In his hallmark whole-hearted style, Ryan Montbleau penned the below excerpt of a letter last month to fans pre-ordering his latest album I Was Just Leaving.
“After 15 years of going crazy to build a life in music, I found that most of my days were now spent alone in a room reflecting on those years. These songs came out of that space. I thought I’d tried to build a home, but it turns out I was just leaving.”
Immediately, I had to know. Did he regret his career? Would he have changed anything? I set out with the intention to learn just that.
For those unfamiliar with Montbleau, he is a downright prolific storyteller which is ironic given that he studied to be an engineer. His lyrics, at once deeply personal yet remarkably universal, have been known to bring audiences to tears through their sheer vulnerability. He has also earned a bit of a reputation as the hardest working man in showbusiness; unfailingly headlining venues across the United States at first with The Ryan Montbleau Band and then later solo. He has also opened for artists such as Martin Sexton and Ani DiFranco and this past Friday, took the stage at the world famous Carnegie Hall for the Django A GoGo celebration of world-renowned guitar players.
It is difficult to pinpoint the man as owning any one genre though, as he is widely reputed for his singer-songwriter talents and has brought down many a house with his funk stylings and unique percussive guitar playing. To see him live, you know he has spent many nights getting intimate with the guitar.
Enter I Was Just Leaving, which was released this past Friday (3/10). It listens like a confession; a raw and bluesy lament on Montbleau’s journey to the present and the price he had to pay in order to arrive here. The album was recorded last January in New Orleans, under the tutelage of blues guru Anders Osbourne. Monbleau’s continued growth as an artist is evident on the album; it is his first authentic blues record, no two songs sound the same as the material is some of the most moving of his catalogue.
“Together at Least” is an aching guitar ballad that is a nod to that one moment in a relationship when you know you need to walk away but are paralyzed with fear of loneliness. “I wish that we were fighting, because that would mean that we were together again…In the middle of a rainstorm, wondering where we went wrong, wandering together at least.” The symphonic and electrified “Abigail” is a slow-burning, bluesy love letter of a dalliance turned into something serious that makes it hard to catch your breath.
Glide caught up with Montbleau recently to talk about his journey, the new album and what is next in life. Here is what he had to say:
I am going to get right to it: your letter introducing the album was poignant. It definitely has a darker and more reflective feel than your past few releases while remaining true to your style. What regrets do you have if any about what it took to get you to this point in your career? What does this album represent to you?
I honestly don’t tend to look at things in terms of regrets, I figure the path is the path for a reason. That being said, I have put a lot of pressure on myself over the years and it definitely has spilled over to the people around me at times. This has been a hard road in some ways and it’s been hard on others on my behalf. If anything I regret its effect on them. This album is a sort of coming full circle after years on the road. It’s me alone in a room looking around and saying “Wow, what happened?” I’m proud that the songs on here are shorter, they get right to the point. I ached them out really. It’s about stripping things away, digging ever deeper towards the middle before things can bloom again. And trying to make sense out of an isolation caused by a life spent playing music for people.
What have been the shining points or favorite moments of your career?
There have been so many. Singing at Lincoln Center for a tribute to Curtis Mayfield, playing the Fillmore in SF, opening for Mavis Staples, looking out of a vocal booth in New Orleans at George Porter Jr. playing on my record, all the stuff with Martin Sexton, singing the national anthem at Fenway, teaching at a song camp in Oregon. I’m singing at Carnegie Hall this coming Friday. My parents are flying up from Florida for it. It’s a trip when I start to look back, and not just for those bigger moments, but the smaller, less quantifiable ones maybe most of all. Keeping a band on the road for ten years, doing whatever it took—there are a million memories in there. Touring the Virgin Islands broke as shit. Friendly dives can be just as magical as big venues. I don’t know, it’s all a blessing.
The instrumentation is a little different on I Was Just Leaving- it has a very mellow feel. Can you talk a bit about your choice to include that?
It was more about what we didn’t include than what we did. Anders Osborne produced this record and he gets all of the credit for that. He and Mark Howard, the incredible engineer he brought in. We did the whole thing in four days in New Orleans, entirely in the control room of this beautiful studio called Esplanade. I had the songs bubbling over and ready to go and those guys worked so quickly. There was no over thinking. Many of the songs you hear are first or second takes. If it needed some added instrumentation, Anders would add some bass or a guitar or a kick drum, a snare, a shaker. I don’t think there’s a cymbal on the whole album, save for maybe a little hi-hat. He is so tapped in musically and it’s all about feel. If he doesn’t feel it, it doesn’t fly. For a long time, I’ve believed at least theoretically in “leaving air in the room” and not polishing a record too much. But I was never really able to do that until now. Anders and Mark made it happen. The idea was a solo record, completely stripped down, and if a song needed something more, we added it.
Who are your influences? Who is burning up your record player these days (do you use a record player?) and who did you listen to while writing the material for this album?
Deb Talan of the Weepies is my favorite singer-songwriter. She has a new solo record coming out and I could not be more excited for it. (The Weepies are great too of course.) Paul Simon is always an all time influence. I’ve been spinning One Trick Pony on vinyl, that’s such a great record. I do use a record player more now than I used to. I bought an old Pioneer receiver from the 70’s and nice turntable from the 80’s and I’m surprised by how much joy those things bring me. Also this Andy Schauf record called The Party. Wow. In terms of what I was listening to when I wrote the album, it’s hard to say. I think I started to write “Time and Again” after I got home from seeing Josh Ritter play a show. But honestly, and this feels weird to say, I’m not as big a listener of music as one might think. I tend to gravitate towards space and quiet to let the ideas in my head play out.
