Through most of his 10-year recording career, New England-bred songsmith Ray LaMontagne has breezed through bits of blue folk-rock, white soul and acoustic pop with a vintage R&B slant.
The raspy-voiced singer-guitarist established himself as a heavyweight artist in the mid-2000s with a string of melodic, somewhat melancholy tracks that landed on the soundtracks of numerous films and hip TV shows.
LaMontagne's 2008 album "Gossip in the Grain" earned him nationwide commercial success from the popularity of the brassy, gutsy hit "You Are the Best Thing," an easy-rolling, mid-tempo soul-pop number with Memphis-style horns and an enthusiastically romantic chorus.
Up until recently, it seemed like LaMontagne's songwriting career was on a fairly consistent pattern, but his latest collection, "Supernova," released in April via RCA, demonstrates a totally different approach and sound. It's an experimental, often psychedelic, instrumentally sophisticated pop album with a uniquely atmospheric style.
"I know I was hearing certain different instrumentation - a sharper sound, a broader sound," LaMontagne explains. "Usually my voice is very round, very full and very up-front. I wanted to sort of put them in a little bit of a different place this time and make them more a part of the overall sonic palette and not quite so in your ear as they've been in the past. I wanted my voice to be equally within the palette of colors and not be the focus."
Before diving into the singer-songwriter circuit, LaMontagne grew up in various towns in New England and Utah. One of six siblings, he was born in Nashua, N.H., spent time in Morgan, Utah, and eventually settled in Lewiston, Maine, around the time he eked out of high school.
LaMontagne didn't start strumming a guitar or writing songs until the mid-1990s, when he caught inspiration from the harmonious folk-rock stylings of Stephen Stills, Van Morrison, the Band and other influential acoustic-based artists from the early '70s era.
A lo-fidelity demo of his earliest original material landed the young songwriter a deal with Chrysalis Music Publishing in 1999.
In 2003, British studio producer Ethan Johns (the son of acclaimed producer Glyn Johns) signed on to handle LaMontagne's proper debut album. Known for his studio work with Emmylou Harris, Ryan Adams, Tom Jones and other major recording artists, Johns easily related to the simplicity and soulfulness of LaMontagne's material.
RCA released the resulting album, "Trouble," in the fall of 2004. The album featured guest performances by fiddler Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek and Jennifer Stills (daughter of Stephen Stills).
"Trouble" wowed music critics and earned fans in the folk/Americana underground. The upbeat title track, which was featured in the Travelers Insurance commercial with the shaggy dog and his bone, and the mellow waltz "Narrow Escape" stood out in the set of tunes.
Rolling Stone called the songwriter "the backwoods Van Morrison."
The popular TV show "Rescue Me" utilized the track "All the Wild Horses" on an episode in 2005, as well.
During his 2005 tour behind "Trouble," an acoustic guitar-clad LaMontagne shared the stage with singer-songwriter Ben Folds in an episode of the live music festival series "Austin City Limits," playing five tunes from the album. It was the first of many live television performances to come.
LaMontagne's 2006 follow-up LP, "Til the Sun Turns Black," featured a much more orchestrated sound with additional horns, strings and harmonies.
The title track landed on the soundtrack to the TV show "ER" that year. Other tunes were featured on episodes of "Bones," "One Tree Hill" and "Brothers & Sisters."
"Gossip in the Grain," LaMontagne's third studio album with Johns at the helm, came out in 2008 with a bang. It debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200.
The opening track, the horn-accented, heartfelt "You Are the Best Thing" became LaMontagne's first major commercial breakthrough.
Some critics compared LaMontagne's husky, emotive and dynamic performance to Sam Cooke, Tim Buckley and, again, Van Morrison.
Hints of classic British Isles folk-pop, loungy jazz and classic '50s-'60s cinematic pop started to sneak into the music by the time LaMontagne tracked "Gossip in the Grain."
He and Johns expanded on those notions on 2010's "God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise."
It was the first collection recorded with LaMontagne's new backing band, Pariah Dogs, comprised of bassist Jennifer Condos, guitarist Eric Heywood and drummer Jay Bellerose.
"God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise" went to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and snagged LaMontagne two Grammy Award nominations; he won that year for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
As LaMontagne prepared to write and demo songs for his latest album, the 10-song "Supernova," he felt it was time to shake things up, both with the manner with which he composed and arranged song ideas and with the production and orchestration of the final set of songs.
"Supernova" took shape with an entirely different method.
"In the past, I would push songs aside and say, 'I don't have time to listen to you right now' and keep working on what I had doing," LaMontagne says. "This time I said, 'You know, I'm going to follow you. I'm going to take today and just see where this goes.' "
A new approach
Backing away from a hectic touring and recording schedule, LaMontagne settled into his home studio in the Berkshires Mountains of western Massachusetts. He developed a daily routine of songcraft.
"I would force myself to finish the things I started," LaMontagne says. "I had a batch of songs that wasn't calling at me strongly enough (at first). It was all good stuff. I felt like everything had potential. There were good melodies. But they weren't calling for my attention that strongly, so I just kept putting them down and not finishing them."
Unlike previous experiences with intensive songwriting sessions and studio work, LaMontagne simply took his time with each song sketch.
"I just kind of turned off the inner critic and got out of my own way and started making music," he says. "The whole record was written that way. It was playful and really wonderful. It felt the way it feels in the beginning, when you're first writing songs. They're not precious in any way. It's just a joyful, emotional truth, not like anything that's being dredged up. I just ran with it."
"Supernova" marked another major turning point for LaMontagne as he enlisted Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys to oversee the production of the album. They landed in Auerbach's Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville, Tenn., to complete the sessions.
Auerbach played various guitar tracks throughout the sessions. The core band featured drummer Richard Swift, bassist Dave Roe, keyboardist Leon Michaels, and multi-instrumentalists Seth Kaufman and Russ Pahl.
"I hadn't met any of these guys before and didn't know anything about them, so it took a little bit to get comfortable," LaMontagne says. "But they were all really, really smart, and everyone had ideas and was enthusiastic. What really pleased me and kind of surprised me a little bit was how excited they were about the songs. They thought they were interesting, which made me feel even better about them."
Longtime fans may have been surprised by the retro pop style and psyche-rock ambience of "Supernova." It's not the typical Ray LaMontagne album - at all. If the musical textures and production quality seems new and strange, LaMontagne's poetic lyrics and emotional singing are still very well supported.
"Lavender," the opening song, is a groovy, echo-y pop anthem with a slow-twisting syncopated rhythm (a la The Zombies) and a psychedelic aura. LaMontagne's breathy delivery resembles that of a drowsy pop star from 1966.
The mellow follow-up, "Airwaves," is a conga and acoustic guitar-driven, nicely orchestrated pop ditty with a beachy vibe, peppered with little organ chords and soft cymbal swells.
"She's the One," the first rocker of the collection, glides in a waltzy time signature with Jimi Hendrix-esque feistiness - all killer riffs (some doubled and tripled with extra guitar) and fancy drum fills. LaMontagne whispers every verse with curiously powerful emphasis.
"Pick Up a Gun," another mysterious, waltzy number, saunters with a slappy drum beat, a Mellotron background and reverby guitar before settling into the first lush verses.
Think Donovan meets The Velvet Underground's Nico material.
With its three-chord structure and fuzztone guitar tones, "Julia" is the grooviest (and heaviest) garage-rockers of the bunch.
On the other side of the pop spectrum, the drowsy, organ-propelled "No Other Way" bounces lightly as LaMontagne croons with a breathy delivery.
The stellar title track "Supernova" is crisp, tight and cleverly arranged with handclaps, bells, electric piano and a rhythm section cranking out a power-pop foundation that Elvis Costello would be proud of.
"Ojai" could easily have worked on a classic Crosby, Stills & Nash record.
The sweeping anthem "Smashing" recalls the trippy pop of Donovan and "Sgt. Pepper"-era Beatles.
Album closer "Drive-in Movies" is a strummy, sturdy, twangy country-pop gem with tasteful bits of pedal steel in the vein of Gram Parsons and the Band.
"It was an enjoyable process," LaMontagne says of the "Supernova" sessions. "These songs reflect my joy of songwriting, what I enjoy about writing songs. They feel free to me. I didn't have to go searching around through cupboards to find the missing pieces; all the puzzle bits would just sort of burst to life in front of me," he says.
"I just grabbed them and pieced them together."
Fans can expect a healthy dose of "Supernova" material at his show at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on Wednesday evening. LaMontagne will likely play more electric guitar on stage than he has on prior tours, switching from his Fender Jazzmaster to his acoustic six-strings.
His backing band will include drummer Barbara Gruska, bassist Zack Hickman and guitarist/keyboardists Ethan Gruska and Dave Depper.
"The 'Supernova' songs give me a chance to play more electric guitar, which I love to do," LaMontagne says. "But I've always had such good players on stage, and so many of my songs are keyed into what I'm doing on the acoustic guitar. I'm really looking forward to being able to set the acoustic down for half the set, finally. That will be a nice feeling."