There’s no single thing that separates God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise from past Ray LaMontagne records. The songs still fall somewhere between alt-folk and country blues. The instrumentation still sizzles and simmers in its delicate deliveries. And the voice, gruff and textured, is still very much LaMontagne’s own. Yet, God Willin’ finds the singer and his backing band, the Pariah Dogs, at their most cohesive and passionate to date, exploring more-focused soundscapes and recording as a band for the first time ever. “It couldn’t be more different,” LaMontagne explained, via phone from Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. Below, the notoriously reclusive frontman talks about playing producer, recording at home, and why this album might just be his most cherished record to date.
This is the first time your band, the Pariah Dogs, has gotten a co-credit. What kind of role did they play on this record? Well, I’ve been playing with these guys off and on in different incarnations for about four years, so we’ve developed a really great relationship, on the road and off the road just as friends. They’ve really taught me to enjoy what I’m doing—especially [bassist] Jennifer [Condos]. She sort of showed me just how lucky we are just to play music for a living. I’m hard on myself, and she sees that every night. … But I just love these guys, and for the past year and a half, I started thinking that I wanted to capture what we do live, because when it was possible to get us all together on a tour, which was rare, I just thought that we made a really beautiful sound together.
You’ve said that you worked pretty diligently and put some serious pressure on yourself while writing this record. It’s not so much that as—in the past, I sort of finished up songs on the road, and I didn’t really put a whole lot of time constraints on myself. But because I was producing this record, I wanted to have my shit together when the guys got there. … You can take two weeks just going through songs and finishing stuff up at the last minute in the studio, trying to figure out what the record’s going to be. I wanted to have all of that stuff done before the guys even arrived. That’s where the pressure came in. … I didn’t want them to have any questions when they got there. I wanted to say, ‘Here’s the 10 songs. This is the track listing. Let’s do it.’
Do you feel like playing producer really changed the way things ran this time around? Oh, certainly. It was very different; it was very spontaneous. There’s a whole ritual that happens with a producer. There’s this whole other side of things. Everything is a conversation. Every bit of arrangement requires a conversation: lyric choice, key change—everything and anything. It just diminishes any kind of momentum you can get going, and it’s so important for a record to have life. There needs to be that spontaneity and interaction between musicians. … [This time,] we were able to get a lot of momentum very quickly and keep it. We were doing two tracks a day, and in five days we had a record. I just think this record has more life than anything I’ve made previously. And, sonically, I feel like it’s so beautiful, and that’s largely due to Ryan Freeland, the engineer.
What, if there were any, were the drawbacks to wearing both hats? None at all. I felt really freed by it. There were a few times where I was pinching myself, like, ‘This is sounding so great and everybody is so happy in the studio. There’s no tension.’ There were just a lot of really happy musicians wanting to play music every day and loving where they were. We were in this beautiful house, looking out at the fields and the hills beyond. The room’s all full of light; you’re not stuck in some dark studio, in that weird studio bubble that sort of happens when you go in to record for six weeks. It was just really enjoyable for everybody.
Was this the first time you realized the impact a setting can have on a recording? Oh, no. I always felt that. [Going to a studio] always kind of brought me down, to be honest with you. They’re so cavernous; it’s all artificial light; you’ve got no sense of time. I guess some guys really like that—I don’t. I really enjoyed that making a record this time really just felt like any other part of the day. We all met and had breakfast at the store in town, then drove a mile and a half out to the house and made music. It was really wonderful.
This album also finds you playing a little more freely with your vocal range. Do you find it’s the songs that dictate the way they are sung, or are those choices a bit more intentional? I think it’s just sort of developing over time. I think I’m getting better as a singer and becoming more confident and more relaxed—especially more relaxed—when I sing. I think it happens naturally. You learn how to use your voice and hopefully get better at it.
Could you tell me a bit about the live show? I’ve read that you and David are sharing some serious stage time. Well, there’s not a ton of it. We do a couple of songs once and a while at the end of his set. And it’s certainly going smoothly. Speaking for myself, my team—the road guys, the crew—they’re all such wonderful people, really professional. There’s no bullshit, you know. It’s kind of the same on his end. David’s got a really big team, and they’re all really focusing on putting on the best show they can. They’ve got a smooth running machine happening, you know? We do as well, but the music we make is so different. It’s very open. There’s a lot of space in the music I make, and David’s show is kind of the complete polar opposite of that. I’m not quite sure how to explain it, but it’s great. They’re very professional, they just have a different way of approaching it. I think it makes for a nice night of music.
So, what’s next? When this tour wraps I have like seven days off, then we’re going to go tour the UK and Europe and do some press; some T.V. shows in Paris. Then we come home for almost the entire month of October, which is great because I can watch the leaves change and ride my motorcycle. Then we go out with Levon Helm, another co-headlining bill, and his band for some select shows, which we’re all really, really excited about. I’ve been able to play with Levon a few times and it’s such an amazing experience for me. He’s such a hero of mine, and to be on the same stage with his when he is playing drums is just mind blowing. It’s just wonderful. Growing up listening to his records, just being on the stage with him is amazing. And then we’ll tour again in January and February in Europe, then June and July we’ll do festivals and theaters in the United States, then September of next year we’ll do more theaters in the United States, I believe, for about a month or a month and a half. It’s all planned out, you see. My whole life, a year in advance, is all planned out. It’s wonderful. I love it. [Laughs.]
Ray LaMontagne plays the Santa Barbara Bowl with David Gray and Tift Merritt this Sunday, September 5, at 6 p.m. For tickets and info, call 962-7411, or visit sbbowl.com.