You went to Villanova to study to be an engineer! How did you end up writing knee-weakening songs?
Ha, well, my college years were very formative ones. I was taking chemistry and calculus and writing poems in the back of class. I would walk around campus and just brood and listen to music and cry and write and feel things. It was an intense time and it was also my first bout with depression. But that’s when I started to write. I had to write. And I had to play guitar all of a sudden. And then eventually I had to sing. I didn’t sing out loud until I was 21. So college for me was really an education in everything that I now do. I needed those years to find this. I played guitar day and night, studied poetry like Yeats once I finally switched over to English. I wrote, learned how to be in a band, tried psychedelics for the first time, took classes on philosophy and religion, literature, poetry, psychology. All while analyzing my own feelings. Literally when I was graduating, as everyone is asking “what are you going to do?” I was like: “I think I want to make music.”
Is it exhausting wearing your heart on your sleeve all of the time? I saw you at Club Passim in January. I was having a terrible day and recall thinking after you sang “All or Nothing” well isn’t that just the band aid for a bad day? Then I thought – all of these experiences in his songs must be so personal to him. Does Ryan ever find himself thinking “man, I wish one of my crowd pleasers wasn’t about something so personal.”
I sometimes joke on stage about “Well, it’s hard to get over that girl when I’m singing the damn song about her every night for seven years in a row!” This is what I do though and in that sense it comes naturally to put things out there. It becomes totally normal to pour out your feelings in front of a room full of people. In some sense I guess that’s what I’m good at. The stage is set up for that and is the most appropriate place for it, once you get used to it. I do feel these songs as I play them but I also think there is a healthy separation that can build too. My job isn’t too tell you everything that is exactly going on with my life. My job is to tell the truth through a song, to find the truth in a song. That can draw heavily upon my own experiences, but songs are just a snapshot, a frame. When I wrote the song “Together” on my last record, I wept and broke down when I wrote it. It’s a heavy tune. But it’s a three and half minute frame around that particular experience in my life. It’s not the experience itself. In that sense the song helps me to make sense out of that experience. And I can be proud of the song now and present it without maybe living through every ounce of that experience again. I’ve moved on somehow, and the song is there as a snapshot that can connect with people.
I think a really amazing quality about you is the empathy you bring to your stage banter and lyrics. Do you like to maintain a private life being so public on the stage?
Montbleau: I think as the years go on I realize more and more the value of privacy. There have been many times over the years when I thought to myself, “Screw it, why don’t I just share everything with everyone? Why don’t I just share every detail of my life, and put it all out there, why not?” But I’m thankful I haven’t gone that route! First of all: who cares? And second of all, yes, in all of these years of playing shows and pouring out parts of myself over and over for people to see, when the dust settled I realized I didn’t have much of myself left. I hadn’t nurtured my friendships, my family, my relationships. That’s exactly what this record is about. I’ll always be myself in the room that I’m in, I will share myself with a crowd and on a retreat and with a fan after the show. But I need time alone too, and time to nurture the real foundation underneath all of that. As Stephen King said: “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” It’s taken me years to learn that and I’m still struggling through it a bit.
How did working with Anders Osborne impact your work on the album?
He’s the reason it sounds the way it does, I could not have done it without him. I had the songs for the most part, but he helped me cull through all those ideas and shape the record as a whole. He said, “look, we’re not going to have a funk tune here, a funny tune there, a tongue in cheek song, and folk song here, etc. He had a vision for this as a cohesive piece of a particular side of the music that he heard in me. And he’s a warrior singer-songwriter who has really been through it all professionally and personally. The biggest factor with a producer is trust and I trusted that man 100%. I have a tendency to overthink. Anders diffused that and allowed the raw emotion come out of these songs and onto the record.
Fans that have seen you live of late have likely been treated to some stunning dueting with Hayley Jane under the name Yes Darling. Will fans see more of that? For those unfamiliar with your music, can you tell us a bit about that?
Montbleau: Yes. That’s the next project coming down the line. Hayley is an amazing person, performer, singer and writer and we’ve been writing up a storm together. Our first official gig is in Costa Rica in two weeks. We’re a duo. We both sing and I play guitar. There is something special going on here. We’ll make a record this year and will be doing shows for sure.
This may seem cliche, but this album begs the question- What is next for you? What do you hope for the future? What does happiness look like?
Montbleau: Thanks for asking! I think honestly, as I sort of mentioned, my priorities have been flipped around for the first time in my adult life. I moved to Vermont and I’m starting to build some sense of home. My career feels like it’s not going to just go away and now I can focus on the music itself more and there is so much more that I want to create. The band has continued to evolve and, like this record, we’ve stripped it down in order to get closer to the heart of the matter. It feels like I’m getting smaller so that I can get bigger, if that makes any sense. I’ll be 40 years old in June. I would love a wife and family someday. All in due time I suppose.
You know what I really like about you? That you bring up a new up and comer every night to open for you. Tell me about why you do that.
Montbleau: Well I don’t always get to do it, but sure, it’s great to have support on a show. I’ve been that opener countless times in my career and I still am on many occasions. It’s part of the deal if you can give someone an opportunity, do it! They have to be good though, and if they are they really add to the show I’m doing, it’s not just one-sided. I get something out of it too. We’re all in this together, maybe they’ll let me open up for them someday! Lake Street Dive opened for us once. Eric Hutchinson, Mike Doughty, it’s a wacky business.
Photos by Rich Gastwirt