notably songs like “New Kid in Town,” “Sad Cafe,” and “Best of My Love” that were hits for The Eagles, and strips them down to their basics. showcasing his silky voice.

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers — “Starlight Hotel.”

What a revelation. Muth comes out of Seattle, but does country the old fashioned way, backed by pedal steel and telecaster. The songs are smart, funny, and sad. She’s an authentic new voice not to miss.

Tara Nevins – “Wood and Stone”

Nevins’s second solo effort is a stellar collection that moves easily from fiddle music to contemporary folk rock to Cajun. It’s an album that sounds familiar, yet new, not an easy feat. Nevins is joined by a few guests, notably Levon Helm, who pounds the skin on three cuts, Jim Lauderdale, who lends harmonies on the back porch sound of “Snowbird,” and Allison Moorer. Larry Campbell, the multi-instrumentalist genius who has played extensively with Bob Dylan in recent years, produces and lends his string talents all over the place.

The Low Anthem — “Smart Flesh”

The Low Anthem’s (http://www.thelowanthem.com) first major label effort is a haunting masterpiece, a new generation’s “Music From the Big Pink.” Like the mystical alchemy The Band conjured in a West Saugerties, New York, house, the four members of the Low Anthem have created a new sound, turning our expectations of Americana (or Alt Americana, if you will) on its head, partly by using the sonics of the place.

Greg Trooper – “Upside-Down World”

When the Hammond B-3 kicks in to start this album, trailed by Trooper’s resonant, soulful, alt-country vibrato, it’s clear one of America’s best (and underappreciated) songwriters is taking us along for another enchanting ride through a life of bruised relationships, guarded hopes, and interesting characters.

Lori McKenna – “Lorraine”

The image of Lori  McKenna is that of a blue collar housewife sitting at her kitchen table penning songs that somehow find their way onto the albums of country superstars (Faith Hill, Keith Urban). But that doesn’t do justice to the depth, subtlety and honesty of her songs, stripped down to their essence on her largely acoustic solo albums (although this one has strings in just the right places and background vocals from Kim Carnes).  She is the girl who married her high school sweetheart and quickly had babies — five in all. McKenna does the difficult — writing about life, real life, with an unerring eye. It’s all here, the shadowing doubts, the gentle joys, the people we recognize from our lives. McKenna is a staple of the Boston folk scene, but her voice is more heartland than right coast, more open spaces than urban races.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – “Here We Rest.”

Isbell transports us to his native Alabama with all the ups and downs through his stories. This one puts him into the same discussion as Steve Earle and other masterful storytellers.

Lucinda Williams – “Blessed”

For me, this was a return to form for Williams, a record with aching ballads, hard rockers and without the self consciousness of the last few.

Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter – “Marble Son.”

Feedback-drenched psychedelia opens this disc, a harder shot of rock than her last one. Think of it as Americana meets Zeppelin in places. The lyrics are smart and mystical. And then there’s her voice, as alluring, as distinctive as any in music today.

The Civil Wars – “Barton Hollow”

Perhaps the surprise of the year, a quiet, intense, and beautiful melding of voices and talents. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

Wilco – “The Whole Love.”

A return to their ecclectic roots, with the expected twists and turns.

Danny Schmidt — “Man of Many Moons”

This is a smart working-man’s album, poetic and affecting, framed by Schmidt’s singing.

The Smithereens – “2011”

These guys, makers of such great rock and roll in the 1990s, hook up again with producer Don Dixon and lightning strikes twice. It’s all you’d expect from a Smithereens album.

Floyd, Virginia: Old-Time Music and New-Time Hippies

My story on a weekend escape to Floyd is in the latest issue of Distinction. The online version is at:
Handmade Music.

What’s surprising about Floyd is that the vibe is energetic, more eclectic than you’d expect. It’s not only good ol’ boys in camouflage. Four decades ago, hippies began moving into this area to found communes next to working farms. Now, their children have grown, gone away and, in many cases, returned. North Carolinians favor Floyd as a spot for a second home in the mountains. All that contributes to a thriving community of artisans, old and new.

