When Ray LaMontagne began the process of recording his newest collection of songs for the album that would become Monovision, he decided to bite the bullet and embrace technology. Yet as he explained to American Songwriter, there was one big problem: “I love making music but I just can’t stand computers,” he explained with a knowing laugh.
“For years, while making a record, I’m always looking over the shoulder of the engineer, watching what they’re doing and asking questions,” LaMontagne continues. “And five minutes into it, I’m just like, fuck, I can’t look at this screen. I can’t do this. It’s like math.”
Nevertheless, LaMontagne stuck it out, and ended up doing not just the production, but all of the instrumentation, by himself. “I was just going to record core tracks, dig into the batch of songs, and maybe fly people in or fly tracks to people and do it that way,” he says of his initial idea. “But once I got started, I was just really enjoying the process of it. I was enjoying getting my hands on things, getting my hands on the console. I have a really beautiful old tube console, and it sounds so beautiful just by itself.”
“I just found that I was getting momentum. I would get a core track, and then I would just grab a bass and put the bass line down. And before you know it, I’m playing the drums, I’m playing the guitar. It was a learning process, but it was challenging, enjoyable, all of it all at the same time. Being the one who’s picking the mike and placing the mike where you want it to get that sound. I like to work on cars, motorcycles, build stuff, work on stuff; I just like to get my hands on things. It was just a good experience for me creatively.”
LaMontagne found that his DIY approach led to some pleasant surprises, like on the lovely track “Weeping Willow,” featuring him in multitracked harmony like a one-man Everly Brothers. “It happened really fast,” he says of the track. “It happened before breakfast. I walked through the studio with a cup of coffee and the melody jumped into my head. It was written and recorded by about 10:30 in the morning. That was the beauty of it, once I was on a roll in getting my hands on everything and having things set up. That’s never happened before. I’ve never been able to do that. That was just one of those little gifts of this process. Being able to get a song and get it down that fast. Before you’ve had breakfast, you have a track on the record that you’re happy with.”
Even though the title Monovision might suggest a thematic bent to the record and many of the songs do focus on the beauty of nature, LaMontagne says any connections were unintentional. “I never know what they’re gonna be until they happen,” he explains. “It always starts with just a melody and some kind of tag lyric that I’ve attached to that little piece of melody. More often than not, I record them on my iPhone or I’ll forget. Because they come so quickly. And then you just don’t know which ones want to live until it comes time to make a record. I think, ‘God, I want to get to these. What are the melodies that I have stored away?’ And I start digging through and whatever knocks the loudest, those are the ones that get finished up.”
While the songs weren’t written with uniformity in mind, LaMontagne does admit that he stuck to certain guidelines when recording them. “I know that I wanted to keep things fairly sparse and really let the song be the core and the focus. And then whatever peripheral instrumentation, I just wanted to tuck things nicely around it but nothing that would really pull your attention away from the song.”
The end result are tracks that concentrate heavily on LaMontagne’s unfussy, pretty tunes and the tenderness of his voice as he sings them. Songs “Summer Clouds,” “Misty Morning Rain (Here And Gone Again)” and “Morning Comes Wearing Diamonds” lend human qualities to heavenly bodies. “I live here (in Massachusetts) on the farm, or my wife and I have a little place out on an island in Maine that we visit,” LaMontagne says about his affinity for the natural world. “It’s just that’s where I find peace. It’s just being quiet and being in nature. It’s just such a gift to be alive, such a gift to be present. To be able to be a part of it. And I don’t want to waste it. I don’t want to miss it.”
LaMontagne also mines specific stories to make profound insights on the album, as on the stomping, CCR-sounding “Strong Enough,” which came from overhearing a coffee shop patron tell his hard-luck tale. “It struck me how universal that story is, how many of us were raised by single moms in small towns,” he says of the subject matter. “I know I did, and my mom really struggled to keep everybody fed and to keep a roof over our heads. It was hard. I don’t why it took me so long to realize this, but it’s like, wow, this is such a common thing. There are probably a gazillion of us out there who all had this same upbringing, a single mom raising a family all by herself. And we just want to get the hell out and make our own way somehow.”
Monovision once again luxuriates in the 70s singer-songwriter settings that were backgrounded somewhat in LaMontagne’s previous few albums, perhaps because he now knows that he’s an artist formidable enough to have transcended his influences. “At this point, and it’s really been like this since (2014’s) Supernova, I just trust my own voice,” he says. “I don’t think about it anymore. When you’re young and you’re listening to records non-stop, that’s how you learn. I mean that’s how I learned. That’s how I learned how to play any instrument at all. I learned how to sing by listening to the ones that I thought were the great singers and the songwriters that spoke to me.”
“But then at a certain point, you shed that and you take what you’ve learned and you become yourself. There are always echoes of your teachers in your work. But to me, really, I sound like me. And I wouldn’t have a career if I didn’t sound like me. If I sounded like someone else, I wouldn’t last five seconds. You have to have a unique voice or you’re not gonna have a career.”
On his last few albums, LaMontagne sounded agitated at times by the trappings of modernity. When I asked if he felt this album was more about concentrating on commonalities instead of dwelling on dissent, he thought about the concept. “It’s not until you say it that I’m putting it together,” he said. “I didn’t really think of that. Maybe it is. Maybe you get to a point where you just had your fill. If you read any history at all, the world is just conflict from the moment where we walked out of the water. It’s just been conflict ever since. Human beings are capable of such kindness and creativity and beauty, but they’re also capability of such brutality against each other. And it’s never gonna change. It’s just human nature.”
Regardless of how it’s contextualized in terms of his other work, Monovision feels like a career-high. Its overarching message of finding comfort and reassurance in the simpler things and in loved ones couldn’t be timelier, and it’s a message that LaMontagne hopes will find its audience. “That’s the power of music,” he says. “That’s why I listen to music. That’s why I still listen to records made 30, 40 years before I was even born. They speak to me. I hope these songs find their way into people’s lives. That’s all you can do.”
Read our review of Monovision, by Hal Horowitz.