Ray LaMontagne Says Elvis Costello Helped Inspire 'Supernova'
For most recording artists, when your latest album picks up two Grammy nominations, it’s a sign you’re on the right track and shouldn’t change the formula of your success. But then, Ray LaMontagne is not most artists.
In fact, LaMontagne has decidedly mixed feelings about his critically acclaimed fourth record God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise. “The last record was tough for me, it was sort of bittersweet, because I was proud of it, but I felt like I was making a record that I’d been trying to make before,” LaMontagne says from his home in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts.
As he began working out the material for his latesth album, Supernova, the 40-year-old songwriter’s obsession with not repeating himself became so marked that he began shelving dozens of songs and questioning whether he could ever truly find creative acceptance. “When you’re first starting out you have so much to prove,” he says. “You get up on stage and there’s maybe 50 people in the audience, and 49 of them hate you, just hate you, and want you to get off of the stage, but there’s this one person who gets it. Every year the shows were getting bigger, but I’m still going out there as if I’m in the club where 49 of the 50 people in the audience hate me. That mindset was ingrained in me.”
Battling the urge to ditch his music career altogether, he composed a long and rambling email to one of his heroes, Elvis Costello, asking for advice.
“I need to talk to someone who has been through this,” LaMontagne says. “And I wrote this long exhausting email to Elvis saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know who I am in the music world, I don’t know if I’m relevant.’ And he wrote back this beautiful email that was so thoughtful and gave me a lot of advice and was so supportive and things turned around for me creatively.”
After reading Costello’s words, LaMontagne turned to one of his favorite Costello albums for more inspiration. “I went and listened to This Year’s Model start to finish and thought, OK, let’s get to that place,” LaMontagne says. “I used it as a template. It’s fun, it’s super creative and playful, and Elvis never makes any apologies for what he’s doing—he just does it, as all my heroes do, like Neil Young.”
When the songs started clicking, LaMontagne contacted producer and Black Keys guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach, with whom he had long hoped to work. The pair spent two weeks last fall cutting the tracks at Auerbach’s Nashville studio.
Along with his signature vocals, LaMontagne’s rhythm work on his Paul Reed Smith guitar anchors the record, but thanks to the generous layering of organ, electric guitar, drums, ukulele, and background vocals, Supernova is an explosion of new sounds. If that experimentation is too much for some of his fans, LaMontagne says, so be it.
“There’s this core group of my fans, well, they call themselves fans, but they really hate me, but they love the first record, and they want Otis Redding,” he says. “They want me to make an Otis Redding record and every new record is a disappointment. But I’m a 160-pound white guy, you know, I’m not a 250-pound black man who was born wherever. I mean, come on. I never claimed to be a soul singer and I never wanted to be a soul singer.
“I’m a songwriter.”