At first blush, old-time music and new-time hippies seem an unlikely pairing. But they’re both about community and craft. The stickers given to Friday patrons at the Country Store read “handmade music,” but Floyd is about more than just music crafted lovingly by hand.

You can still get good moonshine if you know someone who knows someone. But belly up to a table at any restaurant in town and you’ll be handed a list of craft brews on tap and in bottles that rival any big-city offering. You’ll find an old-fashioned biscuit so fluffy only the rich sausage gravy anchors it to your plate at the homey Blue Ridge Restaurant and a seared Muscovy duck breast that Tom Colicchio would love at the sophisticated Natasha’s Market Cafe. Need a handmade mountain banjo? There’s a luthier nearby. Looking for pottery, wood sculpture or paper artistry of the quality you’d expect down the Blue Ridge Parkway in Asheville or in urban galleries? Wander Troika, The Floyd Artists’ Association, and other galleries along Locust. The Hotel Floyd, a block off the main drag, is a stylish, eco-friendly lodge with rooms built by a local woodworker that feature local art.

The Low Anthem’s “Smart Flesh”

The Low Anthem “Smart Flesh” (Nonesuch)

The Low Anthem’s first major label effort is a haunting masterpiece, a new generation’s “Music From the Big Pink.” Like the mystical alchemy The Band conjured in a West Saugerties, New York, house, the four members of the Low Anthem have created a new sound, turning our expectations of Americana (or Alt Americana, if you will) on its head, partly by using the sonics of the place.

“Smart Flesh” gets much of its ghostly, otherwordly feel from months of recording in an abandoned pasta sauce factory in Providence, Rhode Island, home to the band, who met as students at Brown University. Just like The Band decades ago, much of the power of “Smart Flesh” comes from the instruments they chose. But this time it’s not mandolin and fiddle. The Low Anthem hauled in an entire studio and a warehouse worth of instruments, including, saws, jaw harp, banjo, dulcimer, various horns, and of course, a pump organ or two. Ben Knox Miller, who does most of the singing, can sound like Richard Manuel on one tune, then Leonard Cohen on another (listen to the sad banjo and softly wailing saw frame Knox’s vocals on “Burn”).

Some songs, like the beautiful opener, “Ghost Woman Blues,” are incantations, modern hymns, as they are anything else. “Apothecary Love,” the second cut,  is an old fashioned country weeping waltz that could have been on “Big Pink.” But while the overall mood is airy and subdued, the disc isn’t quiet throughout. That’s clear when the horns and drums come galloping out of the box on the anthemic “Boeing 773,” an indie rocker about 9/11. “I was in the air when the towers came down/ In a bar on the 84th floor.”
But the words almost seem secondary to the atmosphere. The second half of the album after the instrumental break of “Wire,” a meditation on clarinet, is full of somber grace punctuated in the middle by the rollicking “Hey, All You Hippies!”  fueled by organ and vocals that recall The Band.  On “I’ll Take Out Your Ashes,” whcih sounds like something from a cabin’s front porch, the plucked banjo again frames an apology and a lament about a wife’s cremated ashes that haven’t been given their immortal resting place. “It’s a sad and guilty feeling/ Since I did not take out your ashes/ Whatever I was feeling, never came to passing.”

The title track closer is a creepy, maudlin meditation that it seems could only have been recorded in the empty, sprawling space. But that’s appropriate. “Smart Flesh” is a new kind of folk record where the feeling is the message.

The Susan Cowsill Band at North Shore Point House Concerts

The final North Shore Point House Concerts show of 2010 features The Susan Cowsill Band in what should be a fun night of folk/rock music in Norfolk.  If you’re interested in attending email jim@northshorepoint.com or northshorepoint@aol.com.  The show is at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16. For more on the series, go to www.northshorepoint.com Feel free to tell friends and share links to this blog and the site.

House concerts are special evenings, laidback events shared by fans who come to listen, talk, and enjoy the community experience.

It’s interesting how Susan Cowsill spans generations. To some, she’s the youngest member of the singing family of the 1960s.

