Singer LaMontagne finds shelter in his music

LOS ANGELES -- The West Hollywood cafe is an inviting place to pass the time, with sunlight filtering into the room on a recent afternoon. But this is not where Ray LaMontagne wants to be.

"I don't like being in L.A.," he says. "I have no desire to be in L.A. It doesn't excite me; it doesn't make me feel good. ... It's the same with a lot of places throughout the country and the world. I don't really want to go to Paris. Honestly. I like to be on my piece of land. I like to be in New England."


The new bright light of singer-songwriter pop doesn't mean to sound like a rude visitor. He's just trying to emphasize the difficulty imposed by his unlikely success.

"I enjoy performing, but I don't enjoy touring. Everything else in my life that gives me peace in the sense of being centered is gone, it's absolutely gone. ... Just being quiet, just not talking, just being by myself."


Pop music's fringes are populated by plenty of recluses and visionary outsiders, but you'd have to look long and hard to find an artist as seemingly out of his element in the mainstream music business as LaMontagne, 32, who performs a sold-out show at Washington's 9:30 Club tomorrow.

A late bloomer who abruptly began writing and singing on an impulse about a decade ago, he entered the treacherous record industry with no experience. The product of a difficult childhood and subsequent years troubled by addiction and depression, he has a streak of fragility alongside abundant determination.

And his music and personality wouldn't seem to have broad appeal.

"It's not commercial in any way, it's not marketable in any way, and I'm not marketable in any way," he says. "I have no image. I look like everybody else in the hardware store in Wilton, Maine, know what I mean? I have no look, I'm not photogenic, I have none of that stuff that the music business loves so much and is so easy for them to market."

But anti-image can become its own image, and here he is, a prestigious jewel and potential star on the roster of the major label RCA, where he signed only after insisting on a "nonstandard" contract that ensures him an uncommon degree of control over his career.

One of the most critically acclaimed figures to emerge on the adult range of the pop spectrum since Norah Jones, he doesn't boast Norah-level numbers -- his 2004 debut album, Trouble, has sold nearly 300,000, and the new Till the Sun Turns Black logged 91,000 in its first month.

But he's a slow-growth kind of artist who has built a cultlike following steadily and organically. Courting listeners with a voice that ranges from hoarse whisper to Otis Redding shouts, he has forged an atmospheric mix of folk and soul that has a striking originality while suggesting numerous classic influences. LaMontagne's concerts have become avidly attended ceremonies known for their nearly confrontational level of emotional expression.

"I've never seen anybody work as hard live as he does," says Ethan Johns, who produced his two albums. "I know how hard he works when he walks into a room where nobody knows who he is, and he will not leave the stage until he makes sure that everybody's at least had a chance to make a decision whether or not they like him."


With his army-surplus khaki shirt, beard and piercing eyes, LaMontagne is a conspicuous dark cloud in a corner of the bright cafe, radiating an intensity into the room's cheery atmosphere.

LaMontagne doesn't smile much, and he laughs only once during a 45-minute interview, when he hears himself protesting that he doesn't want to go to Paris. But as serious and low-key as he is, he's also polite, attentive and responsive. He appreciates the opportunity.

"I couldn't talk to people. I could not talk to people," he says, recalling a time a decade ago when he was gripped by personal demons. "I couldn't even have this conversation with you, for instance, and look you in the eyes at the same time. ... I've grown immensely in the past eight years in that way, and music was huge for that."

He'd grown up with his single mother, brother and four sisters, living in poverty and moving constantly around the country. After high school in Utah, he moved to Maine and was working at a shoe factory, another stop on his chaotic course.

Then, in the story that has assumed semi-legendary status in LaMontagne lore, he woke up one morning to Stephen Stills' "Treetop Flyer" on his clock radio and immediately decided to become a singer and songwriter.

"I have good instincts, and I've had to rely on them my whole life," he says of his radical move. "I felt like I could sing, I felt like I could write a song, I felt like I could sing a song, and I felt like whatever it was that that song had done to me, I felt like I could do that."


But he soon had his doubts.

"It was very difficult. There were times when I would play a room like this, a little coffeehouse, sit in a chair, sing. Of course no one wants to hear you, no one wants you in the room, and it would just crush me in the beginning. ...

"But I'd go back to it, try again, try again, try again. I just felt like that voice in there that was saying, 'You can do it' was stronger than the voice that was saying, 'You can't do it.'"

His persistence paid off with a contract with Chrysalis Music Publishing, which financed the recordings that became his first album. The singer built momentum with steady touring, and by the middle of last year he'd firmly established his presence on the landscape.

There were Boston Music Awards, Pollstar Awards for touring, appearances at Hurricane Katrina benefits and adult-alternative radio hits. Kelly Clarkson made LaMontagne's "Shelter" a highlight of her concerts, and he even knew the honor of having "Trouble" performed by contestant Taylor Hicks on American Idol.

"If you write something that someone else wants to sing, something's working," says LaMontagne, who cites Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles and Redding among his prime influences, and these days enjoys such "peers" as the Black Keys, My Morning Jacket and the White Stripes.


If the farm in Maine is where he wants to be physically, writing is his psychic refuge.

"It's a very nice place to be. I like to be in that space. I like to be in that place where a melody is ... trying to follow it, trying to open up my skull to lyrics that fit the melody. It's like pieces of a puzzle, and it pulls me in and I get interested and lost in it. ...

"Most musicians would probably think I'm terrible at putting songs together. It's just like with my carpentry skills. I use hand tools, I don't like power tools, and everything's rough around the edges. Same thing with my songs. They're a little rough around the edges."

Richard Cromelin writes for the Los Angeles Times.