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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

"There is only one Dr Who, and that is Tom Baker." Ray Lamontagne, October 2008

Ray LaMontagne says that there are some days when he doesn’t want to leave his hotel room, such is his aversion to facing the world and the people in it. And when those days come along, he has no choice but to simply force himself. It’s hard to tell if today is one such day. At the Opera House in Boston, his band are already soundchecking when he leaves his room, at the nearby Hyatt, to join them. Such is his skill at not drawing attention to himself that you only notice his arrival when he dons his guitar and leans into a mike at the far right of the stage to sing Winter Birds, from his imminent third album Gossip In The Grain. Singing seems to make him appear. And sure enough, when he stops singing, he is barely there at all. If the song is anything to go by – a hushed woodland paean to nature going about its business, oblivious to human eyes – perhaps 35 year-old LaMontagne seems that way to the animals too.

Like the female fans who will tell him they love him between every song he later plays, your instincts towards him are wholly protective. It’s cold backstage. Shouldn’t he be wearing something over his t-shirt? Apparently not. It turns out that, in sharp contrast to, say, Van Halen and their “no brown M&Ms” rule, his rider demands are primarily atmospheric. “I prefer to have it this way. I like to feel cold.” Tempting as it is to trump his social ineptitude with a little of your own – “Cheer up! It might never happen” – something tells you the consequences would be catastrophic.

Sure, there are moments of unprecedented levity on Gossip In The Grain. As the title indicates, Meg White is an empathetic show of support for The White Stripes drummer, who he feels has been unfairly maligned by sections of the music press – while, by his standards, the lugubrious ragtime thump of Hey Me, Hey Mama is a veritable hoot. But the truth is that LaMontagne’s popularity is a paradox that he has yet to untangle. His crippling introversion is what lends his broken-winged blues its power. On the other hand, it’s also why his public performances are so fraught with what the bearded troubadour refers to as “anxieties”.

By his own reluctant admission, anxieties pepper LaMontagne’s life like sand on a beach towel. Raised alongside his brother and four sisters by his mother, LaMontagne’s childhood was a blur of continual relocation, a relative’s backyard here, camping in Tennessee horse ranch there. Perpetually “the new kid” at school, he was routinely victimised. His mother, he says, “was very strict. Public television was all we were allowed to watch, and in very limited doses. There was no candy, no sugary cereals.” It’s impressive, I say, to hold firm on those sorts of values in adversity, but LaMontagne’s answer suggests that I’m conferring my own middle-class sensibility on, what was mostly a practical problem. “She was kind of broke, so that maybe helped.”

Of the television he was allowed to watch, the only thing he remembers making any kind of impression were old Dr Who reruns on PBS. “I was a big fan,” he says. Has he seen any of the recent series? How do they compare to the old ones? Finally, reticence gives way to indignation. “There is only one Dr Who,” he says emphatically, “And that is Tom Baker. He is the only one. That’s it.” Then a pause. “Although William Hartnell was pretty great too.” I offer to send LaMontagne a DVD of David Tennant in Dr Who – although someone witnessing his reaction from afar would think I had offered to sew sardines into the hem of his curtains. “No, no, no… I can’t stand that stuff. The old shows had no special effects, and that is what made it great. It was so creative. It did so much with so little. Where is the fun in making everything computer-generated?”

How bad does a childhood have to be before memories of it fail to elicit even a gram of nostalgia? We’ve all met people who “had nothing” but were somehow happy. When LaMontagne talks about sitting beside his sister, by the glow of a small black and white TV, and watching those flickering images of Tom Baker, the memories seem more good than bad. But not to him. “I really don’t think I get nostalgic about anything,” he says.

What about records? Everyone has certain records that sweeten the memory of hard times. “We didn’t have a stereo or any of that stuff,” says LaMontagne, sinking his hands into his thick beard. “It was literally whatever we could fit into the trunk of the car.” If LaMontagne really did grow up in a music-free environment, that perhaps accounts for the near-mythical epiphany that took hold when, woken up by his radio alarm at 4am, he had a life-changing experience. Hearing Stephen Stills’ paean to leaving the system behind Treetop Flyer, he left his job in a shoe factory and, for the first time, acknowledged that music may be something that existed in him too.

After picking up the guitar for the first time, eight years elapsed before, aged 26, he recorded his voice to see what it sounded like. “I didn’t like it at all”, he says, “although, in truth it sounded much the same as it does now.” Perhaps his reticence to do so until this point had something to do with the fact that his estranged father – who he has spoken to for “about one and a half minutes in the last 20 years” – had also been one. Almost as if denial of the DNA they share, LaMontagne confirms that his father knows he turned out to be a musician too. However, beyond that, “he’s not worth discussing”.

LaMontagne talks about his tentative forays into a recording studio as though they were a guilty secret – an extravagance he could ill afford, considering the fact that he had a wife and two young boys to support. By the time, he came to the attention of Ethan Johns – who produced his 2004 debut Trouble, LaMontagne had trained to become a carpenter. By night, he might earn up to $200, playing the coffee houses of Maine.

“He’s come a [ital] long [ital] way since the first time I met him, says Johns, currently filling on drums at LaMontagne’s live shows. “But I think there was an instant connection with us. “He saved up something like $5000 and bought himself some land with it. And while his wife and two young boys lived in a camper van next door, he built a log cabin. He dug the well, did the whole thing… like something out of Jeremiah Johnson [the Robert Redford film about an American soldier forced to live outside of society]. Then, after they built the log cabin, he decided to tell the van and buy a Martin guitar with the proceeds. That was a real iconic moment in his life – the point where the real slog ended.”

To call it a happy ending, however, is stretching credulity. If you’ve spent years on Death Row only to earn a last minute reprieve, the tics and traits of a condemned man don’t disappear overnight. “Don’t put your trust in walls/’Cause walls will only crush you when they fall,” went Be Here Now, at the beginning last year’s Till The Sun Turns Black – before every ensuing song appeared to form a chapter the narrative of a relationship breakdown. Negotiating similar emotional and musical territory to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, Lessons Learned seemed to freeze the moment when a comatose relationship either gives up or, somehow, finds a way to live. The songs that follow suggest that the latter turned out to be true. The last time a journalist broached the matter with LaMontagne, the singer snapped, “I won’t tolerate my business being invaded.”

Quite what a bona fide hit single – and the extra scrutiny it brings – will do for him is anyone’s guess. But, by releasing You Are The Best Thing early next year – the sort of mid-paced, radio-friendly R&B rapture that Van Morrison used to trot out in the early 70s – LaMontagne is sure to find out. This afternoon, he disdains the idea that hit singles have the power to change anything for the worse. “I don’t know what a hit single is. If people really like the song, that’s fine. The label makes more money. Maybe that translates to touring, but maybe not.” If LaMontagne talks about being an artist in crude economic terms, it’s probably because that his life has been defined by the comforts denied to him until his thirties.

He begs to differ, however. The idea that he should give his past adversities credit for his current success horrifies him. “I don’t want to go back,” he reiterates. “I want to keep going forward.” But aren’t we defined by our past? There’s a sense of entitlement – or a lack of it – to what life has to offer, that is forged in childhood circumstances. “You seriously feel like you’re the same person you were at 14? I always felt 40,” says LaMontagne. Even in the autumn, when the memory of going back to school fills you with a sense of renewal? That’s surely a universal feeling, isn’t it?

“I don’t know when kids go back to school,” he says, almost at a loss now. “I just don’t… I don’t remember when it started. I really couldn’t tell you. That is just a different life. A whole other life.”

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