To others, she’s one of the principals in a superb band, The Continental Drifters, based in New Orleans during the 1990s.  The Drifters put out two superb albums of power pop/rock highlighted by the songwriting of Cowsill, VIcki Peterson, late of The Bangles, and Peter Holsapple,  who plays with R.E.M, has released two fine albums with Chris Stamey, and was in the pioneering alt pop North Carolina group, the dBs.

And to a third group, she’s the front woman of a band that has released two critically-acclaimed albums around being flooded out of her New Orleans home (after Katrina, she spent four months living out of her car and staying with friends).

Wrote Eric Feber in The Virginian-Pilot earlier this year:
“With help from Jackson Browne and her remaining brothers on harmonies, Cowsill eloquently and passionately sings of her personal losses and the struggles and triumphs of the Crescent City. Her accessibly melodic songs are delivered in folk-rock, Celtic and country-pop arrangements, ranging from spirited full-band rockers to melancholy ballads illuminated by strings and acoustic backing.

On “Lighthouse,” Cowsill steps out of the shadows of her family’s band and tragedies to deliver a triumphant record of sweet and bittersweet music.”

Rolling Stone writes: “From Katrina to Super Bowl champs, this is our story,” singer-songwriter and proud New Orleans resident Susan Cowsill writes in the credits, and she repeatedly veers between drowning and daylight, exile and homecoming, on Lighthouse, an earthy, often crunchy folk-pop gem. But Cowsill has a supple survivor’s alto, and it runs like a sturdy lifeline through the silken dreaming in “Dragon Flys,” her hard-soul resolve of “Could This Be Home” and especially the gospel-rock liftoff in “River of Love,” written by her brother Barry, who perished in Katrina, and sung by Susan with a heavy heart and sweet memory in the same deep breaths.”

Richard Ferreira Talks about new Charlotte Park Rangers Album

Richard Ferreira’s “Somewhereville” didn’t get much notice, but it was one of the soulful Americana gems of the early 2000s featuring one of the best kiss-off songs ever, “Bye Bye Baby.” Ferreira’s catchy melodies and solid lyrics made the record sound familiar from the first listen.

But those of us who heard him play the house concert series, North Shore Point House Concerts, know how fine a singer and songwriter he is.

Now, the veteran Nashville songwriter is back with a trio, Charlotte Park Rangers, that explores terrain both familiar and new, touching a toe in some old time country with an assist from bluegrass legend Carlton Moody and drummer Rick Lonow.

This album was – what? — seven years since your solo effort?
Yeah about 7 years, where does the time go, but I have been pretty busy with life.

Tell me how you assembled the songs.
The process was to get together and drink a lot of coffee and then start playing while rolling tape
We would play a lot of covers early in the day to loosen up, lots of R&B tunes and George Jones songs, Eventually we would find a lick or something would pop out, and we would find ourselves on the hunt of a song, Once we got to that point the songs wrote themselves for the most part. I went back later on and did more lyric writing to straighten out a few things before final vocals were put down. Most of the lyrics though were done rather spontaneously. It was also a way for me to get out of my own head and write for Carlton’s voice.

I had the concept that the songs were to be light and funky, I didn’t want to do a serious introspective type thing and I didn’t want to get into Nashville style co-writing where you sit around with yellow legal pads, It was an attempt I suppose at a big pink type of situation and I wanted to create a mythical landscape based on the characters and geography of “Charlotte Park,”, which is a real neighborhood on the banks of the Cumberland river in the northwest corner of Nashville where I live and the album was written and recorded

You co-wrote them with Carlton Moody and Rick Lonow for the most part. Were they done in the studio?

Carlton brought in “Fall In Love Again” & “Angeline” and I brought in “I Want To Get Lost. ” Everything else was written on the studio floor. We all share equally in the publishing, no matter who wrote what. It was the chemistry of the combined talent that was the juice. We have a bunch of leftovers; hopefully there will be volume 2

How did you guys get together?

