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Ray of hope
For the painfully shy and private Ray LaMontagne, life in the spotlight is one of almost unremitting discomfort, and yet he hopes to last as long as Willie Nelson.
Craig Fitzsimons, 07 Dec 2006
Though not a bluesman, gravel-voiced ex-carpenter Ray LaMontagne follows in the same existential tradition. His debut LP Trouble received ecstatic reviews, and its follow-up, Till The Sky Turns Black, looks set for the stratosphere. His (mainly acoustic) songs are shot through with a profound sense of dislocation, and vocal comparisons to early Tom Waits or Chris Whitley are not misplaced. His professed influences are mainstream (Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles, Otis Redding) but he’s darker and deeper. He’s written two overt love songs but has vowed never to play them again, nor can he listen to his own records. As he tells me: “Once they’re finished, I have to let go. I don’t like my voice anyway, and I can’t believe other people want to listen to it.”
I’d been warned to tread gently. Ray has thumped photographers, and walks out of interviews if the questioning strays near his upbringing. Photos did little to reassure me. Tall, thin and bearded, with ravaged eyes and unruly hair, he resembles The Band’s Richard Manuel.
Virtually every interview with him yielded one-sentence answers, yet I was stunned by how sweet he was. Abnormally shy and, he admits, hopeless at social interaction, his voice rarely rises above a hesitant whisper, and he avoids eye contact.
“I’ve no problem with the press,” he explains, “but I hate the way I’ve been represented. I’ve read articles about me, and I found it really upsetting, so I stopped. Bits would be accurate, but the rest would be fiction. So I’ve learned to be suspicious. I don’t understand the press or the record industry. What I do is tour. I like to be home. It drives me crazy that I can’t be physically busy on the road. I have a lot of nervous energy, and I love physical work, maybe some carpentry, fixing doors, or whatever."
Does Ray get nervous before playing live?
"More than just nervous. I feel physically sick to my stomach, most all the time. It needs to be sorted out. Tonight I’ve got a show and it’s starting to freak me out. It’ll get worse and worse as the day goes on, and I feel scared. After the show I can read a book and relax, but the build-up is so nerve-wracking. I play with wonderful musicians and they might break that pattern. Life is so brief, and I should enjoy it. I don’t want to have my head up my ass all the time. I wish I could get out of being so anxious and self-critical. Anything can put me in a tail-spin, and then it’s one bad thought after another. But there are nights when that doesn’t happen."