Ray LaMontagne on His New Record, Streaming Music, and Wincing When He Hears Trouble

By
Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Ray LaMontagne sees music in colors. The melodies float down to him, no matter whether he’s in or out of consciousness. His latest album, Ouroboros, a 40-minute sonic kaleidoscope incorporating blues, jazz, folk, and psychedelia, arrived in such fashion.  “I could see them coming down in colors landing on my desk and they all fit together like a puzzle,” the soft-spoken, oft-reticent singer says of the dreamy songs’ birth. “It all just made sense.”

Working with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James as producer, LaMontagne envisioned Ouroboros as a distinct piece of music, albeit one constructed in two parts, in the vein of a vinyl record. The singer-songwriter, who took something of a left turn with 2014’s sonically adventurous Supernova, admits he’s gotten past the point of appeasing his fans; many contemporary listeners, he concedes, no longer have the patience anyway to digest a full album in one sitting. “It’s really sad,” LaMontagne says in a conversation touching on the culture of distraction, musical inspiration, and why he can’t stomach his early albums. “I feel like they’re just missing out on so much.”

Ouroboros feels of a piece with classic concept albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Pet Sounds, ones best consumed in one sitting.
That’s really my hope. It’s a lot to ask these days, but a lot of the guys of my generation, that’s how we listened to music; that’s what pulled us in. Albums like this that had a long arc and a lot of space, they just pulled you in and let your imagination just go. Really just go into this other place.

You’ve described the creative process for this album as almost being this fever dream of inspiration.
I had just gotten off the road touring real hard for Supernova. It was a difficult tour. It was hard. Fans of my music were taken aback a little bit by this side of me for some reason. The intensity of the reaction was something I didn’t expect. It was strange.

When people connect with an artist at a particular point in their life they want them to stay frozen in time.
Oh, yes. You get pressure and pushback from everybody. From your own team to the record label. I hate to sound combative about it, but you have to just draw a line in the sand and be willing to take whatever happens — be willing to accept that RCA might drop me. You have to believe in yourself and how you see your career. I’ve always done that. I’m not afraid to say no to things, to not be part of the scene really. There’s a lot of the music business that doesn’t really feed me spiritually. I don’t like to go to parties. I don’t like to be seen at music places where there are photographers. It doesn’t make me feel good. It’s the work that is fulfilling to me. When I’m 80 years old I want to be able to look back and say, “I dedicated myself to this art form and I pushed myself and I did good work.”

How did this album come together?
After I had gotten off the road, I went home and just decompressed for a couple weeks. I just felt that hole, that creative current pulling at me. So I started writing again immediately. When I write I spend every day in my space: I start at about seven in the morning and I don’t finish until about 10:30 at night. I just make myself available. I don’t have anything intentional in mind. Most of the time, I’m just sitting there in quiet, listening to any bits and pieces that come filtering down, these melodies that come to me. I had probably been in that state of making myself available for about a month or so and these little bits of pieces of melodies were coming down, lyrics were coming down, and then I had a really intense difficult night’s sleep. I had very, very vivid dreams. You know how if you’re driving cross-country by yourself from the East Coast, by the time you hit the Rockies, driving is all you’re thinking about — you dream about it. That’s what happened. I was still working on songs when I laid down to sleep. My mind won’t stop. I’m thinking of all these bits and pieces and how they can fit together and what’s a lead and what’s a false lead. The muse, for lack of a better word, that creative energy is very playful. It’s very tricky. It likes to give you false leads. It’s like Peter Pan.

Peter Pan?
Yah. That’s probably the best way to describe it. If Peter Pan comes to your window and starts tapping and he says, “I want to play hide and seek,” and you say, “Nah. I don’t want to play hide and seek. I want to play checkers,” he’s going to split. Because he’s kind of selfish and he just wants to do what he wants to do. He won’t come back for ten years, so when he comes to the window and starts tapping, you just go with him. You let him lead the way. You let that playful creativity take you where it wants it go. That’s what I did with the Supernova and with this album as well. That night when I had that really vivid and difficult night’s sleep, I was working on things and I could see all the melodies. I feel them coming down when I’m writing; they’re coming from somewhere in space down to me. I could see them coming down in colors landing on my desk and they all fit together like a puzzle. I woke up with a really splitting headache, but also this sort of rush of “I get it! This flows into this and this fits into here.” From there, it was just a matter of following the emotion of the melodies and putting them where they wanted to be.

You’re a vinyl junkie. How does that impact your creative process?
This album was written as one piece, with vinyl as the canvas. That’s just how I think. When I think of music and I think of an album I always think of vinyl: 20–23 minutes per side, unless you’re really pushing it. And it’s just perfect. I also love when you’re listening to vinyl the experience of having a Side One and then a very distinct moment where everything stops. You have to turn the record. That means there has to be some drama there within that 20–23 minutes. You’re going into another experience.

It’s no secret that contemporary listeners typically stream music. Listening to albums in their entirety is becoming a thing of the past. Does that trouble you?
I didn’t think about it during the process of writing. I didn’t really think about it in the recording of the album. It was when it was finished and we had listened to it a couple times together — myself and Jim [James], the band and some friends — that’s when the questions started to come up. We thought, Oh man! This is going to be challenging for people, maybe. But at the same time, we were hopeful. Guys of mine and Jim’s generation, we know this format. We dig it. But it’s the younger listeners who I think might need a little bit of encouragement. It would be great if it gets kids to maybe chill a little bit.

I was psyched to see you worked with Jim James on Ouroboros. If Supernova was indeed a creative leap, than Jim, being sonically adventurous himself, is perhaps the best person to assist you in continuing that journey.
That’s exactly true. We’ve talked about doing this for years. When we were finally in the studio making the record, when we were really keyed into it, we knew the sounds that we wanted, there were several moments when we looked at each other and said, “It’s so good that we didn’t do this before. It’s so good that this is happening right now with this piece of music because it’s perfect for us.” 

You seem to be a very self-aware man. How do you feel when you look back at your early, fame-making albums?
I can’t even listen to Trouble because all I hear is a much younger me manhandling the process. I hear that on the first record, the second record, the third record. There are little moments that start to come through as the records progress, but mostly I just hear myself manhandling it. I’m trying too hard. I’m trying to shape the songs too much. I’m singing too hard. I’m pushing too hard. But when you’re just learning, that’s something you have to go through before you figure it out. I felt like with Supernova, when I listen to that album, all I hear is magic. I hear myself completely out of the way, just letting the songs dictate. They tell me what they want. I follow them. It’s their game.