Interviews, by definition, are about the person being interviewed.
That is, unless you’re talking to Grammy Award-winning folk-rocker Ray LaMontagne, who spoke with me by phone last week ahead of bringing his “Just Passing Through” acoustic tour to Charlotte’s Ovens Auditorium on Oct. 18. A good chunk of the time we spent together was not about LaMontagne, but about others — namely, the audience.
LaMontagne, who despite his typically reserved on-stage appearance says he feeds off the energy of the crowd, is going to bring every bit of himself and his songs every night because the audience has chosen to be there.
“It’s their night,” he says, and it’s his job to deliver.
He puts it another way: His job is to be in the zone, to remain in that zone, and to let the songs speak for themselves.
This all seems to make sense for a guy who is known for being fairly stoic on stage and for having little-to-no interaction with the audience during a show. He has consciously chosen not to demonstrate his emotions with all the “empty flash” (his words) that has come to dominate so much of modern music.
So, while his stoicism may have come across as indifference, eccentricity or introversion to some, after spending 30 minutes with LaMontagne, two things are clear: One, he’s aware of his reputation; and two, he not only doesn’t care but he believes the experience, the audience’s experience, is better because he is “100 percent in the song and invested in it.”
(This should mean a lot coming from a guy who seems to pour out his soul through his gravelly voice when he sings “try to ignore all this blood on the floor, it’s just this heart on my sleeve that’s bleeding” from the song “Burn” on his first album, “Trouble.”)
This level of commitment to the performance isn’t out of an over-sized admiration of his own work or some paternalistic view of the listening experience. In discussing his musical influences — Stephen Stills, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, 1960s British rock bands, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke — it’s clear LaMontagne is himself a huge fan of music and is highly affected by his own experiences with it. (In past interviews, Montagne has said he was lost in his teens and 20s and found a sense of peace after hearing a song by Stills.)
When I try to draw a comparison to Van Zandt, his already-hushed voice dropped to a near-whisper as he described a piece the legendary songwriter penned just before his death and how the song “just slayed him.” LaMontagne doesn’t come out and say he wants that depth of experience for his own audiences, but the rest of the interview makes clear he wants his performance to go beyond the stereotypical sing-along-with-the-classics arena concert.
LaMontagne’s genuine thoughtfulness isn’t limited to his audience, though.
Later, he took my question about the current state of country music and turned it into an opportunity — not to bash the prevailing bro-country, but to speak authentically and affectionately about Kacy & Clayton, a Canadian folk duo supporting this tour. In them, he sees the truth and beauty found in “a melody you can just latch onto,” a trait he says is missing from so much of music today.
He also talked about his adoration for his friends. Not his figurative friends in the audience or people he knows across the music landscape, but his on-tour friends with whom he enjoys being on exhausting, six-week grinds.
And all of this is the reason LaMontagne is back on tour — and not just any tour, but this tour.
Because it is just LaMontagne (joined on stage by My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel), playing not “big shed shows” but more intimate venues like the Fox Theater in Atlanta, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and the Orpheum in Los Angeles.
Because he loves grinding with every ounce of his being to make every song at every moment sound exactly as that song was meant to sound.
Because the audience chose to be there and because the audience doesn’t need his “chit chat,” as he calls it, to enjoy the experience.
But if you do see him at Ovens Auditorium, don’t expect to hear proverbial hit “You Are the Best Thing,” a song that almost didn’t make it onto his album “Gossip in the Grain” — and, he says, maybe never should have — because it was recorded very differently than it was written, and because he was never really happy with it. As LaMontagne puts it, that’s not the tempo for his “Just Passing Through” tour.
Instead, expect to hear songs like “All the Wild Horses” and “Burn,” which he says don’t have “typical shapes and typical forms” and therefore are perhaps better labeled as “anti-songs.” (“Songs that just come to you,” that LaMontagne “just trusts to tell (him) what they want to be and then lets them exist that way.”) Or maybe, just maybe, “You Are the Best Thing” — not as it was recorded but how it was meant to be performed.
You should also expect the two musicians on the stage to give each other the space for the music to fill without the interference that sometimes comes from the unnecessary instruments of a larger band.
“The space that we give each other is somehow more than a sum of its parts,” LaMontagne says. “It actually creates a larger sonic palette. It almost broadens the sound in a way.”
You’ll also see an old-school painted backdrop with the simple scrim that isn’t some set designer deploying the latest video technology, but rather what LaMontagne thinks creates “a nice evening of music” for the audience.
As our time together came to a close, I thought about LaMontagne earnestly admiring Kacy & Clayton’s ability to “just sound like themselves.” I was left with the very distinct feeling his upcoming show in Charlotte — and every song on every stop on this tour — will sound exactly like himself: open, sincere, complex and genuinely good.
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18.
Where: Ovens Auditorium, 2700 E. Independence Blvd.
Tickets: $39 and up.
Details: 800-745-3000; www.ticketmaster.com.