All the hubbub over "Supernova" is due in part to its producer, The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who lends the project a hazy, psychedelic vibe that loosens up an artist best-known for folky torch songs. And LaMontagne, 40, seems to have reluctantly embraced making himself more accessible to go along with the album's breezy sound, the latest in a series of "firsts" on this project. He has recently filmed his first music video for the album's lead single and title track, which is about to cross over at radio from triple A to adult top 40 and alternative (another first). In April, he inked his first major brand deal with Citi for a series of intimate concerts for card members showcasing the new material. And later today, he'll participate in a rare fan Q&A on Reddit.
This Article First Appeared in Billboard Magazine's May 10, 2014 Issue
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A cursory glimpse of the questions on LaMontagne's Ask Me Anything Q&A for Reddit demonstrates exactly why the first word RCA president Tom Corson uses to describe the singer is "enigmatic." Writes one, "Hey Ray, do the people you date ever ask you to write romantic songs for them?" Asks another, "I noticed several of your song titles are names. Are these all real people in your life?" A third is even more direct: "Hey Ray, why are you so mysterious?"
LaMontagne leaves these particular questions unanswered, but was more helpful when Ben Affleck had these same questions on his mind when he approached LaMontagne to provide a song for his 2010 film "The Town." "At one point he asked me if I'd been through a recent breakup, and I said, 'No, man. I've been with the same girl since I was 15, 16 years old,' " says LaMontagne of his wife (and high school sweetheart), Sarah Sousa. "And he said, 'What? Well, who's 'Jolene'?"
Such is the paradox of LaMontagne, who has built his career on soul-baring songs while divulging very little of his own life. As he tells a fan during the Reddit Q&A, "Trouble" was "a writing exercise" inspired more by his love for 1960s soul than any specific struggle. There's also 2010's Grammy-nominated "Beg, Steal or Borrow," which serves more as a vocal tribute to heroes like Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison than it does a tear-soaked confessional. Even a song like "Supernova"'s "Ojai," in which LaMontagne sings of a desire to get away from the city life, appears to be a work of fiction. "I still don't know what that song is about — some old hippie who made it to California and lost touch with old friends, or gets slighted or something," he says. "I don't know. It's all a mystery to me. I'm still decoding these songs and figuring out where they came from."
If LaMontagne's dirty secret is that he has a happy home life, well, that's the point. Michael McDonald, LaMontagne's longtime manager at Mick Management, says other circumstances in the singer's life have allowed him to imbue his music with such authentic pain and emotion, but those moments rarely inspire pen to paper. "Before he even wrote a song or put it to tape, he had the [two] kids, he was married to his best friend," says McDonald. "That's a really unique position to be in."
Though "Supernova" is filled with references to Southern California, LaMontagne wrote it mostly from his farm home in Western Massachusetts, the latest in a series of remote locations the singer has lived throughout his mostly vagabond life. Born one of five children to impoverished parents in Lewiston, Maine, LaMontagne has lived everywhere from Nebraska to Portland, Ore., to Utah to New Hampshire, where he built a cabin for his family intentionally free of electricity or running water. Though he has put in more than enough road work and scored plenty of film and TV synchs to keep the lights on now, LaMontagne prefers the country life. "It's something that's in my DNA — I need space," he says. "I'd much rather be on my motorcycle in the hills, looking at the leaves, instead of being in the city working."
That LaMontagne even made another record at all appears to be a minor triumph in itself. After an exhaustive two-plus years of touring in support of 2010's "God Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise" (which earned Grammy nominations for album and song of the year in 2011), he found himself burnt out, uninspired and ready to quit performing altogether. "I think I was just pushing myself too hard in the wrong ways," he says. "I started to talk to friends about, maybe what else I could do in the music business besides, you know, touring. There are ways to be a songwriter and still make a living, without all the rest of it. I just wasn't sure what that would be."
His multi-album contract with RCA was one particular roadblock to going too far down that alternate path. But a year off from touring coupled with investing in his home life (he and Sousa share a farm in Massachusetts with their teenaged sons) and hobbies like colonial ironwork helped reignite the creative spark. Soon enough, he had "two batches of tunes" that he began to whittle down before assembling what became "Supernova." "The songs just started coming to me, one after another, and I was just looking up at the sky and saying, 'Thank you. This has potential, this could be great.' "
The Black Keys' Auerbach was first contacted not as a producer, but more as a consultant. "I needed an engineer reference," says LaMontagne. "I was going to make the record at the house, but in that conversation we sort of very quickly got to working in Dan's studio [in Nashville], which is great. We wanted to work together for a while. We were really happy we could make some time to at least experiment. We didn't know if it was going to work, so we figured we'd give it a shot."
The result is LaMontagne's most joyous, playful work to date, filled with references to his love for 1970s Laurel Canyon rock as well as all sorts of new names who probably don't have real-life counterparts ("Julia," "Supernova"'s "Zoe"). The album's first previews seem to have befuddled some of LaMontagne's fans on YouTube, who come off as divided over his newly upbeat sound in the comments section for the official clip of "Supernova." "Ray, what happened? C'mon, you can't reinvent bubble gum music," writes one. Another defends the LaMontagne-Auerbach union: "They're writing songs with a lot of genre consolidation, and making it easy for everyone to enjoy it. It doesn't take much to appreciate hard work."
Again, not that LaMontagne is aware of this. "I've heard people say that 'I'm happy now.' It's just so absurd to me. There's no 'happy Ray' and there's no 'sad Ray.' I'm just me. I just write songs. When they come to me, those are the ones that come to me. Once I start hearing the record in my head and it sounds beautiful to me, I take the next step and try to make the record and hope it sounds like it does in my head."
RCA's Corson couldn't be more thrilled to have a LaMontagne hit on his hands, especially as the label looks to beef up its roster of rock and folk talents with acts like Foo Fighters, Elle King and Tom Odell. "This record certainly has the most potential of any we've worked with him," says Corson of "Supernova," which borrows melodies and crunchy guitar progressions that would make Stephen Stills proud and a soaring chorus reminiscent of Earth, Wind & Fire ("You're a blazing star/Yeah, that's what you are"). "And certainly we want to get his music to the broadest audience possible. Artists have to evolve, and I applaud Ray for a guy as insular and enigmatic as he is, for having a game plan that's obviously working and showing thoughtfulness and ambition. He doesn't want to stand still. He's always on tour. He's not going to make that last album over again."
Indeed, LaMontagne says he's already bouncing around ideas for his next project, which could very well start up once touring for "Supernova" slows down after a tour of amphitheaters (his biggest run yet) this summer. The only catch for RCA and Mick Management in plotting those next moves will be finding their star client.
"There have been three-day periods where people are waiting for him to sign off on stuff," says McDonald, "and short of driving up to his house, which is three-and-a-half hours away, I can only write, text or call. He's off on his motorcycle somewhere or something, doing his thing. I'm sure whatever it is will be worthwhile. And that's the beauty of Ray."