Ray LaMontagne was born in New Hampshire ("But we were just passing through," he points out), one of six kids from various fathers -- all raised by their resourceful mom. His dad, a musician who now works in Nashville, split soon after his birth ("I've talked to him for a total of about a minute and a half in 20 years," Ray says), and Mom went wherever she could put a roof over her children's heads - from Utah to Maine and points between, where they resided in an assortment of unusual domiciles: the backyards of his mother's friends, in cars and tents, a cinderblock shell on a Tennessee horse ranch, a New Hampshire chicken coop. Ray was always the new kid in school, "and I had this nose when I was like 10," he jokes, laughing softly, "so you can imagine. It was tough.
The billing on LaMontagne's fourth album, God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise, reveals instantly that something new is happening with this project. The record is credited to "Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs"-the first time that the singer/songwriter has defined himself within a band setting, rather than as a solo artist. In addition, it marks the first time that LaMontagne has taken on the role of producer. And as soon as the music starts, with the Joe Cocker-style soul power of the opening "Repo Man," it's apparent that one of the world's most acclaimed artists has moved into some fresh territory.
Not that he was necessarily in need of a new direction. The album is the follow-up to 2008's Gossip in the Grain, which debuted in the Top Five on the Billboard charts; garnered two 2010 Grammy nominations; earned LaMontagne a coveted slot performing on Saturday Night Live; and continued the expansion of a highly-respected career that began with his first album, Trouble, in 2004.
The line-up of the Pariah Dogs, and their alliance with LaMontagne, is already well-proven and familiar. These musicians-Eric Heywood and Greg Leisz on guitars, Jennifer Condos on bass, and Jay Bellerose on drums-have been working as the singer's touring band for the last few years, and developing into a tight-knit team. Though he had thought about trying to get all of these busy session players together in the studio before, only now did time and circumstance align and make it possible.
For one thing, there was a new work set-up that LaMontagne was excited about. "I just bought this old estate in western Massachusetts that belonged to the first US ambassador to Russia," he says. "There's this beautiful room in the house, that was once a connected barn that was turned into a ballroom in the early 1900's and I felt like it would make a great place to record.
"It was an unknown space and an unknown situation, but it all worked," says drummer Bellerose. "It was one of the easiest sessions I've ever done-the songs just played themselves. We were scheduled to record for two weeks, but we were done tracking in five or six days."
The last song on God Willin', "The Devil's in the Jukebox," was the first thing that the group recorded. Bellerose notes that this simple, bluesy track set a tone for the sessions. "It was kind of a springboard," he says. "It loosened everybody up, gave us a chance to breathe."
"That's one of those songs I tend to write that is so damn linear, it's up to us to make it interesting," says LaMontagne with a laugh. "If you take it apart, there's not a lot happening. But the way these guys approach songs is always surprising. Where they take the melody, the interplay between the rhythm section-who knows what they're going to come up with?"
Guitarist Heywood says that the singer "made a decision beforehand to trust the band, and he really stuck to that." He points to the album's title track as an example of the way these sessions allowed each song to find its own path. Heywood and Leisz both play pedal steel, and they looked to LaMontagne to determine the arrangements and instrumentation.
"On that one, he said, 'How about two pedal steels?," Heywood recalls. "And then Jay started doing this bombastic, artillery-style drum thing. The song reads as a letter, with no chorus or bridge, so the whole thing was the most surprising track for me, and definitely one of my favorites. And Ray's vocal performance is amazing."
Ray LaMontagne has one of the remarkable stories in music's past decade. Since leaving his job in a Maine shoe factory to pursue his calling as a musician, he has released three studio albums and two live EPs, won awards and topped critics' polls internationally, and established himself as one of the most distinctive talents of his generation. His songs have been featured in numerous films and television shows, including multiple performances of his compositions on American Idol.
Yet he maintains that, until God Willin', all of these accomplishments have come despite his own struggles in the recording studio. "The process has always been laborious, it's been difficult for me to get any momentum," he says. "I always felt like I was swimming upstream."
But this time, things were different. "Ray was really in his comfort zone," says Bellerose. "He was home with family, he's really relaxed around this band-there was never a moment that felt uncomfortable. I think he's just having a lot more fun communicating with more people, and getting out of being on his own as a singer/songwriter."
LaMontagne claims that he didn't specifically set out to write songs for this group of musicians, though he certainly had its sound in his mind. Regardless of the outcome, he says that his process didn't-and can't ever-change.
"For me, songs just have to happen, they have to come out of nowhere," he says. "Otherwise it sounds like you're trying to write a song, and I can spot that a mile away-and I think listeners can, too.
"I won't ever sit down and write unless something is knocking at the door. I can go months without writing a song-and that's when it gets scary, when you feel like you're never going to write another song because they're just not coming around."
LaMontagne's steady output, however, indicates that there's little cause for concern. And for God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise, in addition to his own extraordinary writing, these ten songs had the benefit of contributions from an exceptional bunch of musicians, collaborating under ideal conditions. Even the notoriously self-critical LaMontagne can't hide his delight at the results.
"These guys are all so good, and I trust their instincts, I just wanted to write songs that I felt would excite them," concludes LaMontagne "There was a certain amount of pressure, because they're so much more accomplished than I am as a musician. But I knew that if I could pull together a batch of songs I was happy with, there was really no risk involved."