He's been called introverted, intensely private, interview-shy, even reclusive, yet here is singer/songwriter Ray LaMontagne talking to me by phone from a Cleveland hotel room. I'm asking questions, he's answering. With pauses. He speaks just above a whisper, a sort of gentle murmur that belies the raspy bite in his singing voice.
LaMontagne attributes much of his social awkwardness to a childhood that was transient and impoverished. His mother, he says, "had a really, really, really, really difficult childhood — horrific, really. She was completely unprepared for life."
She regularly moved Ray and his sisters to new towns, to Tennessee, Utah, Minnesota, New York, Nebraska, New Hampshire and elsewhere. His father, a musician with a tendency toward violence, left the picture when Ray was very young.
As a result, he was the perpetual new kid, bashful and reluctant. "It was hard," he says. "I think you just become an observer, always stay on the outside of things. It's funny how that stuff sticks with you. I don't like to go to shows 'cause I don't like crowds. I don't like festivals. They bring something up. I don't know exactly what it is, maybe the fact that I'm not the one dancing in the sprinklers with my shirt off. Funny how that stuff stays with you."
The solitary child did not seek solace and meaning in music. "I was more of a reader," he says. "I don't want to be overly dramatic, but we moved so much that we didn't have a stereo. We didn't have anything as far as those kinds of possessions go. I was sort of in my own world."
For all the pain and alienation that coursed through his younger life, LaMontagne's three studio albums consist mostly of conventional songs about love — its bliss, vicissitudes, complications. No primal screamish "Mother" from this artist. He's a throwback, really, cut from a mold that produced the likes of Jackson Browne, The Band (he's a big fan), James Taylor and Stephen Stills. (It's a style that never goes out of style. LaMontagne's most recent album, last year's Gossip in the Grain, ascended to No. 3 on the Billboard album chart.)
In fact, or so the story goes, it was when LaMontagne heard Stills' "Treetop Flyer" on the alarm clock that woke him for the early shift in a shoe factory that he was moved to make a career in music.
I tell him that Stills grew up in Tampa. "Think you might find time for a pilgrimage?" I ask, and here LaMontagne, 35, lets out the briefest of chuckles. "No, I don't want to meet the people that inspired me," he answers, quickly serious again. "It would be like asking a magician how he did the trick. You don't want to know."
So OK, this Ray LaMontagne is truly a different dude. But what makes him so unique is not his complexity but the simple tenets he lives by. Essentially, he just wants to make music and more or less be left alone, free to live quietly with his wife and kids in a farmhouse in Maine.
For instance, the ardor he stirs in his most devoted fans is of little concern to him. He's not interested in meet-and-greets and in-stores, stuff that managers and publicists encourage artists to do in order to stoke the career fire. "I don't feel any responsibility other than to myself, to just kind of keep doing it," he says. "I just want to get better, and if at any time it's not fulfilling anymore, I'll stop doing it."
Fair enough. But surely he must feel some obligation to his fans; they do, after all, keep storm shutters on the farmhouse. And isn't there a small part of him that wants to return the love? "I have talked to some people here and there who've expressed that my music really does mean something," he says, "that it helped them through a certain time, a difficult time, even a good time. That's nice, I guess."
As you might expect, LaMontagne is an inwardly directed performer, rarely addressing his audience, never dancing, never doffing his shirt. It took him quite awhile to find a relative comfort zone on the bandstand. "It's not about stage fright or anything like that," he explains. "I was never a self-confident person, never really craved to be the center of attention. So to reveal myself, that was a big hurdle — not only to be the center of attention, but saying 'Look at what I've created. Do you like it?' As you know, everyone has an opinion. But I've been through a lot in my life and I have a thick skin. I learned to trust my gut early on. I knew that I was on the right tracking writing songs and performing, knew that it was going to open up for me. I trusted myself."