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The Brighter Side of Trouble

Singer/songwriter Ray LaMontagne turns worry into remedy



Ray LaMontagne's everyday speaking voice is more subdued than the husky call that propels his debut album, Trouble. The quiet, reserved singer/songwriter would rather not talk about himself at length, but the story of how he entered the music field has been repeated in nearly every piece written about him thus far.

While living in Lewiston, a mill town in Maine, LaMontagne worked the graveyard shift at a local shoe factory A Stephen Stills song on the radio inspired him to quit his job and begin writing songs. It's been conveniently condensed into an overnight success story but it actually took over 10 years and several subsequent gigs -- both as a manual laborer and musician -- for LaMontagne to get where he is today.

"It wasn't a quick transition at all," says LaMontagne. "I didn't just immediately go out and support myself by playing music. Hell no! I worked lots of jobs all over the place during that time. It was not the best time in my life to be hopping around to this place and that, so I really don't think all that relocating influenced my songwriting more than anything else."

After LaMontagne was signed to the Chrysalis Publishing roster, he and producer Ethan Johns quickly began work on Trouble. At the time, the album had no label or distribution support but was picked up by RCA in 2004. Johns gave Trouble the lively, undiluted touch that boosted such previous ventures as Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection and the Jayhawks' Rainy Day Music. He also provided most of the album's instrumental backing.

While recording, LaMontagne's powerful voice proved a formidable asset and has since garnered frequent comparisons to Tupelo Honey-era Van Morrison. His singing style, though, has more in common with such R&B-influenced performers as Dave Mason and the Band's Richard Manuel with a hint of Otis Redding's worried delivery. The soul influence is a key element in Trouble's most resounding songs including the swaying title track and the Elton-esque "Hannah."

"After Ethan and I started working together, we just decided to take that demo budget and go ahead and make a real record which definitely sped things up a bit," he says. "We've got enough new material now [to record again] but it's hard to set aside enough time. We're scrambling for time to go in and get a couple of records done, kind of play catch up. There's definitely more on the way, though."

Now 31, LaMontagne is an old hand when it comes to traveling. While growing up, he and his mother and siblings moved from town to town in search of stable employment and housing. Then, after setting out on his own, he did the same thing. He worked various jobs from Minnesota to Utah. Now, though, his travel stops are much more rewarding and there's been a highly appreciative audience waiting at most of them. Tickets for his Atlanta appearance have already sold out.

LaMontagne and his touring band recently made their first television appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman." Seeing as Ray hasn't owned a TV for almost 15 years, the Letterman gig didn't stand out as that much of a highlight. But when he speaks of his recent performance on the "Austin City Limits" soundstage, LaMontagne's enthusiasm immediately breaks through.

"We just taped an episode of 'Austin City Limits' a couple of nights ago and that was a real high point," he says. "It's kind of a scary thing because there's been a lot of extraordinary, as well as a lot of forgettable, performances on that stage. I think we did OK but you still have to hope that yours doesn't end up among the forgettable ones."

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