Ray LaMontagne has a reputation for having a somewhat prickly relationship with the press, rarely accepting interview requests early in his career, and shunning the spotlight to such a degree that performing from the side of the stage at times during shows wasn’t unheard of.
So the opportunity to speak to LaMontagne ahead of his show Friday, at downtown Raleigh’s Red Hat Amphitheater in support of his latest release “Ouroboros,” doesn’t come without its potential pitfalls. And a couple of questions land with a bit of a thud.
In making his new album “Ouroboros,” LaMontagne surrounded himself in the studio with the band members of the Louisville, Ky., rock outfit My Morning Jacket. There must be a connection there, right?
“I met the guys probably 12 years ago,” LaMontagne sighs into the telephone, “so I’ve known them for quite a while now.” Then, crickets.
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Many fans say the songwriter’s last two projects have had an audibly different production vibe, with the songs surrounded by more of a Pink Floyd-esque cosmic instrumentation than the more down-to-earth, acoustic guitar accompaniment found in the musician’s past output. Had LaMontagne recently stumbled across a new influence that was leading him in this musical direction?
“Nothing specifically, no,” he answers. After a pause, he finishes the thought with, “It’s just what I’m hearing.”
There are some topics that usually cause a singer-songwriter’s tongue to loosen a bit. Take the concept of a musician selling out, for example. While that phrase doesn’t contain nearly the punch that it did to musicians just a generation ago, it’s still a strong tack to take with LaMontagne, whose songs maintain a pureness that would have made them at home in coffee houses in the ’60s, despite being placed in countless feature films and television commercials.
So when the time comes for LaMontagne to work on new compositions, there has to be the smallest voice in the back of his head that tells him, “Hey guy, we made a lot of money off of those Travelers insurance commercials. Why not just knock out 10 sound-alikes of ‘Trouble’ and take it easy on this album?”
When presented with this scenario, LaMontagne laughs. “Well, I think it’s pretty clear that there isn’t! I have absolutely no interest in doing that,” he says. “I just let the spirit guide me. I never sit down specifically to write a song. I could put my guitar down for a year in between albums, easily. It’s when I start to hear sounds, when I start to hear melodies, that I just know. When I become curious enough about a melody, I know that it’s time to start writing.”
Perhaps it’s that reluctance to rest on his laurels that has kept LaMontagne’s career trajectory at an upward angle. Many singer-songwriters lean on familiar formulas for albums, producing a fading facsimile of the tried-and-true just in time for upcoming tours. To say LaMontagne breaks from tradition with each new release is to generalize his talents. It also overestimates the attention he gives those who would be considered professional rivals.
“I’m not a competitive person, and don’t feel that art should be competitive, so I never measure my work against other artists’ work,” he explains. “I measure my current work against my previous work. For me, I’m just always trying to hone my skills and just be the best musician that I can be. I learn from things, and learn from past recordings, whether it be what I thought I had done right or what I thought I could have done better. I’m always listening to music and trying to learn what I can to become better – a better musician, a better songwriter, a better guitar player.
“Whatever anyone else does, that’s their business,” he finishes with a laugh.
Who: Ray LaMontagne
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Red Hat Amphitheater, 500 S. McDowell St., Raleigh
Info: 919-996-8800 or redhatamphitheater.com