Carlton’s other band Burrito Deluxe recorded a few of my songs on there last couple of records and I also played guitar and organ on those records so how that’s how we first met. Rick Lonow has played with me for years. He was on “Somewhereville.” So we had all worked together before. Originally, we were just doing some demos but it turned into a project once we saw what we had.

There’s a co-write with Gwil Owen. How did that come about?

I’ve written a lot with Gwil over the years and I produced his last 2 cds, Gravy and Ahabs Birthday which is just released. We had 3 co-writes on the last Toni Price cd

The album shifts styles from songs with your lead vocals that favor The Band and
songs with Carton’s lead vocals that are more straightforward country. Was that a conscious decision?
Well, I knew it sounded that way and I’m ok with that, if we do another record it will be probably be more seamless because everyone will be on the same page from the beginning, part of it is the quality of Carlton’s voice. its razor sharp country and I love the contrast of putting him in unorthodox non traditional settings, theres also a Burrito Brothers vibe imbedded in the record which is probably more Carlton’s .

How does that reflect your interests?

I think it makes it interesting, I guess I am known more for my R&B leanings, but I’ve been writing country songs for a long time, and I was really trying to write for Carltons voice. “Georgia Time” is a key example, and I love the way it slides into “Catfish Song.” I think it reflects my interests pretty well. I probably should point out that was done over a fairly long stretch of time. Carlton was living in Paris the whole time this was being done so on any given day I might of been feeling more country than soul but it all works for me.

Certainly your vocal resemblance to Rick Danko and a bit of Levon Helm comes across.
Well, its a very soulful style of singing, I don’t consciously try to sound like those guys though, although my natural voice does sound a bit like Danko’s. We all listened to the same records growing up; we are about the same age. I am a little big younger, I get this a lot, and Van Morrison and Elvis Costello. Really the guy who I always wanted to sound like was Al Anderson, I grew up next to Al and he was a really huge influence on me. Thanks Al.

How important are those guys to what you do?

Pretty strong I would say, anybody in this arena of music would be hard pressed to deny that, but they are only part of it, aside from there huge musical chops. It’s Robertson’s writing that really floors me.

Richard Bell makes an appearance. Tell me about that.
We are so fortunate that we got to know and play with Richard, probably the best musician I have ever known and a super guy. He passed away last year and we miss him dearly.
We met Richard through Garth Hudson, who is a friend of ours. I first worked with Garth in 1989 on my first album. Garth and Richard were best pals,
Richard of course was an original member of the Hawks. He had the best rock and roll stories you ‘ve ever heard, amazing piano player, very funny and sweet. RIP Richard

Where does the name Charlotte Park Rangers come from?

I guess Charlotte Park is sort of my Lake Woebegone , I envision future CPR outings with other guests and vocal pairings, a great outlet for songs, and a relief from being me. As I explained earlier, it’s my neighborhood. Maybe if we get famous the value of my home will get back up to where it was when I bought it.

Tell me about the origins of “Catfish Song.”
I live close to the river and I go down there a lot in the early morning and I think about bringing a fishin’ pole but I never do. It’s great, a great place for morning meditations and a creative well that I visit. So I was developing these Charlotte Park characters, and because they are mythical they do strange things, the wrongly accused murderer in “Georgia Time,” the prostitute who finds Jesus and then drowns herself in “Sunshine,” and the love-lorn loser in “Catfish” who goes downtown for a hooker and laments his lost love to her. I was looking for folks who had lost it, and what they do next. It’s all about redemption in a way.

“I Want to Get Lost” finds you trading leads. Was it written that way?
Well, not when we wrote it but I liked the effect of it, that was me just wanting to get out of town, about once a day I consider moving to a quiet place and getting out of Nashvegas.

Did you find your way to “Where the Soul…” through Hank Williams?

Carlton had that, but, yeah, it goes back to Hank, Carlton was a member of the Moody Brothers, a traditional Bluegrass/Gospel brother trio that won 2 Grammy years ago. He’s from that Carolina Moody dynasty,, Clyde Moody etc, so he’s been playing that song 40 years

Will you guys be touring?
Absolutely. We are dirt broke! Probably as a duo at first; nobody can afford a band anymore.

You can find the album online at: