Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs
Brandi Carlile, Dawn Landes
10475 Little Patuxent Parkway
Columbia, Maryland, 21044
Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs
“There’s something magical that happens when these musicians play together,” says Ray LaMontagne. “I’ve been wanting to capture what we’ve been doing live for a while. The chemistry is really special.”
The billing on LaMontagne’s fourth album, God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, reveals instantly that something new is happening with this project. The record is credited to “Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs”—the first time that the singer/songwriter has defined himself within a band setting, rather than as a solo artist. In addition, it marks the first time that LaMontagne has taken on the role of producer. And as soon as the music starts, with the Joe Cocker-style soul power of the opening “Repo Man,” it’s apparent that one of the world’s most acclaimed artists has moved into some fresh territory.
Not that he was necessarily in need of a new direction. The album is the follow-up to 2008’s Gossip in the Grain, which debuted in the Top Five on the Billboard charts; garnered two 2010 Grammy nominations; earned LaMontagne a coveted slot performing on Saturday Night Live; and continued the expansion of a highly-respected career that began with his first album, Trouble, in 2004.
The line-up of the Pariah Dogs, and their alliance with LaMontagne, is already well-proven and familiar. These musicians—Eric Heywood and Greg Leisz on guitars, Jennifer Condos on bass, and Jay Bellerose on drums—have been working as the singer’s touring band for the last few years, and developing into a tight-knit team. Though he had thought about trying to get all of these busy session players together in the studio before, only now did time and circumstance align and make it possible.
For one thing, there was a new work set-up that LaMontagne was excited about. “I just bought this old estate in western Massachusetts that belonged to the first US ambassador to Russia,” he says. “There’s this beautiful, enormous room in the barn, and I felt like it would make a great recording space.”
“It was an unknown space and an unknown situation, but it all worked,” says drummer Bellerose. “It was one of the easiest sessions I’ve ever done—the songs just played themselves. We were scheduled to record for two weeks, but we were done tracking in five or six days.”
The last song on God Willin’, “The Devil’s in the Jukebox,” was the first thing that the group recorded. Bellerose notes that this simple, bluesy track set a tone for the sessions. “It was kind of a springboard,” he says. “It loosened everybody up, gave us a chance to breathe.”
“That’s one of those songs I tend to write that is so damn linear, it’s up to us to make it interesting,” says LaMontagne with a laugh. “If you take it apart, there’s not a lot happening. But the way these guys approach songs is always surprising. Where they take the melody, the interplay between the rhythm section—who knows what they’re going to come up with?”
Guitarist Heyward says that the singer “made a decision beforehand to trust the band, and he really stuck to that.” He points to the album’s title track as an example of the way these sessions allowed each song to find its own path. Heyward and Leisz both play pedal steel, and they looked to LaMontagne to determine the arrangements and instrumentation.
“On that one, he said, ‘How about two pedal steels?,” Heyward recalls. “And then Jay started doing this bombastic, artillery-style drum thing. The song reads as a letter, with no chorus or bridge, so the whole thing was the most surprising track for me, and definitely one of my favorites. And Ray’s vocal performance is amazing.”
Ray LaMontagne has one of the remarkable stories in music’s past decade. Since leaving his job in a Maine shoe factory to pursue his calling as a musician, he has released three studio albums and two live EPs, won awards and topped critics’ polls internationally, and established himself as one of the most distinctive talents of his generation. His songs have been featured in numerous films and television shows, including multiple performances of his compositions on American Idol.
Yet he maintains that, until God Willin’, all of these accomplishments have come despite his own struggles in the recording studio. “The process has always been laborious, it’s been difficult for me to get any momentum,” he says. “I always felt like I was swimming upstream.”
But this time, things were different. “Ray was really in his comfort zone,” says Bellerose. “He was home with family, he’s really relaxed around this band—there was never a moment that felt uncomfortable. I think he’s just having a lot more fun communicating with more people, and getting out of being on his own as a singer/songwriter.”
LaMontagne claims that he didn’t specifically set out to write songs for this group of musicians, though he certainly had its sound in his mind. Regardless of the outcome, he says that his process didn’t—and can’t ever—change.
“For me, songs just have to happen, they have to come out of nowhere,” he says. “Otherwise it sounds like you’re trying to write a song, and I can spot that a mile away—and I think listeners can, too.
“I won’t ever sit down and write unless something is knocking at the door. I can go months without writing a song—and that’s when it gets scary, when you feel like you’re never going to write another song because they’re just not coming around.”
LaMontagne’s steady output, however, indicates that there’s little cause for concern. And for God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, in addition to his own extraordinary writing, these ten songs had the benefit of contributions from an exceptional bunch of musicians, collaborating under ideal conditions. Even the notoriously self-critical LaMontagne can’t hide his delight at the results.
“A song like ‘New York City’s Killing Me,’ is so melodramatic, it could just be rote or trite,” he says. “But they started playing it and on the second or third take, I found myself thinking that something really beautiful was happening.
“These guys are all so good, and I trust their instincts so much, I just wanted to write songs that I felt would excite them,” concludes LaMontagne “There was a certain amount of pressure, because they’re so much more accomplished than I am as a musician. But I knew that if I could pull together a batch of songs I was happy with, there was really no risk involved.”
“Everyone needs to be risking something,” says Seattle-based singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile. She’s discussing the M.O. behind The Firewatcher’s Daughter, her stunning new release – her first for artist-friendly indie label ATO. The 12-song collection marks a triumphant return after a three-year recording hiatus, and her strongest, most rock & roll album to date.
“Rock & roll music as a genre always has a sense of erratic recklessness to it,” she says. “It can’t really be rehearsed – in fact, rehearsal can kill it. On this album, each song has its honest rock & roll moment, even the ballads; it’s between the point where you’ve learned the song enough to get through it, but you don’t have any control over it yet.”
Since her heralded, genre-defying 2005 Columbia debut, Carlile and her indispensable collaborators, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, aka The Twins, have always offered listeners both control and abandon, often within a single song. The most well-known Brandi Carlile tunes, 2007’s “The Story” and 2012’s “That Wasn’t Me,” are dynamic journeys in themselves, encompassing myriad emotions and varied stylistic touches; “The Story” morphs from understated balladry to epic stadium rock, while “That Wasn’t Me” effortlessly straddles country soul and pop gospel. Infused with Carlile’s clarion voice, The Twins’ tight sibling harmonies, and stellar musicianship from everyone, it all simply sounds like Brandi Carlile.
Yet, over four acclaimed Columbia albums, countless sold-out tours, and fruitful relationships with top producers Rick Rubin and T Bone Burnett, something was missing: Carlile and The Twins hadn’t yet captured the distinctive spark of old friends working up new tunes, a slippery magic born of years touring together, and often caught only on raw demos made at the behest of the label. The Firewatcher’s Daughter, by contrast, is a full-on Carlile/Twins co-production, cut live in Seattle’s Bear Creek Studio, with complete artistic control granted by ATO. With this new freedom, Carlile and The Twins, intent on capturing the elusive essence of a song’s spirit, tracked the album live, with little or no rehearsal.
Ironically, during this time of liberation, Carlile and The Twins all transitioned to married life; the Hanseroths became dads, and Carlile’s wife, Catherine Shepherd, was pregnant during the making of The Firewatcher’s Daughter. So when the engineer hit RECORD, the stakes were higher than usual: Carlile and the Twins producing, kids underfoot or on the way, and three years since an album. But true to form, they wrangled it all into song, catching many, many lightning-in-a-bottle moments; the crackling Lucinda Williams-meets-Fleetwood Mac of “Wherever Is Your Heart,” the CSN-meets-Bonnie Raitt of “The Eye,” to the dark folk-punk of “The Stranger at My Door,” the Elton John-meets-McCartney of “Beginning to Feel the Years,” and more – all executed without a net.
“Everything is completely live,” Carlile says. “That’s the only way to make the moment happen. It’s way too easy to say, ‘Hey guys, you get your part down and I’ll spend the rest of the evening by myself in a fucking booth not taking any risks, and trying to nail down my contribution while I drink a bottle of Jameson.’ A lot of the songs are in about the highest key I can sing them in. The vocals were very emotional for me. I was right on the edge – I’d been off the road for a long time, I was on the precipice of becoming a mother, and there was a lot that needed to come out before that could happen.”
The title, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, comes from a line in “The Stranger at My Door,” written after Carlile stared into a bonfire for a long, long time. “I wrote it standing next to one of my frequent bonfires up in the horse pasture on our land. I have a bonfire compulsion. I tend to stand there and stare into them close to every day, and I’m able to tap into something beyond my day-to-day consciousness. I often write lyrics, solve problems, run for President – the usual stuff. Catherine was pregnant and I was contemplating the juxtaposition between religious rigidity and beauty, and its effects on families and society.”
Carlile says she and The Twins always insert a through-line in her albums: “An instrument keeps appearing, a theme keeps getting touched on, or we try to use the same microphone. But of all my albums, I felt the least amount of control over this one. Catherine was nine months pregnant, The Twins’ kids were there, the tension was there, but the love was also there, so the continuity is felt.”
Part of that continuity is the concept of “chains,” which recurs over the course of The Firewatcher’s Daughter, from the lullaby “Wilder (We’re Chained)” to the chorus of the gorgeous “The Eye”: “I wrapped your love around me like a chain / But I never was afraid that it would die / You can dance in a hurricane / But only if you’re standing in the eye.” Carlile lays this chain fascination at the feet of Fleetwood Mac, a band she and The Twins listened to a lot in the run-up to The Firewatcher’s Daughter, and whose classic love song “The Chain” is bittersweet reality. “The twins and I were inspired by that band’s connection and their turbulence,” she says. “I find it fascinating how culturally some things can get cast in a negative light, like a chain. But a chain can bind and connect, like a fire can refine and renew. We would definitely describe ourselves as chained in the best possible way.”
After stepping back from this fine new work and assessing it, Carlile knows exactly what she wants from The Firewatcher’s Daughter: “My goal,” she says, “is to connect on a soul level with our longtime fans and friends, and to reach new people with the honesty of this music. Also, I would like my daughter, Evangeline, to grow up and think I’m cool.”
Twangy indie folk sweetheart Dawn Landes landed in New York City in 2000 from Louisville, Kentucky. Starting off working as an audio engineer for the likes of Philip Glass, Ryan Adams, and Joseph Arthur, Dawn recently co-founded Saltlands, a studio in Brooklyn where she now produces and records bands. In 2004 Dawn released her first solo record, earning her gigs with Feist, Andrew Bird, and Jose Gonzalez. She has since toured the world with her band The Hounds (Ray Rizzo on drums, Josh Kaufman on guitar) playing alongside contemporaries like Alexi Murdoch, Elvis Perkins and Midlake. Dawn’s music can frequently be heard on TV series, commercials and film soundtracks. Her latest LP Sweet Heart Rodeo was released to wide acclaim in early 2010.
“I guess you could say each song is like its own bull,” the twenty-eight-year-old deadpans, “each ride its own love-story…you know, trying to hang on to a wild thing isn’t always graceful.” Her feminist approach proved problematic when it came to turning up images of feisty cowgirls for the artwork. “There aren’t many female bull riders,” she admits. And with good reason. “I went to a few rodeos as research. They don’t stay on those things very long.”
Though she grew up in Louisville her perfect variations on country and folk music have all been recorded in her adopted hometown of Brooklyn. The culture clash of urban and rural traditions is an intriguing base for Landes’ material and audience. She spent most of 2008 touring with a variety of country/folk and indie-rock stalwarts like The Tindersticks, Midlake, Josh Ritter, Jason Isbell (of the Drive by Truckers), Alexi Murdoch and the Swell Season, to name a few. And though she might recognize kindred spirits in contemporaries like Conor Oberst and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Landes is blessed with a voice as pure and ringing as any folk or country diva.
The voice has always been there, but it’s taken a while to be heard. Her first self-released records, simply called Dawn’s Music and the EP two three four effectively proved her talent, but it was 2008’s acclaimed Fireproof that revealed it to the world. Around that time her splendid bluegrass cover of Peter Bjorn and John’s instant classic “Young Folks,” performed with an elderly group of Texans called The WST Band (“It stands for ‘we sorta tried’”), became a YouTube favorite. “Straight Lines,” one of her best-known songs, sound-tracked in adverts on both sides of the Atlantic. Here it accompanied a cute campaign to encourage urban cycling. There it promoted Axe, the local equivalent of Lynx and the preferred perfume of adolescent males. Its writer was bemused. “The same song was used to promote bicycling in a childlike way and men’s deodorant in a sexual way. What does that mean?” she once pondered. For a while she lived in France, learning to love Gainsbourg, Brassens and Francoise Hardy, and spent her time in Paris at the most unlikely joints. “I found myself in a lot of situations I wouldn’t have been invited to otherwise,” she says, “I played a lot of parties, fashion parties, one in a hotel where there was a bubble bath filled with champagne!” As you can imagine this is a world she doesn’t usually inhabit.
Since her last release, Landes (her surname has two syllables) has finished fitting out her own studio, Saltlands in Brooklyn. “I actually built it! Some friends and I put up the walls and floated the floors,” she declares proudly, christening it with the recording of Sweet Heart Rodeo. Again working with regular collaborator, drummer and all-rounder Ray Rizzo, her recording outfit was completed by guitarist Josh Kaufman and bassist Annie Nero, a couple (of musicians) that she met on the road. A cover of Kaufman’s composition, the charming, gentle “Dance Area” fits perfectly alongside Landes’ own material.
“Sweet Heart Rodeo” is packed with fine tunes, again beautifully sung. The opener “Young Girl” ponders gender stereotyping—competitive boys, jealous girls—over a reductive and distorted keyboard riff. The deceptively cutting “Romeo” berates a certain someone who ruined one of Landes’ birthdays by standing her up. No wonder she borrows a hook from “16 Tons,” Tennessee Ernie Ford’s fifties nugget of resignation. The haunting ‘Money In The Bank’ marries down-home hippie wisdom (‘the night before you die, what are you gonna buy?’) to a glorious chorus bolstered by a wistful French horn. Dawn even drums on an unlikely cover of Margo Guryan’s already unlikely “Love,” a 1968 collision of cool jazz and nascent psychedelia. “She’s amazing, one of these unsung geniuses like Vashti Bunyan was, who made one fabulous record then disappeared,” she says of the woman behind the lost classic “Take A Picture.”
Rizzo’s idiosyncratic harmonica style (“kinda cloudy—the opposite of ethereal”) boosts the quirky “Wandering Eye,” a rare song that combines sex and travel without causing offence, while “Little Miss Holiday” imagines a conversation between Jodie Foster and the teenage hooker that inspired her character in Scorsese’s unhinged “Taxi Driver.” It’s tender rather than bleak. “Brighton” is a tribute to a magical day in that great Southern (English) town, yet it could hardly sound more American, Appalachian even. “I hope I captured it in the song,” she says. By the album’s conclusion, the wobbly wedding march of “All Dressed In White,” you’ll probably be thinking of giving love a try. Even if it does hurt when you fall off.